Fighting Back against the GOP Public Relations Efforts on Behalf of Nick Sandmann

Chase Iron Eyes and Nathan Phillips at the Indigenous Peoples March at Lincoln Memorial on Friday, January 18, 2019.

Guest Commentary

Published January 30, 2019

Editor’s Note: This commentary was first distributed on Tuesday, January 29, 2019 by the Lakota People’s Law Project. It provides an overview into how Nathan Phillips dealt with the national press after the incident at the Lincoln Memorial when he sang the American Indian Movement anthem to defuse a hostile situation between a group of Covington Catholic High School students and a group of Hebrew Israelites. Used with permission. All rights reserved. 

Over the past ten days the Lakota People’s Law Project helped shape history. You might not know me. I’m Daniel Nelson, the director of the Lakota People’s Law Project. I have worked closely with my colleagues Chase Iron Eyes, Madonna Thunder Hawk, and Phyllis Young for the past eight years, spending months at a stretch at Standing Rock and other tribal nations. This work has been of transcendent importance to me, and I’m deeply honored to do it. I must now share some important news with you about our organization’s work over the past two weeks and our plans for the coming year. I’ll summarize: Chase and I were with Nathan Phillips most hours of every day last week, helping him bring his message of a just peace into every household in America.

It all started when Chase, Phyllis, and I were recently in Rapid City working on a Green New Deal for Indian Country. Phyllis and Chase introduced me to the organizers of the first annual Indigenous People’s March (IPM), and we joined them in their cause. Over the next month, we did outreach to media on behalf of IPM and scheduled our Lakota staff as spokespersons. I and other colleagues joined conference calls, gave strategic input, and provided logistical support.

We traveled to D.C. on Wednesday January 16th, and Chase, Phyllis, and I participated fully in the Indigenous People’s March on Friday. Chase and Phyllis spoke during the rally and we met with Congresswoman Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native women elected to Congress. The march was a success, and we were feeling grateful to have played a role—but then, as you know, something alarming and extraordinary happened: a serious act of racism at the Lincoln Memorial on Martin Luther King Day weekend.

As most of our team was enjoying the Women’s March on Saturday, I got a ping from an ally at IPM: a video was going viral of Omaha-Ponca elder Nathan Phillips—a friend of Chase’s and Phyllis’ and a Standing Rock water protector—being harassed by a group of MAGA hat-wearing boys in the aftermath of our own rally. I realized I had been 100 yards away from this when it happened: I had been sitting in our van waiting for Chase when someone stopped by and expressed concern over his safety. She said he was near a rambunctious group of anti-abortion marchers. As it turns out, Chase didn’t get caught up in the melee, but he observed it from a few yards away and was alarmed.

Because our Lakota People’s Law Project had been assisting with media prior to, and during, the IPM March, the IPM leadership committee called on me Saturday morning to issue a press release about the Nathan video. I gathered whatever facts I could, ran a draft by the IPM leadership team, and we got the release out.

As I mentioned, Chase knew Nathan. He had actually asked someone to take a photograh immediately before the incident at the Lincoln Memorial. And during the media frenzy that followed our release, it didn’t take long for Chase and me to find ourselves in the same room with Nathan—we encountered one another at CNN’s studio, where both Nathan and Chase were doing interviews. We had a brief exchange and then Nathan slipped away.

Chase and I scrambled all day Saturday and Sunday to field requests from media on behalf of IPM. This mainly meant scheduling interviews for Chase, since he had been actually present for Nathan’s encounter. Chase spoke to CNNMSNBC, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Democracy Now, to mention just the highlights.

But we knew that Nathan probably needed help too.

My relationship with Nathan Phillips began on Sunday, January 20th. We had a request from CBS National News to bring Nathan onto the show that night. Meanwhile, the IPM leaders were hosting an honoring for Nathan at a Baptist Church in D.C. After the honoring, I approached Nathan and invited him to join me for the interview. He accepted, and we zoomed off. After that it was all business. Over the next five days Chase and I stayed at his side, working with IPM to give wrap-around strategic and logistical support. We did research, discussed potential talking points with Nathan, gave feedback after press appearances, and maintained the schedule of interviews. We also paid for food, rental cars, supplies, airline tickets, etc. We even accrued a $3,000 expense when a vehicle I was borrowing was accidentally side-swiped while parked! It was an intense week. Things culminated in Nathan’s historic interview on NBC’s Today Show on Thursday morning. To top it off, Nathan and I had a 1 hour conversation with world-famous hip-hop artist Jay-Z, who called in to offer moral support and permit us to use his name to promote our cause.

The world has been changed permanently this past week, and Chase and I, along with IPM, tried our hardest to steer that change in a positive direction. For one, our march and the media coverage of Nathan’s experience made Trump tweet.

We also ensured that an Indigenous voice was as loud as possible in the face of a clearly orchestrated public relations effort on behalf of Nick Sandmann led by a Kentucky firm linked to Senator Mitch McConnell (GOP).

We put Nathan front and center in the public consciousness. We reminded the world of what a prophetic, nonviolent demand for Peace with Justice looks like.

Nathan’s courage will be remembered forever. He stepped into the middle of a profane, racially charged exchange that symbolized the dark side of race relations in our country: it was the MAGA hat-wearing sons of southern, white plutocrats against a small group of strident, abysmally missguided African Americans, the Black Hebrew Israelites (if you need a comprehensive overview of the entire incident, ABC Nightline did a good one). Remarkably, a Native American, whose ancestors faced genocide at the hands of European immigrants to America, stepped into danger with a drum and ceremonial song to deliver peace. When confronted by both hostile parties, he kept his rhythm; he stayed until his work was done that day. He made good on the memory of Martin Luther King, whose “I Have a Dream” Speech was uttered at that same location 56 years ago.

Now Nathan’s work continues, and the Lakota People’s Law Project stands ready to help him in any way we can. We are advising him to stay on the side of Peace with JusticeHere is the best rendition of Nathan’s vision for the world that I have seen to date, a moving video made by Al Jazeera. Please watch it. The culture of violence and inequality that Trump has fostered in America must be confronted aggressively but without malice. This is the pathway to healing. We will look to King, to Gandhi, and now to Phillips for modeling, despite Phillips being imperfect, as we all are. We will dig deeply into ourselves and find the resources to preserve and strengthen the first modern democracy in the world, while never forgetting to make it increasingly just. Peace without justice is just tinder waiting to be lit, avoidable suffering covered over by disguises. We do not want that kind of peace.

Please know that your standing with the Lakota People’s Law Project, past and present, makes our participation in this historic event possible. We thank you.

Daniel Nelson is the director of the Lakota People’s Law Project.

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