'I am proud of my brother'
Sister of Nathan Phillips joins rally in support of Omaha veteran at center of #MAGA confrontation
By Kevin Abourezk
LINCOLN, Nebraska -- Nearly 50 Natives and supporters braved below-zero wind chills Sunday afternoon here to gather in solidarity for a tribal elder who was surrounded and harassed
by a group of high school students last week.
Among those who attended the rally at the State Capitol was the sister of Nathan Phillips, the Vietnam veteran whose confrontation with a group of high school students, many wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, went viral. The incident, which took place Friday during the Indigenous Peoples March
in Washington, D.C., elicited widespread outrage in Indian Country and beyond.
“I am proud of my brother, who continued his healing song, for it is and will be a blessing for all humans in that mob circle,” said Francine Phillips, standing in a circle outside the Capitol in Lincoln.
“I thank Wakanda
for protecting my brother from the aggressive behavior of these young boys, showing anger and disdain for our people, the UmonHon Nation,” she said.
Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Omaha Elder Taunted by #MAGA Youth at a Native Rights March
Nathan Phillips, a citizen of the Omaha Tribe
and former director of the Native Youth Alliance, was singing the American Indian Movement song and drumming on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when one of the students walked up to him and stood face-to-face with Phillips, smirking and taunting him.
The high school students were in D.C. to take part in the March for Life, an anti-abortion rally that drew speeches from President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. The incident – posted by several marchers and others on social media – generated an outpouring of criticism among many prominent Native activists and leaders.
"This Veteran put his life on the line for our country," Rep. Deb Haaland
(D-New Mexico), one of the first two Native women in Congress
, observed in a post on Twitter
"The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration," added Haaland, a citizen of Pueblo of Laguna
who spoke at the rally on Friday afternoon
, before the confrontation occurred. "Heartbreaking."
Francine Phillips speaks at a rally in Lincoln, Nebraska, on January 20, 2019, to show support for her brother, Nathan Phillips, an Omaha man who was surrounded and taunted following the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
Rep. Sharice Davids
(D-Kansas), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation
, also expressed concerns about the behavior seen in the footage.
"Nathan Phillips' behavior in the face of that crowd demonstrates why we have so much respect for our elders," Davids said in a post on Twitter
. "Our society is failing a portion of our youth, as these young men highlight with their misguided actions."
"Leadership starts with each of us," said Davids. "Thank you, Nathan Phillips."
Renee Sans Souci, an Omaha woman who organized the rally in Lincoln on Sunday, said she felt obligated to host a solidarity demonstration in order to educate non-Natives about the lives and culture of Native people today.
She said she has seen conflicting versions of the incident that took place Friday but hopes some positive action might come out of it. New footage of the incident released Sunday showed a group of Hebrew Israelite activists shouting insults at the Native activists and the high school students. The YouTube video also showed Nathan Phillips approach the students while singing and drumming.
And Phillips, 64, clarified that he was attempting to intervene because he was concerned tensions between the students and the Hebrew Israelites might lead to violence.
“I stepped in between to pray,” he told The New York Times
Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesperson for the march who witnessed the incident, said the nearly 50 to 70 students were at the Lincoln Memorial being loud and chanting. Only about a half dozen marchers remained, and they decided to hold a closing prayer in the memorial.
As they made their way up the steps, the students surrounded them and began shouting and chanting, he said.
“I got very concerned and afraid that violence or some sort of physical confrontation was going to break out, because they were so aggressive, so loud,” said Iron Eyes, who is a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Chase Iron Eyes Talks About Taunting of Native Elder by #MAGA Youth
He was standing about 20 yards from Phillips and decided to keep a distance from the group, worried he might be forced to defend the marchers and end up in jail.
“They’re going to take an old Native guy to jail before they take a bunch of white kids with MAGA hats to jail,” he said. “So I just kept my distance.”
After Phillips finished singing the American Indian Movement song, he and the rest of the marchers turned and walked away. No one was injured, but Phillips was shaken up by the incident, Iron Eyes said.
He said he was proud of Phillips for keeping his composure while facing the students.
“They held their ground without returning any aggression, or any of that energy that was being directed at them,” he said.
Iron Eyes said the incident demonstrates the poor state of race relations in Trump’s America.
“It’s obvious we’ve got a lot of work to do, but in order to do that work, there’s got to be a truth-telling before there can be a conciliation in the first place,” he said.
In Lincoln, Sans Souci told those gathered outside that the words and behavior of the students still concerns her and she hopes they can learn from their mistakes. She said Native people continue to endure racism in many forms, and she hopes Friday’s incident might become a rallying cry for improved relations between Natives and non-Natives.
Renee Sans Souci, an Omaha woman, speaks at a rally in Lincoln, Nebraska, on January 20, 2019, Sunday that she organized to show solidarity with Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder who was surrounded and taunted following the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
“I would just rather be at home, snuggled in my warm blankets, watching my movies and enjoying myself,” she said. “However, when I’m called to action to respond to such a thing that happened in Washington, D.C., before the whole world, then I have to respond in a good way, to create further awareness.”
Aleishia Wolf, 37, who is Omaha and Ponca, said the media is largely to blame for the uproar over the incident on Friday. She said it’s important for people to be aware of the media’s “rabble rousing.”
“It’s not Nathan that’s wrong,” she said. “It’s not the children that are wrong in this situation. It’s rabble rousing that the media does on purpose.”
Aleishia Wolf, a 37-year-old Omaha and Ponca woman, speaks at a rally held in Lincoln, Nebraska, on January 20, 2019, to show solidarity with an Omaha elder who was surrounded and taunted following the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
She said the students from Covington Catholic High School likely know little to nothing about Native people or their culture. She said it’s important for parents to be educate their children about the media’s attempts to divide people.
Lin Quenzer, pastor of Sacred Winds Native Mission Church in Lincoln, said the students’ behavior can’t be easily justified.
“When you carry a drum and when you pray with a drum, that is what you are doing, you are praying, and they stood in his face and they sneered,” she said. “This is a horrible thing.”
“We are here today to say that those young men, though they represented a church, have no idea of what true spirituality means and I am sure that their families are embarrassed to say the least.”
People hold the American Indian Movement flag in Lincoln, Nebraska, on January 20, 2019, to show solidarity with an Omaha elder who was surrounded and taunted Friday following the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
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VIDEO: Indigenous Peoples March spokesperson talks about #MAGA incident
(January 20, 2019)
Omaha elder taunted by #MAGA youth at Indigenous Peoples March
(January 19, 2019)