One video posted online over the weekend quickly put Native American advocate Nathan Phillips at the center of a national discussion about race and respect. The video from Friday’s Indigenous People’s March in Washington, D.C. captured a moment between the 64-year-old member of the Omaha Nation and a group of high school boys from Kentucky wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. In the video, Phillips is seen singing and beating a drum while the high schoolers chant and make tomahawk chopping motions with their arms. One student stands directly in front of Phillips, staring at him and smiling.
Everything snowballed from there. More videos emerged showing a third group gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, the Hebrew Israelites, taunting both the teens and the Native American protesters. The smiling teen, Nick Sandmann, put out a statement detailing his version of events, claiming Phillips was a protestor who got “in [his] face.” On Tuesday morning, Phillips responded with a suggestion that Sandmann wasn't being entirely truthful — and an offer to travel to Covington Catholic High School to open a dialogue about “cultural appropriation, racism, and the importance of listening to and respecting diverse cultures.”
By the time Phillips spoke to Bustle on Tuesday afternoon, however, it was clear that he was tired and overwhelmed by all the attention — and his thinking around meeting with the Covington students had shifted.
Clarissa-Jan Lim: So can you tell us what happened between you and the Covington students?
Nathan Phillips: I've been saying this so many times, it's just going to come out like a robot now. That's how I feel about it, I've said it so many times now. I'm just repeating it over and over again, and I relive it again every time. And I'm thinking about this young person. And the more I have to revisit, the more I'm just getting upset.
On Saturday, I wanted to go back to Michigan. And I'm still here in Washington, D.C., dealing with this.
CJL: What do you have to deal with right now in D.C.?
NP: Well there's so much stuff here that a part of the Indigenous People's March came to work on that, but now this issue has kind of been crowding out the work that I have to get done.
But then again, that is part of the work — facing racism, bigotry, hatred. Before I even got back from Michigan to get started on work, I was put to work right here and now. And that was dealing with something that I don’t feel like I should’ve had to. I shouldn’t have to. That’s something that the teachers as the chaperones should have dealt with.
CJL: From Covington you mean?
NP: From Covington. That was their students. They should've been responsible for them and in control of them.
CJL: You released a statement offering to meet with the students and to open a dialogue with them about racism and cultural appropriation.
NP: I think I said that I'm willing to have a dialogue, haven't set no date or anything. When I said that I also said that, well, there couldn't be really any conditions to it, because [Nick Sandmann] made a statement and I don't agree with it. And that's what it had to be. I don't agree with the statement, I feel like it's not entirely true.
CJL: What wasn't true in his statement?
NP: Well, that he was trying to defuse the moment.
CJL: There also has been a lot of conversation around what happened. A lot of people I've seen are saying that the burden shouldn't be on Native American people to educate these young white boys about race. Why did you decide to put out a statement that offered to have that dialogue with them?
NP: Well, when the young fella put out his statement, he's not taking any responsibility. I guess the thing is that I don't want to argue with him or anything like that. I don't know. When I think about it again, it might just be a waste of time. Because if he's not going to take responsibility for his own actions, then you know, it's like, there's nothing we can do yet.
In our indigenous culture, he would be at that age where we'd be saying you need to go to certain kind of ceremonies if he's not acting right. Ceremonies to help achieve adulthood. Ceremonies to explain how to behave, how to be a man, how to act in public.
CJL: So when you when you put out that statement, was there a reason that you decided, OK, let me express to them that I am here and if they want to talk, I will talk about this?
NP: It's because of that statement they put out that shows a lack of responsibility for his own actions...I'm tired. I said that last night, and I've had all day to think about it again. And I went to a memorial service today for a very good, dear friend of mine. Really wonderful words there. I don't know...I'm really so disappointed. I'm just so disappointed. We were there having a wonderful event.
CJL: You've had a while to think it over, and from our conversation it doesn't sound like you seem very hopeful about even having a conversation with these kids.
NP: I think you got that one right. After today, I have some friends who are helping me out, and I'm seeing some of the things that are coming out. And it's just, like, what? What's the deal here? People are trying to paint me as the villain.
CJL: So what do you hope will happen now? How do you want to move forward?
NP: Right now, the way I feel and been talking to my little crew here if there's any [inaudible] at reconciliation. Maybe we need to go over the school and go to the diocese, because they're the one who put out the apology in the first place. And now that the diocese had issued an apology — that's why I don't feel like dialoguing with [the students] would be any good because they're not adhering to what their diocese says. What their diocese puts out there. They're going against that; they're saying, no, we don't apologize. We have some people who are writing letters to the Vatican, and we're taking different steps.
CJL: If it turns out that you don't hear from them, and they don't hear from you, what do you want these boys to know?
NP: It's not my job. I'm going to let the diocese know, and I'm going to let the pope know. These young fellas, they really haven't come of age. Once they grow up and are ready to talk like an adult, maybe we will talk.
CJL: So maybe give it some time and you might revisit this?
NP: Eh, maybe so. But they've got to display some kind of action that they're sincere. By changing their behavior.
CJL: What do you want the American people to know about you and about the situation, or the kind of everyday incidents that Native American people face?
NP: I'm a pretty private person. But there's this need to do things for the people, and that means you have to get out there and be visible sometimes. And I am the director of the Native Youth Alliance, and the goal of Native Youth Alliance is to provide a safe home for children.
CJL: How do you personally plan on moving on? Do you have plans for the next few days?
NP: We're having this really wonderful event next month. We're going to do a prayer walk, four-day prayer walk, and we're going to remember our indigenous struggle. We're going to pray for the water, pray for the land another day, pray for the fire another day, and pray for the air the fourth day. But once we deal with this, we can go on without having to watch our back.
CJL: Do you feel like you have to watch your back now?
NP: Absolutely. I guess I'm overwhelmed. To me this is just work, this is just an everyday thing when we're involved in something, going somewhere, when we're working on our issues.
CJL: So it sounds like you're moving on by doing the work that you've always done.
NP: There's nothing else I can do. I dedicated my life to the next generation's coming. So that means every day I've got to get out there and do something. So when I go to bed at the end of the day, I'm satisfied that I did something for the next generation. Even if it's just a prayer.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.