Native American elder Nathan Phillips, who has made headlines everywhere after a video showed him in a face-off with a Catholic school student in front of the Lincoln Memorial, spoke at length with CNN the day after the incident.
Phillips described what he felt was hatred coming from the young people in the crowd, who are pupils at Covington Catholic School in Kentucky and who had traveled to the nation’s capital to attend the March for Life rally, also held Friday.
The interview was conducted Saturday after the video went viral. Since the interview, the diocese in charge of the school has denounced the students’ actions, a lawmaker has defended them and the boy in the video, Nick Sandmann, has denied characterizations of his and his classmates’ behavior and said he was simply standing in front of Phillips to let him know he wouldn’t be baited into an altercation.
Also, several new videos have surfaced, including one showing the students engaging in a “Tomahawk chop,” mocking the Native Americans, and another showing a group of Hebrew Israelites hurling slurs and epithets at the teenagers both before Phillips arrived on the scene and after he left.
Here is the transcript of Phillips’ interview, which has been lightly edited for flow and content:
CNN: Tell us what happened, what transpired between you and the young people who were all standing around you? How did you end up surrounded by this group of young people with the MAGA hats on?
Phillips: There was a disturbance there on the Lincoln Monument grounds. We were finishing up with Indigenous Peoples March and rally and there were some folks there that were expressing their (First Amendment) rights there, freedom of speech. … Then there was this young group of young students that came there and were offended by their speech, and it escalated into an ugly situation that I found myself in the middle of. Yeah, I found myself in the middle of it, sort of woke up to it.
CNN: You just sort of decided to try and stop this or at least have an impact on it, calm the waters. Is that right?
Phillips: Yes, that’s the impression that everybody has, and I guess that’s what I was doing. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. When I started taking those steps and using the drum, it was just spur of the moment. I don’t like to say it that way, but it was just, “What do you do? What do you do now?” Here’s a moment where something that’s really ugly in our society, in America, something that’s just come to a boiling point, as they say. Does that make sense?
CNN: Sure. So you’re sort of in between these two groups, yes?
CNN: What happened? What is it like standing there?
Phillips: When my young friend that came up there said, “Let’s hit the drum” because there’s a point there where it just got to really a crescendo, I think they say it sometimes, but it was like the thunder, the storm was coming.
CNN: What did it feel like that you were witnessing?
Phillips: Oh, what I was witnessing was just hate? Racism? Well, hate. What I’m saying is that when these folks came there, these other folks were saying their piece, and these others they got offended with it because they were both just expressing their own views. And if it’s racism, that’s what it was because the folks that were having their moment there, they were saying things that I don’t know if I agreed with them or not, but some of it was educational, and it was truth, and it was history about religious views and ideologies, but these other folks, the young students, they couldn’t see it. They had one point of view, it seemed, and that was that their point of view was the only point of view that was worthwhile. And that’s now what I was feeling.
CNN: Were you trying to calm the situation down basically when you saw kind of things seemed to spiral out of control?
Phillips: I think so. I think that was the push, that we need to use the drum, use our prayer and bring a balance, bring a calming to the situation. I didn’t assume that I had any kind of power to do that, but at the same time, I didn’t feel that I could just stand there anymore and not do something. It looked like these young men were going to attack these guys. They were going to hurt them. They were going to hurt them because they didn’t like the color of their skin. They didn’t like their religious views. They were just here in front of the Lincoln – Lincoln is not my hero, but at the same time, there was this understanding that he brought the (Emancipation Proclamation) or freed the slaves, and here are American youth who are ready to, look like, lynch these guys. To be honest, they looked like they were going to lynch them. They were in this mob mentality. Where were their parents? Because they were obvious a student group. Where were their–
Phillips: Yeah, chaperones. Where were they? What were they doing? Why did they allow them to come to such a boiling point? To allow such hate and racism, just to be – just to be, and not teach them that this is wrong. America foundations, freedoms, the reason white people came to this country is for freedom of religion, freedom of speech. Not to allow these men to have their freedom to say what they felt was hurting them as a people, as a religion. I was listening to what they were saying. I was there for a different purpose.
CNN: Let me ask you about what happened to you. These boys in the middle of this group and you find yourself surrounded. How did that happen and what did that feel like as a person standing there face to face with a young man who seems to be staring at you or glaring at you? How would you describe that moment?
Phillips: When I was there and I was standing there and I seen that group of people in front of me and I seen the angry faces and all of that, I realized I had put myself in a really dangerous situation. Here’s a group of people who were angry at somebody else and I put myself in front of that, and all of a sudden, I’m the one whose all that anger and all that wanting to have the freedom to just rip me apart, that was scary. And I’m a Vietnam times veteran and I know that mentality of “There’s enough of us. We can do this.”
CNN: The young man that was standing in front of you, what was he doing and what was he trying to do as you were playing the drum. Were you fearful? Were you trying to leave?