Indigenous Intervention During MAGA Confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial: What Prompted the Actions of Veteran Nathan Phillips

Written by Christine Nobiss, MA and edited by the Seeding Sovereignty collective.

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The Indigenous Peoples March held on January, 18th in Washington, DC was organized with the intent of “uniting the Indigenous peoples across the world to stand together to bring awareness to the injustices affecting Indigenous men, women, children & two spirits.” However, a couple hours after its completion in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a small group of Indigenous and ally water protectors intervened during a racist confrontation exemplifying the issues they had just addressed.

Screenshot of video footage by Reuters.

Screenshot of video footage by Reuters.

The group entered into an acute microcosm of the colonized American experience, where two groups from different ends of the political spectrum became embroiled in a dispute fueled by party affiliation and religious beliefs. According to people interviewed, the first group was made up of what is believed to be five Black Hebrews (a.k.a. Black Hebrew Israelites), and the second group were a couple hundred teenagers from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School and other religious schools who had attended a March for Life demonstration. Many of these students were sporting Make America Great Again (MAGA) hats and shirts. Despite coming from very different segments of society, these groups both exemplified religious extremism, racialized nationalism and, not surprisingly, a shared disdain for Indigenous values and rights to the land.

From what can be seen in an almost two hour video posted by one of the preachers and from information provided by a group of water protectors in an interview with Seeding Sovereignty, the incident that occurred, took place over a few hours. Both the video and the interview support the fact that the group of men were initially directing hate speech towards women, Indigenous peoples, and LGBTQ+ folk gathered after the Indigenous People’s March.

Over the course of the video, several people approached the men to confront them on their disturbing anti-Indigenous, misogynistic and homophobic remarks. According to those interviewed, they said things like, “You are not savages! You are the children of God! You are the children of Israel before you started worshiping totem poles.” They attacked Indigenous spiritual beliefs and argued, “You’re not supposed to worship buffaloes, eagles, or rams! All type of animals, this is the reason why the Lord took away your land.” Later, they yelled, “You worship the creations and not the creator...That’s the reason why Standing Rock ain’t standing no damn more.”

When confronted by an Indigenous woman, the cameraman went off on a tirade, saying, “Always our women coming up with their loudmouths. Looking like they can run in and bogart things. Thinking they can come and distract things with their loud ass mouth because they’re not used to dealing with no real men. And you think we’re supposed to bow down to your damn emotions when you come and run your mouth and distract what we’re doing instead of coming with order and with a real dialogue. She’s coming around here and being wicked.” At one point the men also attacked the LGBTQ+ community with, “He said God shall not be a f**got. God shall not be a lesbian.”

The whole time that the men were preaching, there were hundreds of Indigenous people engaged with the march’s program that had just concluded, still round dancing, and networking. Nathan Phillips (Omaha), Raymond Kingfisher (Northern Cheyenne), Genevieve Houck (non-native ally), Ashley Bell, Pete Coe (Northern Ute) and Jerica Meditz (non-native Ally) travelled to DC to celebrate community, empower Indigenous voices, and address pressing issues. This group of friends has remained close since Standing Rock, and regularly meet up during events just like the Indigenous Peoples March.

Recalling the incident during the interview, Raymond stated that the men were being offensive. He also noticed that during the closing ceremonies of the march, that a growing group of teenage boys became increasingly engaged with the men who were responding to the MAGA gear the boys were wearing. At the beginning of the incident, as you can hear in the full length video, one of the preachers said, “That’s why you have the little Billy over there with their Make America Great Hats, with the little Kanye ni**ers next to them.” Later they ask, “When has America ever been great to the black man or American Indians? America has only been great for you damn p*cker woods...America was only great when you had free labor.”

During the length of the video, the banter between the two groups became heated, and the group of teenagers eventually swelled to about 100-200. The large mob eventually surrounded the preachers and they so they intensely redirected their focus on the teenagers. They yelled sentiments like, “We love white people as much as Donald Trump loves us...The shutdown is going to trickle down. It will be survival of the fittest. You aren’t going to be able to call 911. The purge is coming...This is what America creates, a**holes...look at these demons, vicious crowd..You want to build a wall with Mexico. When was the last time you have seen a Mexican, or a n*gro, or a Native American shoot up a school? You have some nerve wanting to build a wall on stolen land.”

During the tirade, the teenagers increased in number and as their group grew, the more they retaliated against the men preaching. They chanted, carried out a fake haka dance and It must be noted that their choice to wear MAGA gear was the catalyst for this series of events. MAGA gear, in the eyes of many, is just one step shy from a full-on KKK suit, and many believe that the gear openly signifies a white-supremacist stance, and a goal to maintain the heteropatriarchy. In the 2016 election, Trump brought in a very large number of the right-wing religious vote, which largely encompasses the Evangelicals and Catholics. According to statistics, Trump won 81 percent of evangelical votes based on their entrenched conservative views. Though there is not a hard statistic for Catholics specifically, it is well known that the votes cast for Trump’s conservative agenda was uncomfortably large.

There is little doubt that the teenagers wearing the MAGA gear, who were in DC to participate in the March for Life, have views not far from the Trump administration, which is focused on maintaining a culture of whiteness and protecting their elitist place of profit and comfortability. Through proud affiliation with Trump (and the fact they are white males), the MAGA kids are promoting xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and white supremacy.

It is also important to note that Black Hebrews are groups that follow a larger religious ideology that grew out of Black liberation at the end of the 19th century in response to the physical and psychological damage that slavery and white supremacy inflicted upon African Americans and non-Whites. Originally, it was not created with an extremist stance and, to this day, it is overarchingly a peaceful religion. However, as with most religions affiliated with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there are extremist sects that espouse hate speech. The irony about this incident is that this religion, founded to liberate African-Americans, also believes that Indigenous people are descendants of a lost tribe of Israel and thus, they are participating in the ongoing colonial agenda of Indigenous dispossession of land, culture, spirituality and values.

There came a point where the vehement rhetoric from both sides was at a boiling point. The MAGA kids, as Ashley Bell described to us, “became a raging, arrogant, very synchronized mob that acted and chanted like they were at a sporting event.” The whole group of boys had slogans memorized and worked in unison to mock the five men, who continued on their quest to convert Indigenous people, and make heated remarks to the MAGA kids about the history of slavery, the wall, and much more.

Uncle Nate. By Rebecca Bengal.

Uncle Nate. By Rebecca Bengal.

It was at this point that Nathan Phillips, Omaha Nation and veteran, and co-founder of the Native Youth Alliance, decided to lead a small group of singers and drummers in between the crowd to de-escalate the situation with prayer. With his drum in hand, he walked toward the MAGA boys and began to sing the American Indian Movement song. The boys, finding a new target to insult, swarmed around Nathan and began mocking him and chanting phrases like, “Build the wall,” and, “Gone in 2020.” These are phrases that were heard and reported by people entangled in the mob but not captured on video. The men preaching commented on Nathan’s strength, and applauded that he “calmed down the demons,” which is a title used by some sects of Black Hebrews to describe white people based on the colonial atrocities they have committed.  

Nathan’s companions were concerned, but they stood in unity with him, ready to protect him should any physical violence occur. Water protectors adhere to a code of nonviolence, and were more concerned about the actions of the teenagers. In remembering the event, Ashley said it was a very ironic moment where the white teenagers wearing MAGA hats so easily turned their attention on an Indigenous elder who was attempting to keep the peace. In response to their behavior, Nathan reportedly said, “Relatives, let's make America great.” Ashley adamantly believes that Nathan was implying that America was never great, but that the boys could make a difference if they stopped what they were doing. Genevieve recalled that Nathan was holding steadfast in his prayer, and not allowing any of the intimidation tactics to affect him.

One of the boys, Nick Sandmann, decided to take things to the next level and walked up to Nathan to engage in a stare down with him. As Genevieve described it, the kid that was staring him down was visibly shaken by the end. You could tell he wanted to stop and he almost cried. It was a very uncomfortable standoff that Nick caused for himself. She also described it as a moment where the boy looked like he was feeling peer pressure to engage in an act that he increasingly wanted to end while Nathan kept singing and praying in a calm manner and let the boy stare.

The group of water protectors did all they could to hold space and pray with Nathan, and just as quickly as it began, it ended. They agree that the one of the strangest moments was when the altercation ended. Immediately, and in unison, when the boys were told their bus had arrived, they turned and ran away without a word. The preachers then continued with their same agenda, and seeing that there was no further escalation between adults and children, Nathan and his crew left.

The different behaviors displayed over the course of this incident gives insight to the serious repercussions of colonization. It was a convergence where white supremacy met extremist Black liberation theology, and Indigenous people became a cornerstone. As the inherent stewards of this land, Indigenous people often become cornerstone in the complicated struggle between colonization and decolonization. In their struggle for Black liberation, the Black Hebrews attacked Indigenous ideologies in order to advance their belief about the lost tribes of Israel, which empowers their identity politics. In fact, they identified as Indigenous at one point in the video. To see the men preaching and then move their attention from their intended goal of converting Indigenous people to calling out teenagers for their display of MAGA wear, is to see how people of color are constantly navigating a complex, and divided society created by colonial violence.

The MAGA kids, though they might not fully understand the layers of racism shimmering behind their blind support for the “Make America Great Again” rhetoric, have a goal as well, which is to maintain white supremacy and religious extremism in order keep the heteropatriarchal government intact. Part of the ongoing goal of white supremacy in so-called America is to see Indigenous people disappear via the help of a wall or perhaps something more atrocious that they are too young to imagine, which was evident as they chanted, “Gone by 2020.” Though the boys are now doing their best to deny their racist behavior, the evidence is clearly splashed all over the internet.

Nathan Phillips dancing with Carolyn Christmas, Mi’kmaq, during a break from the Standing Rock prayer walk in February 2018. By Rebecca Bengal

Nathan Phillips dancing with Carolyn Christmas, Mi’kmaq, during a break from the Standing Rock prayer walk in February 2018. By Rebecca Bengal

This behavior promotes Trump’s fascist agenda, and in the eyes of many, Nathan acted peacefully to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation. Nathan and those he was with intervened with an Indigenous response to the Black Hebrew’s hate speech, the students’ MAGA wear, and their disturbing response to the testimony being given by the men. Nathan is not only a Marine Corps veteran; he is a veteran of the Indigenous resistance. His resistant and loving nature has already been captured in a Skrillex & Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley video where they sing, “Defeating the foes, we weather the most, never yet falter, never yet flop, never yet halt and never yet stop.”

Christine Nobiss