The images in videos that went viral on social media Saturday showed a tense scene near the Lincoln Memorial.
In them, a Native American man steadily beats his drum at the tail end of Friday’s Indigenous Peoples March while singing a song of unity urging them to “be strong” in the face of the ravages of colonialism that now include police brutality, poor access to health care and the ill effects of climate change on reservations.
Surrounding him are a throng of young, mostly white teenage boys, several wearing “Make America Great Again” caps, with one who stood about a foot from the drummer’s face also wearing a relentless smirk.
Nathan Phillips, a veteran in the indigenous rights movement, was that man in the middle.
In an interview Saturday, Phillips, 64, said he felt threatened by the teens and that they suddenly swarmed around him as he and other activists were wrapping up the march and preparing to leave.
Phillips, who was singing the American Indian Movement song that serves as a ceremony to send the spirits home, said he noticed tensions beginning to escalate when the teens and other apparent participants from the nearby March for Life rally began taunting the dispersing indigenous crowd.
A few people in the March for Life crowd began to chant “Build that wall, build that wall,” he said.
“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’ ” Phillips recalled. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”
So, he kept drumming and singing, thinking about his wife, Shoshana, who died of bone marrow cancer nearly four years ago, and the various threats that face indigenous communities around the world, he said.
“I felt like the spirit was talking through me,” Phillips said.
The encounter generated a wave of outrage on social media less than a week after President Trump made light of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre of several hundred Lakota Indians by the U.S. Cavalry in a tweet that was meant to mock Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who Trump derisively calls “Pocahontas.”
In a statement, the Indigenous Peoples Movement, which organized Friday’s march, called the incident “emblematic of our discourse in Trump’s America.”
“It clearly demonstrates the validity of our concerns about the marginalization and disrespect of Indigenous peoples, and it shows that traditional knowledge is being ignored by those who should listen most closely,” Darren Thompson, an organizer for the group, said in the statement.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), who with Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) became the first Native American women elected to Congress last fall, said the video was difficult to watch.
“To see a group of students from a Catholic school who are practicing such intolerance is a sad sight for me,” said Haaland, who is Catholic.