Omaha Tribe member Nathan Phillips in spotlight in face of taunting teens

Omaha Tribe member Nathan Phillips in spotlight in face of taunting teens
In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 image made from video provided by the Survival Media Agency, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington in Kentucky is looking into this and other videos that show youths, from the diocese's all-male Covington Catholic High School, mocking Native Americans at a rally in Washington. Survival Media Agency via AP

An Omaha Tribe member was put in the national spotlight Saturday as video went viral of a high school student wearing a Make America Great Again hat standing and smirking in front of him and a crowd of boys yelling around him.

The Native American man, identified as Nathan Phillips, drummed on during the Indigenous Peoples March in the face of the students’ behavior. Phillips is originally from Nebraska and an elder in the Omaha Tribe.

The incident happened Friday on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

In 2000, the Omaha World-Herald wrote a profile on Phillips, who at the time was conducting a vigil with his family for the entire month of November on the National Mall.

Vincent Schilling reported Saturday on Indian Country Today that Phillips, a Vietnam veteran, was singing the “American Indian Movement Song.” The boys are students of Covington Catholic High School, a private all-boys school in northern Kentucky outside Cincinnati, who were in Washington for the March for Life.

Schilling, a correspondent for Indian Country Today who has written about Phillips, said he is “appalled at the level of disrespect” displayed by the boys in the video.

“I am outraged, furious, yet heartbroken,” Schilling said. “I hope there can be some lessons learned here.”

The high school and Diocese of Covington released a statement condemning the students’ actions and apologizing to Phillips, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. It read:

“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 following story originally ran in the Omaha World-Herald on Nov. 26, 2000.

Spiritual Journey Grounded in Mall Prayer Vigil

For 26 days now, Nebraska native Nathan Phillips has conducted a personal, somewhat eccentric vigil on Washington’s National Mall.

Joined by his companion, Shoshana Konstant, and their two small children, Phillips plans to spend all of November praying for his fellow American Indians from one of three tepee lodges he’s set up on an expanse of grass between the Washington Monument and the White House.

A member of Nebraska’s Omaha Tribe, Phillips says he doesn’t consider himself a protester but rather a man answering a call to honor his people and his Creator.

“I would call myself a spiritual runner, ” he said.

Born and raised in Lincoln, Phillips conducted his first monthlong prayer session last year in conjunction with Native American Heritage Month. Joined by Konstant and their kids — 3-year-old Zakiah and 14-month-old Alethea — Phillips spends his time praying and tending to a fire inside a canvas lodge that for weeks has served as the family’s primary home.

Those searching for a neatly packaged social studies lesson, however, won’t find it at Nathan Phillips’ prayer lodge.

While friendly enough, Phillips directs most onlookers away from the lodge where he lives, sleeps and prays. He asks them instead to peek inside two other lodges set up nearby — one for storage and one for display. And he almost always demurs when tourists ask him to pose for photos.

“They want us to be happy Indians for them, ” he said. “They don’t want to hear about the struggle.”

That struggle, as Phillips explains it, involves centuries of religious, economic and cultural oppression of American Indians.

More personally, he says, it involves his own fight against alcoholism, a childhood floating through foster homes in Nebraska, and an early adulthood spent first in the Marine Corps and later being thrown in and out of jail.

Now 45, Phillips has been sober for 16 years. He met Shoshana Konstant, a former middle school teacher, in 1990. For several years, the couple bounced around the country agitating on behalf of American Indians being displaced from their homelands.

They settled in Washington, D.C., about six years ago, Phillips said, after their truck broke down and caught fire during a demonstration in front of the White House.

When asked about his reasons for living for 30 days on the Mall, Phillips doesn’t offer an easy or quick answer.

“It’s just everything, ” he says, sitting beside the fire. “We’ve got so many issues in Indian country.”

After struggling for a few more minutes, Phillips expands his cause to include suffering children in Africa and the soldiers left missing in action in Vietnam.

“This is not just for the Indian people, ” he says. “It’s for everybody.”

In fact, Phillips and Konstant seem better able to live their cause than to explain it.

Their lodge flaps and creaks in the cold autumn wind. At the center, the well-fed fire burns from a square, iron platform required by the National Park Service.

A buffalo skull and small bundles of sage, cedar and sweet grass form the basis of a ceremonial altar at one side of the lodge.

Sleeping pads line two sides of the fire. Everywhere there is evidence of everyday life: blankets, pillows, children’s toys, a box of doughnuts, a cell phone.

Outside, a sizable pile of firewood props up a black-and-white POW-MIA flag and a banner of the Omaha Tribe in Iowa and Nebraska.

Phillips’ dog, Jake, watches over the encampment, sounding an alarm when strangers approach.

For now, the lodge serves also as the family’s home between homes.

For years, Phillips and Konstant lived out of a run-down house in Washington frequented by itinerant hippies. More recently, they moved into an unfinished basement rented out by a storeowner in Washington’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood.

This month, they’re moving into a better place, Phillips said, with a reliable landlord, a lease and a roof that doesn’t leak.

Back in Nebraska, Omaha tribal Chairman Elmer Blackbird did not return calls seeking comment about Phillips’ vigil.

Privately, another tribal leader said Phillips is regarded back in Nebraska as a well-intentioned brother struggling to cope with a troubled childhood. The leader said the Omaha Tribe generally avoids the type of activism Phillips prefers.

“He’s just trying to find his way, ” the leader said. “Let him find it.”

In Washington, Phillips’ high-profile patch of real estate attracts the attention of all sorts of people.

Floyd Wilson, an area resident who works for the federal government, stopped by one cold morning recently to offer Phillips coffee and a few stacks of cedar firewood. Wilson said he wanted to show his support after sitting and listening to Phillips.

“I’m bringing him coffee, ” Wilson grinned. “I’m bringing him love. I’m bringing him peace, happiness and goodness.”

At other times, tourists stop by for snapshots. Homeless people stop by for shelter. Boorish people stop by to offer uninvited advice and to reinforce their own prejudices about American Indians.

The Washington Post even stopped by, publishing a lengthy essay last week connecting Phillips’ vigil to a well-mannered protest of Thanksgiving.

Although Phillips did begin his annual fast on Thanksgiving Day, he said the holiday actually has little to do with his presence on the Mall.

Officially, Phillips says, the vigil is to benefit his organization: the Native Youth Alliance.

Kneeling on one knee and one foot, Phillips talks excitedly about creating “culturally appropriate” homes for Indian children who have been separated from their parents. The idea, he says, is to keep kids connected to their culture.

It’s a personal issue for Phillips, who was forcibly removed from his parents’ home at age 5.

Later, Phillips says he also wants to found Head Start for American Indian children, along with a community center and health-care facility.

Phillips’ stated goals range from the practical to the dreamy.

While Konstant soon will start work at a local Head Start, Phillips concedes that his organization remains far away from its other goals. He has no office, no funding, no grants and no one working for him.

And at times, Phillips seems as much caught up in his own spiritual journey as the practical aspects of running an organization.

A construction worker by trade, Phillips works odd jobs when he can find them. But he says his personal dreams usually take precedence over the American dream.

“Why can’t I just be an American, ” he asks himself aloud, “get my contracting license, get a Range Rover and buy a $20,000 bass boat?”

Then, he tries to answer his own question.

“There is a purpose for all this, ” he continues, gesturing around the lodge. “I just don’t know it yet.”​

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