Nathan Phillips wants what happened Sunday to be a learning experience for Kentucky high school student Nick Sandmann

By Diane Herbst
January 21, 2019 07:16 PM
Hunter Hooligan Instagram

By now, millions have seen the viral video of Native American elder Nathan Phillips playing a drum and chanting as, just steps from the Lincoln Memorial, he stood face to face with Nick Sandmann, a smiling 11th grader in a red “Make America Great Again” hat.

Behind the duo, a large group of kids — many also in MAGA apparel — were seen laughing and mimicking Phillips’ chants while Sandmann peered down at Phillips with a smirk.

When the Kentucky church diocese, which oversees the Covington Catholic High School where Sandmann is a junior, said in a statement it “will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,” Phillips tells PEOPLE that he, at first, didn’t want any punishment for students.

But Phillips, 64, changed his tune after Sandmann released a statement Sunday night, in which the teen condemned ‘misinformation’ and ‘outright lies’ and also painted Phillips as the aggressor.

“He locked eyes with me and approached me,” the student wrote of Phillips, “coming within inches of my face.”

Says Phillips, a father of two: “At first I only wanted chaperones and teachers to be fired right away to never let that kind of situation to happen. I didn’t ask for an apology.

“Now today, since I’ve heard Mr. Sandmann’s statement and how he’s tried to flip the narrative on me, maybe he needs to have some kind of cultural sensitivity training, maybe that’s what he needs.”

Earlier in the day, Phillips, a member of the Omaha tribe, participated in the Indigenous Peoples’ March, with spirited singing and a rally. “It was not a protest,” Phillips says.

On the edges of their gathering, a group of four or five African American men who call themselves the Hebrew Israelites taunted his group. As dusk approached, the teens from Kentucky, who had just attended the March for Life, began gathering at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The Hebrew Israelites turned their attention to them.

“They [the Hebrew Israelites] were like the Westboro Baptist Church folks, that is what these guys reminded me of,” Phillips says in a phone interview, “but they were black instead of white.”

The crowd of well over 100 teens felt like a “mob” to Phillips as they exchanged taunts with the African American men. One student stripped off his shirt and shouted as others cheered him on, a video shows.

Nathan Phillips
Michael Nigro/Sipa

Phillips didn’t wish to repeat to PEOPLE the racist words the teens shouted, but he told The Washington Post that he heard the students say “Go back to Africa” and that some chanted “build that wall, build that wall.”

Sandmann, in his statement, said he “did not witness or hear any students chant ‘build that wall’ or anything hateful or racist at any time. Assertions to the contrary are simply false.”

“The protestors said hateful things,” he wrote. “They called us ‘racists,’ ‘bigots,’ ‘white crackers,’ ‘f—–s,’ and ‘incest kids.’”

The students responded by chanting “school spirit chants” one would hear at sporting events to “counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group,” Sandmann claimed.

About this time, a younger member of the Indigenous Peoples March said to Phillips ‘We need to do something,'” Phillips recalls.

He slowly began walking to both groups, singing a traditional chant and playing the drum. “I sang that song for my country, for my children, for all of our children,” Phillips says. “They were acting not only as an angry, ugly mob but foolish. What is it about these four black men that you want to come at them with a mob mentality?”

“I wanted to go there,” he says, “and stand between these two groups who are trying to tear my country apart.”

Phillips walked through the crowd toward the Lincoln Memorial “to take my prayer up there.” The teens in the crowd moved aside until he encountered Sandmann.

“I thought, ‘You are not going to let me go? Here you are smiling at me and not letting me go?'” says Phillips.

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Sandmann saw the situation differently.

“To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me,” he 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.”

Hunter Hooligan, with Phillips during the encounter, writes in New York Magazine that as Phillips continued to sing and play his drum while staring into Sandmann’s eyes, “We all huddled around him as the other boys began to push, prod, and bump us into a tighter and tighter cluster. They were mocking Nathan’s sacred music with purposefully disrespectful dancing and a perverted imitation of his singing.”

And why not go around the teen?

Phillips took Sandmann’s behavior as one of disrespect for an elder who honorably served in the military. “I was standing there as a peacekeeper,” says Phillips. “I was afraid for my people also, the indigenous people.”