The Nathan Phillips incident: A long day of worldwide news and a school apology

Vincent Schilling

Nathan Phillips trends on social media, and the #MAGA hat-wearing, March for Life students are being held accountable

Update: This story has been updated to show the discovery of Nathan Phillips' military history as unveiled by Navy SEAL Don Shipley.

Saturday, January 19 may well go down in Native history as a day in which the world was alerted to the story of the Native elder and Vietnam-era Veteran Nathan Phillips. Many say he was literally mobbed by a large group of non-Native students from Covington Catholic High School, who taunted, mocked and intimidated him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the end of the day’s Indigenous People’s March.

Media outlets all over the world reported on the incident.

Early in the day, the USA Network’s Cincinnati Enquirer, reported the school had responded to the public, "Covington Catholic High School has said that students could be expelled after a video went viral, showing an incident where students who were in Washington D.C. for the March for Life surrounded indigenous marchers at a different event."

As stated on the school's website, the students should be held accountable for harassment and/or bullying. On the school’s ‘Code of Conduct” web page, the seventh rule listed under DETENTION, SATURDAY SCHOOL, EXCLUSION, SUSPENSION OR EXPULSION, states harassment is unacceptable:

Harassment and/or bullying which includes but is not limited to: face-to-face harassment or name-calling, threats, unwelcome jokes, written harassment of any kind, defamation of character/spreading gossip about another person, unwelcome physical contact, or cyber-bullying.

The school and Kentucky Catholic Church issued a statement

Shortly after the incident involving Nathan Phillips, the Covington Catholic High School converted all of their social media pages to private, and the ability to access the school’s contact page is now password protected. But the school issued an official public statement.

At the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, a website that is described as “Representing the Roman Catholic Church and Kentucky's dioceses in public policy matters,” posted the following:

Statement on the actions of Covington Catholic High School students 19 Jan.

The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School have issued the following statement:

We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general, Jan. 18, after the March for Life, in Washington, D.C. We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.

The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.

We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement.

The Archbishop of Louisville joined in condemning the actions of the students on Twitter as well as on his own blog. In which he said, “I join with Bishop Foys in condemning the actions of the Covington Catholic students towards Mr. Nathan Phillips and the Native American Community yesterday in Washington. I have every confidence that the leadership of the Diocese of Covington will thoroughly investigate what occurred and address those all involved in this shameful act of disrespect.”

So what happened at the march?

The school’s website stated students were headed out to the March for Life event supporting unborn child rights based on Catholic beliefs. They joined other organizations all who came to DC. According to a Newport Central Catholic Facebook post and image, approximately 1,100 students and chaperones converged on Washington DC for the March for Life.

Nathan Phillips was ending his AIM song after a day in DC for the Indigenous Peoples Day March. Witnesses at the incident say Phillips was suddenly bombarded by a large group of males wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. Phillips told the Washington Post that he wanted to find a way to get out of the situation, but a young man blocked his way and then the situation continued to intensify.

The resulting videos went viral and made national news. CBC, CNN, USA TODAY and NBC Nightly News reported on the incident as well as a multitude of online media publications internationally.

Nathan Phillips spoke after the incident, he said “these are indigenous lands, we never had walls,” in response to the “Build a Wall, Build a Wall” chants.

Worldwide outrage and support

Throughout the day, hundreds of emails came into Indian Country Today, expressing apologies, outrage, and support for Nathan Phillips. Messages came in from Ireland, Australia, Germany, Spain and all over the United States and Alaska. People continued to call Nathan Phillips a warrior and a hero.

Thousands and thousands expressed support on social media including journalists and celebrities. Ava DuVernay gave a direct shout to @VinceSchilling / @IndianCountry.

Congresswoman Deb Haaland made a strong statement on behalf of Indian Country on Twitter, stating: “This Veteran put his life on the line for our country. The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking.”

Ben Ray Lujan, the Democratic Nambe Native representative of New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District, tweeted, “.@realDonaldTrump are you going to be silent on this blatant disrespect of Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam veteran & part of the indigenous rights movement?”

And now a petition

Matthew Lehman, a student from the Covington Catholic class of 1995 has issued a public petition titled “Immediate change at Covington Catholic.”

Lehman’s petition is asking for the “immediate termination of the school principal, Mr. Robert Rowe, for fostering an environment where these types of actions and words are condoned,” as well as a board to review admissions and educational standards, and for the school to cease any activity with the March for Life.

So far the petition has garnered over 5,400 signatures.

The Covington Kentucky Mayor and the Kentucky Secretary of State also respond

In an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Covington Mayor Joe Meyer titled “March confrontation doesn’t represent city’s values,” Meyer said, in part, “The disrespect shown to a Native American elder, who happens to be a Vietnam Veteran, was particularly offensive...let me - as Covington’s mayor - be absolutely clear: No. The videos being shared across the nation do NOT represent the core beliefs and values of this City. Covington is a diverse community, in areas of race, national origin, ethnicity, religious preference, sexual orientation, and income.”

The mayor summed up his commentary on the incident stating, “Covington is proud of being a welcoming City where bigotry, discrimination, and hatred will not be tolerated.”

The Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes, says she was also alarmed and tweeted: “This morning I was alarmed by circulating videos of young, Kentucky students taunting and harassing Native Americans at the Indigenous People’s March on the National Mall.”

Military history of Nathan Phillips discovered

Well-known Navy SEAL Don Shipley obtains Nathan Phillips' Military records

Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling

Email -

Special thanks to Sarah Brookbank and Max Londberg from the Cincinnati Enquirer, who did some excellent reporting on the event and spoke to both myself and Chase Iron Eyes, organizer of the Indigenous Peoples March.

Comments (31)
No. 1-11
Tejas Rob
Tejas Rob

Such damn lies. Mr Phillips and Indian country today should be ashamed of themselves. The truth it out there now. Phillips walked into this group and instigated this, the group of kids did nothing wrong. Stop with the damn lies.


I hate lies, too. That's why I oppose anyone wearing a MAGA hat. They follow a con artist, and bigot. Why don't YOU tell the truth. Put up or shut up. Where's your evidence? These videos prove what the media is saying is true.


This is really a disgrace, and I'm not talking about that kid that stood strong in the face of provocation and verbal abuse and just smiled, I'm talking about the misleading and outright false reporting that even now is still up, hours and hours later, even after being made aware of the inaccuracies by commenters. An apology is really urgently needed, from all the newspapers who set out to destroy that young man's reputation based on unverified claims, newspapers who still have this reporting up without any update or retractment. This is a shame, I really struggle to find words to express the utter disgust I'm feeling to all those involved in this smear campaign. FAKE NEWS is really not even cutting it anymore.


Hmmm my earlier comment with evidence for the kids was deleted.


Sure, the whole march was planned around a frame & a whole lot of actors were hired, and the costumes were all sewn just for this - what adult ignorance is taught to these youth??? No wonder these youngsters acted so stupidly! America is in such a mess - Thank you, Trump! Someone explain Why is he still in office???

David Hollenshead
David Hollenshead

Most of our Vietnam Veterans have already gone home, as the very youngest is 63. Nathan Phillips stood surrounded by aggressive youth at an age when a simple fall can be fatal. Ignorant Youth behaving in a most shameful way, something they will likely realize when they get older. Perhaps they will realize why their dear Donald Trump hates Native Americans, that he blames a Mohawk Casino at a horse racing track for the failure of his Taj Mahal Casino, when it actually was the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement ending his profits​ from illegal Money Laundering for Organized Crime that made it unprofitable...


I won't hold my breath waiting for a retraction.


Garbage story by a POS. Your 'friend' Phillips is a known con man. To do this to a bunch of kids is unacceptable! How low will you pieces of garbage go to sell your agenda. SCUM!!!


Nathan Phillips is a lied about the whole thing. He came over an taunted those Kids . Who were waiting on there Bus . Well see what his story will be when ky state prosecutor interviews him . I say he will change it for the 3 time


Mr. Phillips was invited to come and have a talk with the boys but he declined. He clearly walked straight up to those kids.....who were told by THEIR elders to gater on those steps to wait for their bus home. If he was "trying to get through he picked a pretty bad place to do it" . the story keeps changing so now i dont believe him. Was he tring to get through to go up the steps? Dumb place to try that. Or was he confronting the boys because they were hareful monsters ( as he said Sunday on Spectrum news). I believe that he is not being honest. This is a blatant example of people being judged by @) their headwear, b)the color of their skin, and c) their religion. Unfortunate that the hate and vitriol towards these kids, their school, their educational system, MY world, occurred on Dr. Martin Luther King day. They had recieved so many death threats that they had to close the school today. Don't care? Think they got they deserved? Well....okay, you are entitled to your opinion. But this episode just created a whole new generation of take-no-bull conservatives. Most of these kids would have gone off to college and would have been turned into flaming liberals. But not now! So sad that Mr. philllips' need for attention has caused all of this. Believe me when I say, we will be praying for him.