Native American elder Nathan Phillips, in his own words
Native American elder Nathan Phillips, who has made headlines everywhere after a video showed him in a face-off with a Catholic school student in front of the Lincoln Memorial, spoke at length with CNN the day after the incident.
Phillips described what he felt was hatred coming from the young people in the crowd, who are pupils at Covington Catholic School in Kentucky and who had traveled to the nation’s capital to attend the March for Life rally, also held Friday.
The interview was conducted Saturday after the video went viral. Since the interview, the diocese in charge of the school has denounced the students’ actions, a lawmaker has defended them and the boy in the video, Nick Sandmann, has denied characterizations of his and his classmates’ behavior and said he was simply standing in front of Phillips to let him know he wouldn’t be baited into an altercation.
Also, several new videos have surfaced, including one showing the students engaging in a “Tomahawk chop,” mocking the Native Americans, and another showing a group of Hebrew Israelites hurling slurs and epithets at the teenagers both before Phillips arrived on the scene and after he left.
Here is the transcript of Phillips’ interview, which has been lightly edited for flow and content:
CNN: Tell us what happened, what transpired between you and the young people who were all standing around you? How did you end up surrounded by this group of young people with the MAGA hats on?
Phillips: There was a disturbance there on the Lincoln Monument grounds. We were finishing up with Indigenous Peoples March and rally and there were some folks there that were expressing their (First Amendment) rights there, freedom of speech. … Then there was this young group of young students that came there and were offended by their speech, and it escalated into an ugly situation that I found myself in the middle of. Yeah, I found myself in the middle of it, sort of woke up to it.
CNN: You just sort of decided to try and stop this or at least have an impact on it, calm the waters. Is that right?
Phillips: Yes, that’s the impression that everybody has, and I guess that’s what I was doing. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. When I started taking those steps and using the drum, it was just spur of the moment. I don’t like to say it that way, but it was just, “What do you do? What do you do now?” Here’s a moment where something that’s really ugly in our society, in America, something that’s just come to a boiling point, as they say. Does that make sense?
CNN: Sure. So you’re sort of in between these two groups, yes?
CNN: What happened? What is it like standing there?
Phillips: When my young friend that came up there said, “Let’s hit the drum” because there’s a point there where it just got to really a crescendo, I think they say it sometimes, but it was like the thunder, the storm was coming.
CNN: What did it feel like that you were witnessing?
Phillips: Oh, what I was witnessing was just hate? Racism? Well, hate. What I’m saying is that when these folks came there, these other folks were saying their piece, and these others they got offended with it because they were both just expressing their own views. And if it’s racism, that’s what it was because the folks that were having their moment there, they were saying things that I don’t know if I agreed with them or not, but some of it was educational, and it was truth, and it was history about religious views and ideologies, but these other folks, the young students, they couldn’t see it. They had one point of view, it seemed, and that was that their point of view was the only point of view that was worthwhile. And that’s now what I was feeling.
CNN: Were you trying to calm the situation down basically when you saw kind of things seemed to spiral out of control?
Phillips: I think so. I think that was the push, that we need to use the drum, use our prayer and bring a balance, bring a calming to the situation. I didn’t assume that I had any kind of power to do that, but at the same time, I didn’t feel that I could just stand there anymore and not do something. It looked like these young men were going to attack these guys. They were going to hurt them. They were going to hurt them because they didn’t like the color of their skin. They didn’t like their religious views. They were just here in front of the Lincoln — Lincoln is not my hero, but at the same time, there was this understanding that he brought the (Emancipation Proclamation) or freed the slaves, and here are American youth who are ready to, look like, lynch these guys. To be honest, they looked like they were going to lynch them. They were in this mob mentality. Where were their parents? Because they were obvious a student group. Where were their–
Phillips: Yeah, chaperones. Where were they? What were they doing? Why did they allow them to come to such a boiling point? To allow such hate and racism, just to be — just to be, and not teach them that this is wrong. America foundations, freedoms, the reason white people came to this country is for freedom of religion, freedom of speech. Not to allow these men to have their freedom to say what they felt was hurting them as a people, as a religion. I was listening to what they were saying. I was there for a different purpose.
CNN: Let me ask you about what happened to you. These boys in the middle of this group and you find yourself surrounded. How did that happen and what did that feel like as a person standing there face to face with a young man who seems to be staring at you or glaring at you? How would you describe that moment?
Phillips: When I was there and I was standing there and I seen that group of people in front of me and I seen the angry faces and all of that, I realized I had put myself in a really dangerous situation. Here’s a group of people who were angry at somebody else and I put myself in front of that, and all of a sudden, I’m the one whose all that anger and all that wanting to have the freedom to just rip me apart, that was scary. And I’m a Vietnam veteran and I know that mentality of “There’s enough of us. We can do this.”
CNN: The young man that was standing in front of you, what was he doing and what was he trying to do as you were playing the drum. Were you fearful? Were you trying to leave?
Phillips: That was exactly the thing is that I was there. I seen the mass of people. I had realized where I’m at and what I was doing, and I realized there was other people with me and I didn’t want them to get hurt because there was 100-plus of these young men who were well-fed and healthy and strong and ready to do harm to somebody. And they just wanted that point of “This is it” and spring. If this young man thought that he was that point and what I was trying to do, I realized where I was at. I needed an out. I needed to escape. I needed to get away. I needed to retreat somehow, but the only way I could retreat at that moment, is what I see, is just to go forward, and when I started going forward and that mass of groups of people started separating and moving aside to allow me to move out of the way or to proceed, this young fellow put himself in front of me and wouldn’t move. If I took another step, I would be putting my person into his presence, into his space and I would’ve touched him and that would’ve been the thing that the group of people would’ve needed to spring on me. Because if I would’ve reached out with my drum or with my hands and touched him, that would’ve given them — I did that. I struck out, and that’s not what I was doing. The song I was singing, the reason for it, was to bring unity and to bring love and compassion back into our minds and our beings as men and as protector of what is right. I was raised away from my family. I was put in foster care and so I didn’t have a traditional indigenous upbringing. I was brought up just like these young guys were brought up. Well, maybe I wasn’t Catholic school, but I was public school. And when I went back home to my reservation and I ask questions — “Do you have an Indian name? Do you know where I could get some moccasins?” … I wanted to know, and that cousin of mine that was sitting there, standing there and I was asking him these questions. He says, Go home, white boy.” That hurt.
CNN: You told me you don’t like the word hate. … Why is that?
Phillips: I don’t like to say the word hate. I don’t like to have it in my heart, around me. It’s just not a thing I want to carry with me. I did hate at one time. I hated people, places and things. I hated myself and it’s just not a —
CNN: Does it feel like hatred toward you because the kids will say, “Oh we were just chanting our school chants and this person came in between us as we were chanting our school chants and we were not being hateful.” What did it feel like to you?
Phillips: I’m sorry. I don’t mean to laugh. Well, yes, I do, I guess. I heard that rhetoric before and it’s just one of those things, it’s got to be like water off a duck’s back. Time for lies to be not accepted anymore. I don’t accept their “I’m just chanting a school chant.”
CNN: Was there fear? … What did it feel like in that scenario for you as you were standing there sort of surrounded and the chants were going on and the young man was standing sort of in your face?
Phillips: When they said, “Let’s go hit the drum, let’s go sing, let’s reclaim our space here” because this was the Indigenous Peoples March rally, and when these two groups came together and started that and I was witnessing as it escalated from just two small groups, then the other one just went back and got more people, went back and got more people, went back and got more people until there were over 100 people, maybe 200 young men there facing down what? Four individuals? Why did they need 200 people there other than it’s hate and racism? They had their target. They had their prey. And so I wish somebody would’ve been able to stand in front of the 7th Cavalry and my relatives at Wounded Knee. I wish somebody would’ve stood there and said, “No, you can’t do this.”
CNN: We were talking about the issue between these two groups, the one was the black Israelites and the other was these mostly Caucasian young men. You were standing there and they were standing around you chanting. … How did you feel? What did you feel that they were sort of doing to you or what are your feelings? Their response has been we were just chanting our school chants and we weren’t jeering or we weren’t making fun of anybody. We were just standing around and he just happened to be in the middle of our group, is sort of the way they’re saying this went. How did you feel about it?
Phillips: I felt like I denied them their prey. I felt like I denied them their prey and so they were going to take it out on me.
CNN: Were they being hateful, just bottom line? Did you feel hate from this group of people? Did it feel like they were being aggressive?
Phillips: I do believe that’s all I could feel, and I don’t like feeling it. … Fear, not for myself but for the next generations, fear where this country’s going, fear for those youths, fear for their future, fear for their souls, their spirit, what they’re going to do to this country.
CNN: One of the things they said is we weren’t protesting against Native Americans. We were there for the March for Life and we were just chanting — and this is kind of putting the blame on you — and that this person came into our space and we were just getting all hyped up. Do you buy that?
Phillips: Not in the least.
CNN: What really happened?
Phillips: They were there looking for trouble, looking for something. Everybody knows the right to life and (pro-choice), it’s been like this and they’re hateful to each other. And it’s because I’m a veteran — I’m a Vietnam veteran — that these two groups even have the right in this country to have protests, to have conflicting opinions. If they were doing that, they should’ve done that there and then when they come into public, that wasn’t the place for that. That was a public forum where we was at. We were still under the protection of our permit for the indigenous peoples rally.
CNN: You dispute what they’re trying to push off, which is basically, “We were just chanting our school chants and this person came into our space and we were just being happy-go-lucky kids.”
Phillips: No, not happy go lucky. If they was happy go lucky, we would’ve been laughing and enjoying each other’s presence and company because that’s the kind of thing I like to do. I like to meet people. I like to find out where they’re from, what they’re up to, in a good way. But what was happening there, there was nothing happy go lucky about it. It was just, “Build the wall” and some of the things that I heard but can’t really say I exactly heard that because it was way over there, and they could say, “Oh, nobody said that. It wasn’t us who said that.” So it’s one of those he-said, she-said, things and what I’m saying is that they were very aggressive and they were very ready to hurt somebody. They just needed a reason. Whether I was the one who defused it or not, I wouldn’t have been able to do it with out my relatives that were with me at the time. My other brother that was singing and the (inaudible) that was standing with me at that time. There were sons of us that were indigenous, we stood together.
CNN: Do you have one last thing to say, one message to these students that you would like to give to them? … Also, thinking of them as sort of high school student, they’re young. How would you sort of impart to them what it felt like to you and what you’d like them to know about your experience with them?
Phillips: Yeah, I will pray for them. That’s what the whole part was was a prayer. The use of the drum, the song, that was a prayer. What I said to them at the end was, “Relatives!” and I got their attention and I said, “Make America great.” They said, “How?” What they were doing wasn’t making America great. … the whole idea, the spirit of America, that wasn’t it. That wasn’t American spirit there that they were putting out there.