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‘It was getting ugly’: Native American drummer speaks on his encounter with MAGA-hat-wearing teens

Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and high school student Nick Sandmann give their versions of viral moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)
Editor`s Note:

Subsequent reporting, a student’s statement and additional video allow for a more complete assessment of what occurred during the Jan. 18 incident at the Lincoln Memorial, either contradicting or failing to confirm accounts provided in this story — including that Native American activist Nathan Phillips was prevented by one student from moving on, that his group had been taunted by the students in the lead-up to the encounter, and that the students were trying to instigate a conflict. The high school student facing Phillips issued a statement contradicting his account; the bishop in Covington, Ky., apologized for the statement condemning the students; and an investigation conducted for the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School found the students’ accounts consistent with videos. Subsequent Post coverage, including video, reported these developments: Viral standoff between a tribal elder and a high schooler is more complicated than it first seemed”; “Kentucky bishop apologizes to Covington Catholic students, says he expects their exoneration”; “Investigation finds no evidence of ‘racist or offensive statements’ in Mall incident.” (March 1)

The images in videos that went viral on social media Saturday showed a tense scene near the Lincoln Memorial.

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 participants to “be strong” against the ravages of colonialism that 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. One stood about a foot from the drummer’s face 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 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.

Phillips said a few people in the March for Life crowd began to chant, “Build that wall, build that wall,” though such chants are not audible on video.

“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.”

Phillips 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 intended to mock Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whom Trump derisively calls Pocahontas.

“If Elizabeth Warren, often referred to by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash!” Trump tweeted in a reference to an Instagram post of Warren drinking a beer in her kitchen.

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 one of 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.

‘Opposed to the dignity of the human person’: Kentucky Catholic diocese condemns teens who taunted vet

Some of the teens in the video wore sweatshirts from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., which sent students to Washington to participate in Friday’s antiabortion March for Life event, according to an archived page of the school’s website that was taken down Saturday.

School officials and the Catholic Diocese of Covington released a joint statement Saturday.

“We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general,” the statement said. “The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”

As The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein reported, the incident magnified worries that the March for Life has “become too partisan and too aligned with politically conservative figures, Trump in particular.”

The diocese’s statement expressed regret that jeering, disrespectful students from a Catholic school had become the enduring image of the march.

“We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement,” the diocese said.

The abortion issue is more polarized than ever, leading some to view March for Life as a Republican rally

The mayor of Covington, Joe Meyer, tried to distance his city from the harsh spotlight.

“The point is that because of the actions of people who live in Northern Kentucky, our region is being challenged again to examine our core identities, values, and beliefs,” he said in an op-ed that pointed out that Covington Catholic High School is, technically, in neighboring Park Hills.

“Regardless of what exact town we live in, we need to ask ourselves whether behavior like this DOES represent who we are and strive to be. Is this what our schools teach? Are these the beliefs that we as parents model and condone? Is this the way we want the rest of the nation and the world to see us?

“Let me — as Covington’s mayor — be absolutely clear,” he went on. “No. The videos being shared across the nation do NOT represent the core beliefs and values of this City.”

Thousands of people have signed a petition calling for changes at Covenant Catholic High School, including the firing of Principal Robert Rowe.

“CovCath has become less diverse, more elite, and more expensive — even as the surrounding community has become more economically and ethnically diverse,” organizer Matthew Lehman wrote in the petition. “ . . . You would need to be willfully ignorant to maintain that CovCath administration has not allowed certain elitist and exclusive tendencies to take root in the school. It is abundantly clear that CovCath has lost its way.”

Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney with the Lakota People’s Law Project, said the Friday incident lasted about 10 minutes and ended when Phillips and other activists walked away.

Phillips and the people involved in the Indigenous Peoples March had been using what he described as a “permitted space” near the Lincoln Memorial for hours. But as they were wrapping up, other people with opposing viewpoints — including some from the March for Life — had entered that permitted space and were making demonstrations of their own.

He told The Post that he hoped to get closer to the Lincoln Memorial to conclude the ceremony. That’s when he encountered the large group of boys.

“It was an aggressive display of physicality. They were rambunctious and trying to instigate a conflict,” Iron Eyes said. “We were wondering where their chaperones were. [I] was really trying to defuse the situation.”

Phillips, an Omaha tribe elder and Marine veteran who lives in Michigan, has long been active in the indigenous rights movement.

A co-founder of the Native Youth Alliance cultural and education group, he goes to Arlington National Cemetery every Veterans Day with a peace pipe to pay tribute to Native Americans who served in the U.S. military.

“My job has always been taking care of the fire, to keep the prayers going,” Phillips said.

In that role, he has encountered anti-Native American sentiment before: In 2015, he was verbally attacked by a group of Eastern Michigan University students who were dressed as Native Americans during a themed party near the town of Ypsilanti, according to news reports.

Phillips had approached the group, informing them that their celebration was racially offensive, a local Fox News station reported. One of the students threw a beer can at him, Phillips told the news outlet.

But the Friday incident, combined with the ensuing attention from media outlets scrambling to get his story, left him shaken.

“I’m still trying to process what happened,” Phillips said. “I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed.”

He said he hopes the teens will find a lesson in all of the negative attention generated by the videos.

“That energy could be turned into feeding the people, cleaning up our communities and figuring out what else we can do,” Phillips said. “We need the young people to be doing that instead of saying, ‘These guys are our enemies.’ ”

Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Native American activist Nathan Phillips fought in the Vietnam War. Phillips said he served in the U.S. Marines but was never deployed to Vietnam.

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