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Culture & Conversation Human Rights

An Interview With Nathan Phillips on the #MAGAYouth Incident

Vincent Schilling

"Honestly. I'm still scared. I'm still feeling vulnerable. But I'm not gonna back down."

Cross-posted with permission from Indian Country Today.

“I see a bright, beautiful future if we want it … it’s there for us. It’s ours to pass on to the next generation,” said Nathan Phillips, after an extremely long day for the Vietnam-era Native American veteran who stood in the midst of Covington Catholic High School students and sang a Native song on his hand drum.

At the time of the interview, Nathan and I had been messaging back and forth all day. He was at a family member’s house in Washington D.C. unaware that his name was the top trending term on Twitter with over 315,000 tweets.

The original story, which appeared in Indian Country Today, had been accessed hundreds of thousands of times as well.

Vincent Schilling: It’s been quite a day for you, Nathan. How are you?

Nathan Phillips: I’m just catching my second wind. Most of the day there were so many numbers coming in. I didn’t know who they were and you know, I kinda got scared, I just kinda got nervous and thought, oh jeez, who’s this? And after the racist incident that happened a couple of years ago in Michigan, I got a couple of bad calls then. So I just kinda got nervous about answering the phone.

VS: I have gotten hundreds of emails in support of you, Nathan. I have people from Germany, Spain, Ireland and Canada, several branches of the military, sending you support. One elder said she has a handmade drum that she wants to gift to you.

So what was the experience like?

NP: I felt like I was sitting on the sidelines of my own experience. I realized where I was at when I was doing and it was an out of body experience. I thought “who is this guy?” I woke up in the middle of it and thought, “What am I doing?” You know?

But this is the commitment when I picked up the pipe 27 years ago. It’s for the next generation. It’s when that moment comes and you got to stand your ground. That commitment that you made to either fulfill that or you don’t. I mean, I was scared and I didn’t want to. I really, I really didn’t want to, but nobody else was.

VS: What were your thoughts regarding the disrespect being shown by the youth?

NP: We’re indigenous. We’re different than that. When we see our youth going the wrong way, we will go up and say, “You are doing the wrong thing there nephew, or grandson. This is just the wrong way. I tell them, “This is the way you have to behave. This wrong, this is right.”

You gotta do it a certain way. We have protocols.

VS: In Native culture, the things we’re taught more than anything else is being respectful to our elders and to see you disrespected in that way hurt my heart more than I could explain

NP: I’m angry with those instructors, the chaperones and tutors whose children’s lives were in their hands. That was their job, that wasn’t my job to do.

No, but then again, we are indigenous and it is my job and from an indigenous point of view.

But they were getting paid to take care of those children to act and for them to be allowed to behave that way. Is it in my mind, is a fireable offense. They’ve aligned those children to take the wrong path and they have a bright future to live. You know, if that was my child, I would not be happy with the school officials right now to allow my child to behave that way. I don’t care if my child is that way. When he’s out in public, he’d better behave.

VS: Your incident is on every major network you can possibly imagine. It started with Indian Country Today because I knew you and we have had ceremony. But then it went to publications such as the New York Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer / USA Today. CBS then CBC. It went everywhere, Nathan. Indian country has really been, you know, asking about you and how you’re doing.

NP: Thank you for your support. I could do some more prayers. Honestly. I’m still scared. I’m still feeling vulnerable. But I’m not gonna back down. Those young people from that school, that song was a prayer for their future and my children’s future. We’re facing critical times and we’ve got to make choices, and they’re going to be some hard choices.

I’m not a chief or anything. But I feel like at that moment, it was for me to do. What I’ve always said … for a long time is that I’m expendable. You know, when I was in Vietnam times and when I was in the Marine Corps times, that’s what I was. I was expendable. Expendable to corporate greed. You know, in all wars, especially the ones that are going down for the oil, you know, we’re fighting against—the pipelines. Now that we’re at a point where we’ve drawn the line, we’ve got to stand that line. All of us.

I see a future though. I do see a future. I see a bright, beautiful future if we want it, if we’re willing to pray for it, it’s there for us. It’s ours to pass on to the next generation, but we got to be willing for it.

Editor’s Note: I asked Nathan Phillips if he had set up any fundraisers, he replied he had not—and only had an email [email protected] for PayPal. (He did not offer the information, I asked him.)

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