If America has confirmed anything about itself since the Lincoln Memorial incident between the Covington Catholic high school boys, the Native American drum enthusiast, and the Black Hebrew Israelite hate posse, it is this – that outrage and narrative are virtues, while facts and context are just obstacles.
This whole story was the media version of a microwaveable meal. It came pre-packaged, ready-made. You didn't even have to add water. The victim hierarchy is so perfectly arranged, it almost seems choreographed. At the very top of the hierarchy is Nathan Phillips, the 64-year-old Native American leader. At the very bottom of the hierarchy are the white, male, privileged, bratty, Catholic school kids from Kentucky. The "journalists" manning the desks over the weekend could've written this story with their outraged eyes closed, and most of them apparently did. Our frantic news cycle won't wait for context. So we get headline gems like this from Vox: "White students in MAGA gear crashed the Indigenous Peoples March and harassed participants."
For the handful of people out there who do still care about old-fashioned things like facts and context, this segment is for you. Who is Nathan Phillips, the personal-space drummer in this drama?
Phillips is a member of the Omaha tribe, born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska. He says he was five-years-old when he was, "taken away from my family and put in foster care." He bounced around several homes and was finally raised by a white family, whom he says was abusive, until he was 17.
He started working construction jobs, then joined the Marines. Almost every media outlet describes Phillips as a Vietnam veteran. But one outlet, Indian Country Today, describes him as a "Vietnam-era veteran" which seems to imply he may have served, just not physically in Vietnam. This is an important distinction because Phillips has said how hard it was to be a veteran returning to the U.S. during the Vietnam era. He says, "People called me a baby killer and a hippie girl spit on me." Indian Country Today noted that this incident happened when Phillips was in uniform, but not when he was returning home from combat. We reached out to the journalist who wrote the story for clarification, and we are waiting to hear back.
Nathan Phillips is a liaryoutu.be
For several years, Phillips has led an annual ceremony honoring Native American war veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.
After he left the Marines, Phillips struggled with alcoholism and was "in and out of jail." In 1990, he met Shoshana Konstant, a former middle school teacher. She became his companion and they traveled around the U.S., protesting on behalf of American Indians being displaced from their homelands.
In 1994, the couple settled in Washington DC after their truck broke down and caught fire during a demonstration in front of the White House. While there, Phillips co-founded the Native Youth Alliance. The nonprofit group "works to ensure that traditional culture and spiritual ways continue for the coming generations." He had virtually no financial support for the organization. He worked odd jobs and construction when he could, but said his "personal dreams usually take precedence over the American dream."
In 1999 and again in 2000, he camped in a teepee by the Washington Monument for the entire month of November with his companion Shoshana, their toddler son, and baby daughter. He did it to "remind people that a lot of American Indians don't have too much to be thankful for." Officially, he did it to raise awareness for his Native Youth Alliance.
In a profile written about him in 2000, the Omaha World Herald said, "Privately, another tribal leader said Phillips is regarded back in Nebraska as a well-intentioned brother struggling to cope with a troubled childhood. The leader said the Omaha Tribe generally avoids the type of activism Phillips prefers."
After Shoshana was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, Phillips moved the family to Ypsilanti, Michigan where she could get treatments at a local university. In 2012, a documentary short was made about Phillips and Shoshana called Between Earth and Sky. Three years later, the cancer took Shoshana's life.
While still living in Michigan in 2015, Phillips decided to go for an afternoon stroll one Saturday and he came across a group of "30 to 40" students from Eastern Michigan University having a Native American-themed party in their back yard. He says they wore body paint and feathers, and summoned him over to the fence. He says when he questioned their choice of activity, they said that they were honoring him. He replied, "No, you are not honoring me. That wasn't honoring. That was racist."
The students said, "Go back to the reservation, you blank Indian."
He says a student threw a full beer can at him and that it would've hit him in the head, but he backed up in time and it hit his chest.
Phillips says he called the police but by the time they got there, the party was deserted. At the time, Eastern Michigan University said it conducted an investigation, but no media outlets seemed to report on the university's conclusion. We reached out to EMU to find out if their investigation corroborated Phillips' accusations of verbal and physical assault. We are waiting to hear back from EMU.
Today, Phillips is an Omaha tribe elder and a "keeper of a sacred pipe." The sacred pipe is revered as a holy object, and smoking it
is used as a major way of communicating between humans and sacred beings. It's smoked in personal prayer and during collective rituals.
In 2016 and 2017, Phillips was on the front line (with his 17-year-old daughter) of the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline across Sioux lands in South Dakota.
Last Friday, Phillips was in Washington DC to participate in the inaugural Indigenous Peoples March. The March was organized as a continuation of the 2016-2017 Dakota Pipeline demonstrations. It is organized by the "Indigenous People's Movement," an international grassroots initiative aimed at increasing awareness of "voter suppression, divided families by walls and borders, an environmental holocaust, sex and human trafficking, and police/military brutality."
Phillips knew exactly what he was doing on Friday because he has been traveling the country, agitating for his cause for almost 30 years.
After telling The Washington Post that he was "mobbed" by the Covington students, Phillips changed his tune yesterday, saying he had approached the crowd to intervene because of racial tensions between the Covington students and the black Hebrew Israelites group. Phillips said the tension "was coming to a boiling point. I stepped in between to pray."
Phillips expounded further in the Detroit Free Press saying:
They [the Covington boys] witnessed these individuals [the Black Hebrew Israelites group] on their soapbox saying what they had to say. They didn't agree with it and got offended. They were in the process of attacking these four black individuals. I was there and I was witnessing all of this… as this kept on going on and escalating, it just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know?
You see something that is wrong and you're faced with that choice of right or wrong. There was that moment when I realized I've put myself between beast and prey. These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that. It was ugly, what these kids were involved in. It was racism. It was hatred. It was scary. I mean, if you go back and look at the lynchings that was done (in America) and you'd see the faces on the people. The glee and the hatred in their faces, that's what these faces looked like.
The Black Israelites, they were saying some harsh things, but some of it was true, too. These young, white American kids who were being taught in their Catholic school, their doctrine, their truth, and when they found out there's more truth out there than what they're being taught, they were offended, they were insulted, they were scared, and that's how they responded. One thing that I was taught in my Marine Corps training is that a scared man will kill you. And that's what these boys were. They were scared.
On Sunday, he also told a reporter for Indian Country Today:
I'm angry with those instructors, the chaperones and tutors whose children's lives were in their hands. That was their job, that wasn't my job to do… they were getting paid to take care of those children to act and for them to be allowed to behave that way. It is in my mind a fire-able offense. They've aligned those children to take the wrong path and they have a bright future to live. You know, if that was my child, I would not be happy with the school officials right now to allow my child to behave that way. I don't care if my child is that way. When he's out in public, he'd better behave.
I'm still scared. I'm still feeling vulnerable. But I'm not gonna back down.
This Lincoln Memorial incident is complex, but the Nathan Phillips part is pretty simple. This wasn't a case of punk teenagers accosting a poor Native American veteran. Phillips knew exactly what he was doing on Friday because he has been traveling the country, agitating for his cause for almost 30 years. This is what he does. This is his identity. And these days, nothing stands in the way of personal identity – especially not some white kid in a MAGA hat.