Update: This story has been updated to show the discovery of Nathan Phillips' military history as unveiled by Navy SEAL Don Shipley.
Saturday, January 19 may well go down in Native history as a day in which the world was alerted to the story of the Native elder and Vietnam-era Veteran Nathan Phillips. Many say he was literally mobbed by a large group of non-Native students from Covington Catholic High School, who taunted, mocked and intimidated him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the end of the day’s Indigenous People’s March.
Media outlets all over the world reported on the incident.
Early in the day, the USA Network’s Cincinnati Enquirer, reported the school had responded to the public, "Covington Catholic High School has said that students could be expelled after a video went viral, showing an incident where students who were in Washington D.C. for the March for Life surrounded indigenous marchers at a different event."
As stated on the school's website, the students should be held accountable for harassment and/or bullying. On the school’s ‘Code of Conduct” web page, the seventh rule listed under DETENTION, SATURDAY SCHOOL, EXCLUSION, SUSPENSION OR EXPULSION, states harassment is unacceptable:
Harassment and/or bullying which includes but is not limited to: face-to-face harassment or name-calling, threats, unwelcome jokes, written harassment of any kind, defamation of character/spreading gossip about another person, unwelcome physical contact, or cyber-bullying.
The school and Kentucky Catholic Church issued a statement
Shortly after the incident involving Nathan Phillips, the Covington Catholic High School converted all of their social media pages to private, and the ability to access the school’s contact page is now password protected. But the school issued an official public statement.
At the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, a website that is described as “Representing the Roman Catholic Church and Kentucky's dioceses in public policy matters,” posted the following:
The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School have issued the following statement:
We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general, Jan. 18, after the March for Life, in Washington, D.C. We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.
The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.
We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement.
The Archbishop of Louisville joined in condemning the actions of the students on Twitter as well as on his own blog. In which he said, “I join with Bishop Foys in condemning the actions of the Covington Catholic students towards Mr. Nathan Phillips and the Native American Community yesterday in Washington. I have every confidence that the leadership of the Diocese of Covington will thoroughly investigate what occurred and address those all involved in this shameful act of disrespect.”
So what happened at the march?
The school’s website stated students were headed out to the March for Life event supporting unborn child rights based on Catholic beliefs. They joined other organizations all who came to DC. According to a Newport Central Catholic Facebook post and image, approximately 1,100 students and chaperones converged on Washington DC for the March for Life.
Nathan Phillips was ending his AIM song after a day in DC for the Indigenous Peoples Day March. Witnesses at the incident say Phillips was suddenly bombarded by a large group of males wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. Phillips told the Washington Post that he wanted to find a way to get out of the situation, but a young man blocked his way and then the situation continued to intensify.
The resulting videos went viral and made national news. CBC, CNN, USA TODAY and NBC Nightly News reported on the incident as well as a multitude of online media publications internationally.
Nathan Phillips spoke after the incident, he said “these are indigenous lands, we never had walls,” in response to the “Build a Wall, Build a Wall” chants.
Worldwide outrage and support
Throughout the day, hundreds of emails came into Indian Country Today, expressing apologies, outrage, and support for Nathan Phillips. Messages came in from Ireland, Australia, Germany, Spain and all over the United States and Alaska. People continued to call Nathan Phillips a warrior and a hero.
Thousands and thousands expressed support on social media including journalists and celebrities. Ava DuVernay gave a direct shout to @VinceSchilling / @IndianCountry.
Congresswoman Deb Haaland made a strong statement on behalf of Indian Country on Twitter, stating: “This Veteran put his life on the line for our country. The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking.”
Ben Ray Lujan, the Democratic Nambe Native representative of New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District, tweeted, “.@realDonaldTrump are you going to be silent on this blatant disrespect of Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam veteran & part of the indigenous rights movement?”
And now a petition
Matthew Lehman, a student from the Covington Catholic class of 1995 has issued a public petition titled “Immediate change at Covington Catholic.”
Lehman’s petition is asking for the “immediate termination of the school principal, Mr. Robert Rowe, for fostering an environment where these types of actions and words are condoned,” as well as a board to review admissions and educational standards, and for the school to cease any activity with the March for Life.
So far the petition has garnered over 5,400 signatures.
The Covington Kentucky Mayor and the Kentucky Secretary of State also respond
In an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Covington Mayor Joe Meyer titled “March confrontation doesn’t represent city’s values,” Meyer said, in part, “The disrespect shown to a Native American elder, who happens to be a Vietnam Veteran, was particularly offensive...let me - as Covington’s mayor - be absolutely clear: No. The videos being shared across the nation do NOT represent the core beliefs and values of this City. Covington is a diverse community, in areas of race, national origin, ethnicity, religious preference, sexual orientation, and income.”
The mayor summed up his commentary on the incident stating, “Covington is proud of being a welcoming City where bigotry, discrimination, and hatred will not be tolerated.”
The Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes, says she was also alarmed and tweeted: “This morning I was alarmed by circulating videos of young, Kentucky students taunting and harassing Native Americans at the Indigenous People’s March on the National Mall.”
Military history of Nathan Phillips discovered
Well-known Navy SEAL Don Shipley obtains Nathan Phillips' Military records
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling
Special thanks to Sarah Brookbank and Max Londberg from the Cincinnati Enquirer, who did some excellent reporting on the event and spoke to both myself and Chase Iron Eyes, organizer of the Indigenous Peoples March.