The viral face-off between a drum-beating elder and a Catholic teen has spurred questions over whether the encounter was random or a “set-up” staged by political activists.
The crowd of boys from Covington Catholic High School was initially accused of harassing Nathan Phillips, a 63-year-old Omaha tribal elder, until extended video showed that he initiated contact with the teens, some of whom wore red Make America Great Again caps, at the Lincoln Memorial.
The episode was filmed by several adults accompanying Mr. Phillips, who has a history of political activism in Native American causes, including serving previously as director of the Native Youth Alliance and demonstrating at the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protest.
Val Andreev, a parent chaperone for the trip to Friday’s 46th annual March for Life, told the Cincinnati Enquirer that the boys were “set up for this event,” calling it “staged,” while another chaperone, Lisa Hamlin, said the teens were “targeted.”
“Our boys were targeted,” Ms. Hamlin told WKRC-TV in Cincinnati. “They were targeted from the get-go. Immediately there were all these people running around filming.”
Mr. Phillips did not return immediately Monday a request for comment, but Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesman for the Indigenous Peoples March and attorney with the Lakota People’s Law Project, told the Enquirer that the event wasn’t staged.
He also denied that any student was singled out, refuting a statement by Covington junior Nick Sandmann, who said that “it was clear to me that he [Mr. Phillips] had singled me out for a confrontation, although I am not sure why.”
“To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me,” Mr. Sandmann said. “We had already been yelled at by another group of protestors, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers.”
He referred to a handful of protesters with the Black Hebrew Israelites, who can be heard on video shouting homophobic and racial epithets at the students as they waited for a bus before Mr. Phillips and several others with the Indigenous Peoples March approached.
Mr. Phillips is known as a seasoned political activist in the town of Ypsilanti, Michigan, according to Ypsilanti Mayor Beth Bashert, who condemned the teens for their “shameful act of harassment and intimidation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.”
“As a long time resident of our town, Nathan has spoken at protests, city council, public meetings and events,” Ms. Bashert said in a weekend statement. “He has held Powwows in our parks, is a water protector who went to Standing Rock with his daughter, and has worked with the Native Youth Alliance locally.”
Michael Hichborn, president of the Lepanto Institute, a conservative Catholic group, said he believed the encounter was a “set-up” and that the teens were targeted for their MAGA hats.
“He [Phillips] is an experienced, veteran activist. He knew what he was doing when he approached those boys,” Mr. Hichborn said after reviewing multiple videos of the incident.
He added that “it seems likely that his intentions were politically motivated and aimed at President Trump and the border wall. I don’t think this had anything to do with the March for Life, though leftist publications used this as a way to push a false narrative that pro-lifers are racists.”
Mr. Phillips, who has said in several interviews that he was frightened during the incident, insisted that the boys chanted “build the wall,” although none of the videos posted so far shows that.
“I heard them saying, build that wall, build that wall.’ This is indigenous lands,” Mr. Phillips said on Instagram. “We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did, for a millennium. Before anybody else came here, we never had walls. We never had a prison.”
In 2015, Mr. Phillips said he was harassed by students dressed up as Indians for a party at Eastern Michigan University, telling Fox2 in Detroit that he filed a campus police report.
He was featured in a 2012 music video by the group Skrillex & Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, as flagged by Big League Politics, which told the story of a corrupt police officer who receives his comeuppance at the hands of a Native American teen.
Multiple news reports have described him as a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, although he has called himself a “Vietnam times” veteran.
“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,” he told Indian Country Today. “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.”
The Catholic teens were roundly condemned in media outlets Saturday, but some public figures said they were too quick to condemn after longer videos showed Mr. Phillips walking toward them and working his way into the group.
The March for Life retracted its initial tweet decrying the behavior, saying Sunday that “it is clear from new footage and additional accounts that there is more to this story than the original video captured.”
“There are two sides to every story,” tweeted actress Jamie Lee Curtis. “I made a snap judgment based on a photograph & I know better than to judge a book by its cover. I wasn’t there. I shouldn’t have commented. I’m glad there wasn’t violence. I hope [these] two men can meet and find common ground as can WE ALL!”
The Diocese of Covington in Kentucky has apologized to Mr. Phillips and said it is conducting an investigation, which could result in discipline, including expulsion.
• Christopher Vondracek and James Varney contributed to this report.