Long before the world heard of Nathan Phillips following a faceoff with students in Washington, D.C., his fellow Native American activists knew his work

By Diane Herbst
January 24, 2019 07:55 AM
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Nathan Phillips
Michael Nigro/Sipa

This not the first time Nathan Phillips has made headlines.

Long before the world got to know the 64-year-old seen drumming and singing during a controversial faceoff with Kentucky high schooler Nick Sandmann in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial on Friday, his fellow Native American activists were familiar with his work.

Back in 2000, Phillips, an elder in the Omaha tribe, camped out with his wife and two kids for the month of November in teepees near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — a vigil for Native American Heritage Month.

“We’re here to pray for those who are suffering,” Phillips told The Washington Post at the time, “and to remind people that a lot of American Indians don’t have too much to be thankful for.”

Phillips’ life has continued to center around raising awareness of Native American issues, through marches, talks and gatherings.

The loquacious founder of the Native Youth Alliance, a grassroots indigenous awareness group, and his teenage daughter, Alethea, came to Standing Rock, North Dakota, in November 2016, to stop the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

This was about a year after the death of his wife, Shoshana, from multiple myeloma, a rare blood plasma cancer that affects the bone marrow. Father and daughter planned a short visit.

But “the connection I felt, I said, ‘Dad there is no way we can leave,’ ” Alethea, 19, tells PEOPLE, “and he is the one who stayed with me for four months in minus 50 degree weather.”

The pair lived in teepees until February 2017, when the North Dakota governor shut the protest down.

Last February, Phillips returned to Standing Rock for a 40-mile prayer-walk he led through falling snow and frigid temperatures. He plans to return to North Dakota for another prayer-walk next month. Its purpose, he told Vogue last year, is to “carry prayers where that pipeline crossed our sacred grounds. We want to heal the land; maybe we want to heal ourselves, too.”

Phillips is quick to admit he’s been healing for years from a traumatic childhood.

A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, and the youngest of 11, Phillips was taken from his mother at 5. He was raised by a white foster family with limited interaction with his Omaha tribe’s culture and biological family.

It was at a time, he tells PEOPLE, when the United States had a policy of separating Native American children from their families.

“I was told my mom was no good, I was told my dad was no good,” Phillips says. “When they were telling me these things I was being hit with a belt, with a fly swatter.”

Sometime in high school — when he was about the same age as the teenage boy who faced off with him in D.C. last week — Phillips’ foster father knocked him out and left him lying on the kitchen floor for meeting up with a white woman and coming home with a hickey, he says.

Nick Steadmann (center left) facing Nathan Phillips
Hunter Hooligan Instagram
Nathan Phillips
Michael Nigro/Sipa

Phillips ran away and joined the Marines at 17, serving for four years. Afterward he lived in California, working construction and odd jobs. (According to archival reports in the Lincoln Journal Star, Phillips had a series of run-ins with Nebraska police in 1974, including pleading guilty to assault that July, for which he was fined $200.)

By 1985 he completely gave up alcohol for the sake of participating in traditional practices, which eschew drinking.

“I went through a lot of ceremonies,” he says, “to come out without hate in my heart.” He’s been sober for 34 years.

As Phillips embraced indigenous traditions, he moved to D.C., working construction between founding the Native Youth Alliance. The family eventually landed in Michigan.

Since his wife’s 2015 death, Phillips and his daughter have redoubled their advocacy of issues affecting Native Americans and their lands.

They’ve trekked to New York City to demand Wells Fargo and Mayor Bill de Blasio divest from fossil fuels and gone to Washington state to protest natural gas fracking.

In April, Alethea and her dad spoke at the United Nations as part of the U.N.’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; in the summer, they protested the KXL pipeline in Nebraska, hosting an encampment and horseback ride.

Alethea didn’t accompany Phillips to D.C. for the Indigenous Peoples March last week, which preceded his run-in with the Kentucky students, many of whom were wearing “Make America Great Again” and other apparel in support of President Donald Trump.

But from their Michigan home she is helping her father deal with the continued fallout from Friday’s encounter amid competing accounts of what happened, including tweets about it from Trump.

She’s received threats via social media (the Catholic school the students attend says it has also been threatened) while Nathan tells PEOPLE he’s “laying low” in D.C. at an undisclosed location due to security concerns.

“I am incredibly proud of my father for what he did,” says Alethea, a photographer and filmmaker. “My dad was there to sing his songs and represent himself and represent us peacefully. That is one of the largest statements we can make: Speaking out against hate.”

On Monday, Phillips told PEOPLE that the teenage boy who stood before him, Nick Sandmann, needed cultural sensitivity training. For his part, Sandmann told Today that he didn’t feel he was disrespectful and was trying to stay “calm” during the encounter, smiling to signal his good will.

Phillips now wishes to travel to the students’ Covington Catholic High School and talk with them about “cultural appropriation, racism, and the importance of listening to and respecting diverse cultures,” according to a release from the Indigenous Peoples Movement.

“What’s next for me,” Phillips says, “is to bring awareness of what is happening and continue with my prayers and help the youth.”