The Smearing of Nathan Phillips

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This was always where this story was headed.

The news cycle that’s played out in the wake of the Covington Catholic incident on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial has been painfully and stubbornly predictable. There was the initial backlash to the teens. Then the backlash to the backlash. The parents of Nick Sandmann, the infamous white smirking teen in the initial video, hired a GOP-loving PR firm to imprint stale commentary into said kid’s mind. Mainstream media bent over backwards and spanked its own ass in the name of cognitive dissonance. Then there was the backlash to that backlash. And now, we have arrived at the latest low point in this incredibly inane cycle: the smearing of Nathan Phillips, the Omaha elder who stepped in between the Covington crowd and the five Black Israelites screaming at everyone present.

On Thursday, the New York Post published a report laying out Phillips’ arrest record. The article was little more than an aggregated report of a piece published by the Washington Examiner. I will not be linking to either post; feel free to search them out, if you’re interested. But here’s what the intrepid dickheads at the Post and Examiner unearthed:


Phillips was arrested 45 years ago when he was 19 years old for getting drunk and getting in a fight in Lincoln, Nebraska. At the time, he was going by his adoptive name, Nathaniel Stanard. He then tried to run from prison or from some guards—it’s unclear based on the cited report—and was handed a $500 bond. The Examiner cited an arrest record shown in the Lincoln Journal Star on May 9, 1974, as proof. (If we’re keeping track of every little detail, which it seems we are, the Examiner actually has the wrong date, as the arrest report appeared in the May 8 edition of the Star, not May 9.) The paper then went on to point out that Phillips never served overseas in Vietnam (which he has never claimed) and then attempted to play “Gotcha!” by citing a portion of an interview in which he told Rewire that his Omaha elders wouldn’t have allowed him to behave the way the Covington children did, the underlying idea being that he himself was a trouble-making teen.

Naturally, the necessary background is relegated to the bottom two paragraphs of the Examiner article. Phillips was taken from his parents at the age of five years old and placed in foster care, which gave way to alcoholism, which gave way to arrests, which led him to the military. He has spent the last 34 years of his life in sobriety. This phenomenon—of Native children being snatched from their communities and relocated to white families for assimilation—was and is incredibly common and the lingering side effects of the American-sponsored programs are just now starting to be understood by Native peoples. If you’d like to read more about the ongoing legal assault by conservatives and the Goldwater Institute on the Indian Child Welfare Act, you can do so here and here.


Neither the Examiner or the Post mentioned what Phillips has spent the ensuing decades of his life doing—namely, serving as director of the Native Youth Alliance, standing up for land and water rights at Standing Rock, and returning to Arlington to honor fallen veterans with a sacred pipe he has carried for the past 27 years. The simple reason for the exclusion is that those facts did not fit the narrative they hoped to sell. The more complex one is that even if they had included any of those details, the average American’s understanding of Native-specific issues, rituals, and general history is so misaligned that including it with simple arrest and military records would have done nothing but obscure a piece of inessential drivel.

The worst part about all of this—and it is all terrible, minus the cacophony of Native voices that rang out in response—is that this news cycle isn’t done yet. There’s still the inevitable White House visit, a likely televised discussion between the Covington teen and Phillips, and the continued erasure of Native voices by the mainstream media all quickly approaching on the horizon. By the time this is all done, two weeks will have passed by and I’ll have aged 40 years.