The Native American who crossed paths with a group of Covington Catholic High School students in Washington D.C. on January 18 at the conclusion of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day March and rally is a self-described Marine veteran during “Vietnam times,” a tribal elder, educator and musician.
Nathan Phillips was performing a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for Native American Vietnam veterans who lost their lives in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. A video shows white boys from the school jumping up and down and chanting as Phillips chants and bangs a drum. The student at the center of the video is Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic, after he came forward to issue a statement. Sandmann says he and his classmates were not mocking or intimidating the Native American protesters and had started “school spirit” chants after being yelled at by an unrelated group from the Black Hebrew Israelites.
The Black Hebrew Israelites are described as fitting the definition of a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group is an outgrowth of pre-Reconstruction Black Israelism. Followers believe African-Americans are descendants of the Israelites found in the Bible. Often seen in cities as street corner soap-boxers, the group is known for its shouted rhetoric rife with epithets.
Phillips’ name may not be a household one, but his face may be as he starred in a music video that’s been viewed 380 million times. Phillips is a longtime native youth group leader and an activist for water protection on indigenous lands.
Here’s what you need to know about Nathan Phillips:
1. Phillips & Others at the Indigenous People’s Day March Claim the Covington Catholic Students Had a ‘Mob Mentality’
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Phillips said that as he witnessed the Covington Catholic students engaging with the Black Hebrew Israelites, who can be heard on video shouting at the students and hurling epithets, he witnessed the students “… 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.”
Phillips told the Detroit Free Press the Black Hebrew Israelites were “saying some harsh things” and one spat toward the kids. He said that’s when he decided to “…put myself in between that, between a rock and hard place.”
But he said that as soon as he moved toward the students playing his drum and singing, the white male students “turned their anger” towards him.
“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 were their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that,” he told the paper.
“When I took that drum and started singing, I placed myself in between these two factions of people. It wasn’t a real conscious process, it was just what they call a spur of the moment,” he told the Free Press from his home in Ypsilanti.
In other interviews, Phillips said he was trying to make peace.
Jessica Travis and her mother were visiting the Lincoln Memorial as dancers at the Indigenous Peoples’ Day March were wrapping up. Travis said while she “did not see any direct bullying but I noted the kids appeared to be mocking and disrespectful.”
She recalled that as she walked away “I mentally noted the kids were still loud and disrespectful. We then walked out into the common area at the bottom of the stairs. There were about 5 black men there who had been ‘preaching’ but otherwise not bothering people. The kids – many wearing red MAGA hats – had surrounded the black men on the stairs. They were mocking them. I heard one tell them to just ‘drink the Trump water.’ I recorded a video and posted on Facebook about how disrespectful the kids were.”
“As my mother and I walked away, the kids started chanting very loudly. We were too far away to hear what they were saying but it was loud and aggressive and directed at the black men. I saw one kid jump down to where the black men were standing and rip off his shirt. Bare-chested, it appeared he beat his chest. The others laughed and jeered.”
Thursday, nearly a week after the incident, Phillips said in an interview with NBC’s Today show, that he was able to “forgive.”
“Even though I’m still angry, I still have that forgiveness in my heart for those students,” he was quoted as saying. “Yesterday I woke up with all kinds of good feelings in my heart. For all those who’ve been mean to me, I want to forgive them.”
2. Phillips Said Students Were Shouting ‘Build The Wall, Build The Wall,’ Though the Utterance Cannot be Heard on Video
In a video posted after the incident, Phillips weeps as he recounts what occurred. He said he was singing when the students began to amass and chant, “Build the wall, build the wall.”
“This is indigenous land. We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did …for millennia,” he said wiping tears. “Before anyone else came here. We never had walls. We never had a prison. We took care of our elders. We took care of our children. We always provided and taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see that energy of that mass of young men making this country really really great …helping those that are hungry.”
Phillips’ claim that the students shouted “build the wall” has not been supported by video evidence, though has been by witness accounts.
It’s not the first time Phillips says he’s been harassed by young whites.
As was reported by Detroit media, in 2015, Phillips was walking by a group of Eastern Michigan University students who were in costume as Native Americans. They called to him and he walked over and when they said they were honoring him, he said they were not. It was reported the students began “whooping and hollering.” And he challenged them saying that their actions were racist and that’s when he claimed the racist attacks began. Soon, a beer can was thrown at him, he said.
3. Phillips Is a Vietnam-Era Marine Veteran, Native Youth Leader, & Activist For Indigenous Water Protections
According to Indian Country Today, Phillips is an Omaha tribal elder. He’s a Vietnam-era Veteran and former director of the Native Youth Alliance. Details about Phillips’ military service are unclear. While he has been identified as a Vietnam War veteran, it is not known if he served in combat. Those records weren’t immediately available.
Phillips was previously identified by Indian Country Today in a 2008 article as a veteran of the Vietnam-era. He told the newspaper that he was confronted because of his military service during those times. “People called me a baby killer and a hippie girl spit on me,” he said.
An editor’s note on the 2008 report states, “This article has been adjusted from its original version to show that Nathan Phillips was a Vietnam-era veteran and that he was spat on while in uniform as opposed to when he was returning from combat.”
In 2007, The Toledo Blade reported that he served in the Marines from 1972 to 1976. In 2018, he was quoted in Vogue in an article about a Standing Rock protest that he took part in as saying, “You know, I’m from Vietnam times. I’m what they call a recon ranger.”
A Facebook post from 2018 has Phillips explaining his military service, which begins at the 9:45-minute mark. Some have said the post illustrates the misrepresentation of his Vietnam-era service.
Phillips is “keeper of a sacred pipe and holds an annual ceremony honoring Native American veterans in the Arlington National Cemetery,” it was reported.
He was reported to have been performing a ceremony honoring Native American veterans.
Phillips is director of the non-profit Native Youth Alliance founded in 1990. He’s known as Uncle Nate. The group had to scrap together the money to make it from Ypsilanti, Michigan, to Washington D.C. They held an all-night vigil “for the future generations” and asked for those who were able to donate to the group to make the trip.
They made it.
Phillips has been very involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline protest movement and has educated and explained the importance of protecting the waters on native lands though Facebook videos and talks. He helped organize the 4-day ‘Water Protector prayer Walk.’
“A four-day prayer walk from the Cannonball river to the Missouri river …This walk will be conducted in a sacred manner. With that in mind all are welcome. -Uncle Nate”
4. Phillips Starred in the Skrillex & Damian Marley ‘Make It Bun Dem’ Video, Which Has 380 Million Views on YouTube
Phillips appears in and performs in the wildly popular music video from performers Skrillex and Damian Marley.
In the music video from 2012, Phillips plays himself in that he’s a wise Native elder living in a poor neighborhood where authorities are trying to evict people. Phillips, who briefly plays the drum in a scene, is seen as a shaman preparing a boy, perhaps himself at a younger age, as a spirit warrior. It’s a breathtaking scene.
As part of his activism to save the water on indigenous lands, Phillips participated in the DAPL protests. He filmed a message to Skrillex from there.
5. The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School Covington Catholic High School Issued a New Statement
The Diocese of Covington issued a statement Tuesday.
“Concerning the incident in Washington, D.C., between Covington Catholic students, Elder Nathan Phillips and Black Hebrew Israelites the independent, third-party investigation is planned to begin this week. This is a very serious matter that has already permanently altered the lives of many people. It is important for us to gather the facts that will allow us to determine what corrective actions, if any, are appropriate.”
“We pray that we may come to the truth and that this unfortunate situation may be resolved peacefully and amicably and ask others to join us in this prayer.”
“We will have no further statements until the investigation is complete.”
The school initially shuttered its Facebook page and Covington alumni pages and other fan pages were also deleted. Its Twitter account, previously public and now private, has a profile blurb that reads, “With Spirit that Will Not Die! Educating Young Men Spiritually, Academically, Physically and Socially.”
On Saturday, a day after the incident, a spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington said Saturday afternoon, “We are just now learning about this incident and regret it took place. We are looking into it.”
In an early statement, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington said, via WLWT, that they “condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically.” The statement says the actions of the students is against the Church’s teachings.” The statement closes by saying that the events “tainted” the anti-choice movement.
A separate statement, via Cincinnati.com, says that the school will explore all discipline options for the students in question “up to and including expulsion.”
The school’s Code of Conduct calls for possible expulsion for ‘assault or harassment’ on or off the school campus. Principal Robert “Bob” Rowe said that the students could be expelled.
The school, founded in 1925, is located in Park Hills, Kentucky, and part of the Catholic Diocese of Covington and is an all-boys parochial school with around 600 students, the overwhelming majority white based on photos from its website.
The school’s Code of Conduct page reads that “act(s) of assault or harassment on or off campus of any kind…” will result in “SUSPENSION WITH POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION FOR EXPULSION.”
On its website, its mission is described as existing to “embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ in order to educate young men spiritually, academically, physically, and socially. With this focus, we are Building Minds and Living Faith.”
Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this article, Nathan Phillips was described as a Vietnam War veteran. Phillips has identified himself as a “Vietnam times” Marine veteran.