Nathan Phillips (activist)

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Nathan Phillips
Sky Man[1]
Phillips in 2012
Born (1954-02-22) February 22, 1954 (age 66)[2]
NationalityNative American, Omaha people
Other namesNathaniel R. Stanard[3]

Nathan Phillips (born February 22, 1954), also known as Sky Man, is an Omaha Native American political activist known for his role in the January 2019 Lincoln Memorial confrontation in Washington, D.C.

Early life[edit]

Philips was born in Lincoln, Nebraska,[4] where he spent his first five years in a traditional Omaha Nation tribal home.[5][4] From about the age of five, when he was separated from his mother, he was raised in a white foster family.[6] He went to Lincoln Southeast High School.[7] He later moved to Washington, D.C.[8]

Phillips entered the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves on May 20, 1972.[3] During his time in the military, he was trained as an anti-tank missileman and then served as a refrigerator technician in Nebraska and California. He was not deployed to Vietnam.[9] On May 5, 1976, Phillips was discharged as a private following disciplinary issues.[10] In accordance with the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974, Phillips is classified as a Vietnam-era veteran.[3]


Phillips at the 2017 Native Nations Rise March

At the end of the 20th century, Phillips was working to create a foster care system run by American Indians for American Indian children to help them gain an appreciation for their heritage: "I don't want our children to think that prison is the only place for them to go."[7]

The New York Times identified Phillips as a former director of the Native Youth Alliance, a group aiming to uphold traditional culture and spiritual ways for future Native Americans,[11] and reported that he leads an annual ceremony honoring Native American war veterans in Arlington National Cemetery.[11]

The Guardian called him "a well-known Native American activist who was among those leading the Standing Rock protests in 2016 and 2017 against the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota".[12][13] Phillips was among the last of the protesters when law enforcement evicted the camps and effectively ended the protests, which for his part were "a prayer (...) a commitment to stand for our youth, for our children, for nature and for myself, standing for my nation."[14]

In 2015 Phillips alleged a group of students from Eastern Michigan University harassed him.[15][Notes 1] A January 2019 article in The Washington Post described Phillips as a "a veteran in the indigenous rights movement".[16]

A January 2019 article in Indian Country Today described Phillips as a "keeper of a sacred pipe".[17][16]

Between Earth and Sky[edit]

Phillips is the subject of the award-winning 2013 documentary film Between Earth and Sky in which he and his wife, Shoshana, travel back to his Omaha reservation after his wife was diagnosed with bone-marrow cancer. She died of the disease in 2014.[18][19][20][21]

"Make It Bun Dem" video[edit]

In 2012, Phillips and his son appeared in the music video for "Make It Bun Dem", a song by Skrillex and Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley.[22] In a February 20, 2017, interview that took place during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests (DAPL), Phillips explained he had answered the casting call because he wanted to help his children cope with his wife's cancer.[23]

Lincoln Memorial confrontation[edit]

On January 18, 2019, snippets of videos recorded at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., appeared to show Phillips being harassed by a group of fifty to sixty high school boys who had attended the coinciding annual March for Life; they were widely shared through social media.[24][25][26] Print media described Philips as surrounded and faced with "relentless smirk".[27][Notes 2] Philips had walked towards and into a group of adolescent boys from Covington Catholic High School (CovCath), who had traveled from Kentucky on a school trip to attend the anti-abortion March for Life.[Notes 3] He began to chant the AIM Song, a traditional Native American inter-tribal powwow song.[28][17] Videos showed a student, later identified as a junior at CovCath,[29] and Phillips facing each other inches apart while Phillips chanted and beat his drum and some of the students in the background allegedly did "Tomahawk chops" and danced.[28] Several students wore red "Make America Great Again" caps.[29]

Shortly after the video went viral, CovCath's communications director released a statement regretting that the incident took place.[25] On January 19, 2019, multiple students who were present at the incident stated that coverage of the incident had been skewed. The involved student released a statement saying that the students were confronted by four members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, that Philips tried to provoke the students, and denying that they had chanted "build the wall" or used any racist language or gestures.[29][30][31] Interviewed after the event, Phillips said, "While I was there singing, I heard them saying 'Build that wall! Build that wall!', you know... this is indigenous land! ...We're not supposed to have walls here, we never did—for millennium. Before anybody else came here we never had walls. We never had a prison. We always took care of our elders, we took care of our children,"[32] and "There was that moment when I realized I've put myself between beast and prey, [t]hese young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey."[33] In the days after the confrontation, Journalists reviewed hours of tapes from multiple points of view and, in their opinion, showed that videos of the event either "[contradicted] or [failed] to confirm accounts provided in that story—including that Native American activist Nathan Phillips was prevented by one student from moving on, that his group had been taunted by the students in the lead-up to the encounter, [that] the students were trying to instigate a conflict,"[34] and the video evidence was consistent with the students' version of events.[35][36] Video footage also showed members of the Black Hebrew Israelites shouting targeted racial insults and slurs at a group of Native Americans and later at the Covington High School students.[36] Asked why he had approached the group of students, Phillips said that he was trying to defuse a confrontation between the group of students and a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites who were shouting insults and profanities at the students.[28][29] Subsequent interviews with Phillips and his associates stated they interpreted the students' school cheers as racist toward their nearby Indigenous Peoples March.[37]


  1. ^ According to a April 22, 2015, Fox local news report by Dave Spencer, in 2015, Phillips filed a report of racial harassment with Eastern Michigan University campus police against 30 to 40 students who "referred to themselves as the Hurons, the former mascot at EMU", dressed as Native Americans for an American Indian theme party. He was "bombarded with racial slurs", and one of the students threw a beer can at him.
  2. ^ Print media weeks later walked back much of its reporting; see for example this Editor's Note.
  3. ^ The March For Life had a permit for a First Amendment demonstrations on the National Mall on that day. According to The Cut, CovCath sends an annual delegation of its students to attend the anti-abortion March For Life in Washington.


  1. ^ Maria Stanisheva, Between Earth and Sky Archived January 20, 2019, at the Wayback Machine (graduation film, 2012). See also: East Harlem Preservation, Inc., 'EHP TV Presents: Nathan Phillips in East Harlem (March 19, 2017)' (YouTube), "We had the great honor of meeting Sky Man (Nathan Phillips), an Omaha Tribe Elder and Water Protector, when he spoke at Urban Atabex Healing in Community Network & Bohio Atabei's Spring Equinox Gathering at Casabe Houses in East Harlem, NYC"; in the video, Phillips introduces himself as Sky Man.
  2. ^ Tribune, Jack Dura / Bismarck (February 24, 2018). "One year after pipeline protest's end, 'I would have done it..." Retrieved January 22, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c Copp, Tara (January 23, 2019). "Tribal elder in viral standoff video was not a Vietnam veteran, military records show". Military Times. Retrieved January 26, 2019. Nathan Phillips, 64, spent four years in the Marine Corps Reserve and left in 1976 with the rank of private, or E-1, the Marines said in a statement providing his personal releasable information.
  4. ^ a b Kelley World-Herald staff, Matt (January 21, 2019) [November 26, 2000]. "Who is Nathan Phillips? Years ago, Omaha Tribe member said spiritual journey was grounded in mall prayer vigil". Omaha World Herald. Washington, D.C. Retrieved January 21, 2019. The Washington Post even stopped by, publishing a lengthy essay last week connecting Phillips' vigil to a well-mannered protest of Thanksgiving.
  5. ^ "A mourning wake up call". The Washington Post. November 21, 2000. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
  6. ^ "The Power of Nathan Phillips's Song". Vogue. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
  7. ^ a b Josh Funk, 'A split feather', The Daily Nebraskan January 11, 1999.
  8. ^ "Native American leader of Michigan: 'Mob mentality' in students was 'scary'". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
  9. ^ Did Nathan Phillips Falsely Claim He Was a Vietnam Veteran?, Snopes, Dan Evon, January 23, 2019
  10. ^ Lamothe, Dan (January 23, 2018). "A group representing Nathan Phillips wrongly said he served in Vietnam. Then came the accusations". The Washington Post.
  11. ^ a b Mervosh, Sarah. "Boys in 'Make America Great Again' Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March". The New York Times.
  12. ^ "Outcry after Kentucky students in Maga hats mock Native American veteran". The Guardian. January 20, 2019. Retrieved January 20, 2019.
  13. ^ 'The Latest: Police: About 20 fires set at Dakota Access camp', Associated Press February 23, 2017.
  14. ^ Jack Dura, 'Hundreds of Dakota Access protest cases remain open', Associated Press March 3, 2018.
  15. ^ Spencer, Dave (April 22, 2015). "Native American claims racial harassment by EMU students dressed as Indians". WJBK. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  16. ^ a b Olivo, Antonio; Wootson Jr, Cleve R.; Heim, Joe (January 19, 2019). "Native American drummer speaks on the teens who surrounded him wearing MAGA hats". New Zealand Herald. The Washington Post. ISSN 1170-0777. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  17. ^ a b Schilling, Vincent (January 19, 2019). "Outrage as non-Native youth wearing #MAGA hats taunt and disrespect Native elder". Indian Country Today. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  18. ^ "Between Earth and Sky". Kickstarter. Retrieved January 20, 2019.
  19. ^ "Between Earth and Sky ‹ Maria Stanisheva's portfolio & blog". Archived from the original on January 20, 2019. Retrieved January 20, 2019.
  20. ^ "Between Earth and Sky". Winter Film Awards. March 20, 2013. Retrieved January 20, 2019.
  21. ^ Between Earth and Sky. IMDb. October 20, 2012. Event occurs at 22 minutes. Retrieved January 19, 2019. Maria Stanisheva (Director/Writer) Starring Nathan Phillips and Shoshana Phillips with music by Nathan Phillips.
  22. ^ Make It Bun Dem. May 1, 2012. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  23. ^ Marco Frucht (Director) (February 20, 2017). Nate Phillips Gives Skrillex A Shoutout From the DAPL protests. Event occurs at 83 seconds. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  24. ^ "Haaland condemns students' behavior toward Native elder at Indigenous Peoples March". The Hill. January 18, 2019. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  25. ^ a b Londberg, Max (January 19, 2019). "School faces backlash after incident at Indigenous Peoples March". Cincinnati Enquirer. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  26. ^ "Local high school 'looking into' incident at march in D.C." WCPO. January 19, 2019. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  27. ^ Cleve R. Wootson Jr.; Antonio Olivo; Cleve R. Wootson Jr. (January 22, 2019). "'It was getting ugly': Native American drummer speaks on his encounter with MAGA-hat-wearing teens". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 2, 2019. Surrounding him are a throng of young, mostly white teenage boys, several wearing “Make America Great Again” caps. One stood about a foot from the drummer’s face wearing a relentless smirk.
  28. ^ a b c "A tribal elder and a high school junior stood face to face, and the world reacted". The Washington Post. 2019.
  29. ^ a b c d Chamberlain, Samuel (January 20, 2019). "Kentucky student seen in viral confrontation with Native American speaks out". Fox News. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
  30. ^ "Covington Catholic students react to incident involving Native Americans in D.C." WKRC Cincinnati News. Park Hills, Kentucky. January 20, 2019. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
  31. ^ Brookbank, Sarah (January 20, 2019). "Longer video shows start of Covington Catholic incident at Indigenous Peoples March". Cincinnati Enquirer. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
  32. ^ Gallucci, Nicole (January 18, 2019). "Teens in MAGA hats sparked outrage after crashing the Indigenous Peoples March". Mashable. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  33. ^ Niraj Warikoo (January 24, 2019). "Native American leader of Michigan: 'Mob mentality' in students was 'scary'". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved January 30, 2019. "There was that moment when I realized I've put myself between beast and prey," Phillips said. "These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey,
  34. ^
  35. ^ "The Media Wildly Mischaracterized That Video of Covington Catholic Students Confronting a Native American Veteran". January 20, 2019.
  36. ^ a b Flanagan, Caitlin (January 23, 2019). "The Media Botched the Covington Catholic Story". The Atlantic. Retrieved January 25, 2019. ...while it does not fully exonerate the boys, it releases them from most of the serious charges...This is consistent with the long, harrowing statement that the smiling boy would release at the end of the weekend, in which he offered an explanation for his actions that is consistent with the video footage that has so far emerged, and revealed what happened to him in the 48 hours after Americans set to work doxing him and threatening his family with violence.
  37. ^ Stern, Mark Joseph (March 13, 2019). "The Legal Argument in Nicholas Sandmann's Defamation Lawsuits Is Basically "MAGA"". Slate Magazine.

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