The Native American elder mocked and taunted by a group of young men after the Indigenous Peoples March felt like he was in a “really dangerous situation” during the confrontation.
Speaking to CNN, Nathan Phillips said, “Here is a group of people who were angry at somebody else and I put myself in front of that. All of a sudden…all that anger and wanting to have the freedom to rip me apart, that was scary.”
“I know that mentality of, ‘There’s enough of us. We can do this,'” he added.
Videos circulating online show a youth staring at and standing extremely close to Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American man singing and playing a drum. Other students, many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and sweatshirts, surrounded them, chanting, laughing and jeering.
At one point, the group of boys chanted, “Build that wall! Build that wall!”
“I heard them say, ‘Build that wall, build that wall,'” a tearful Phillips said in a separate interview. “This is indigenous land, you know. We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did. Before anybody else came here we never had walls.”
According to the “Indian Country Today” website, Phillips is an Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran who holds an annual ceremony honoring Native American veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.
Marcus Frejo, a member of the Pawnee and Seminole tribes who is also known as Chief Quese Imc, said he had been a part of the march and was among a small group of people remaining after the rally when the boisterous students began chanting slogans such as “Make America great” and then began doing the haka, a traditional Maori dance.
In a phone interview, Frejo told The Associated Press he felt they were mocking the dance and also heckling a couple of black men nearby. He approached the group with Phillips to defuse the situation, joining him in singing the anthem from the American Indian Movement and beating out the tempo on hand drums.
Although he feared a mob mentality that could turn ugly, Frejo said he was at peace singing among the scorn and he briefly felt something special happen as they repeatedly sang the tune.
“They went from mocking us and laughing at us to singing with us. I heard it three times,” Frejo said. “That spirit moved through us, that drum, and it slowly started to move through some of those youths.”
A calm eventually fell over the group of students and they broke up and walked away.
According to eyewitness accounts, the situation began when Phillips and others put themselves between the students and another unrelated demonstrator who was accosting the young men.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School, which organized the student trip from Kentucky to Washington for the March for Life, issued a statement late Saturday apologizing to Phillips. They said the students, whose actions have drawn widespread condemnation, involved potentially face expulsion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.