Chase Iron Eyes believes the ugly incident near the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday involving a gang of Catholic school boys and a Native American elder must've been what civil rights confrontations were like in the 1950s and '60s.
"It almost felt like a desegregation fight must've felt like, with a small group of people being threatened and mocked by an angry mob," Iron Eyes said by phone Saturday night from Washington, D.C. "It was weird. It felt ugly."
You might remember Iron Eyes. His name has been in the news in North Dakota the past few years, and it hasn't always been positive. He was the Democratic-NPL candidate for U.S. House in 2016, but his underdog campaign was plagued by allegations he shared a nude photo of himself online. He lost badly to incumbent Republican Kevin Cramer in that election.
Iron Eyes was also front and center at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota in 2016-17, when he was charged with inciting a riot and criminal trespass. A plea agreement dropped the trespass charge and changed the riot charge to misdemeanor disorderly conduct. He was given probation.
Iron Eyes, a Standing Rock member and graduate of the University of North Dakota, was in the nation's capital this weekend for the Indigenous Peoples March. Now living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Iron Eyes is an attorney for the Lakota People's Law Project and remains an activist for Native American causes.
"The noise was a group of probably 60 to 70 high school-aged boys being loud and boisterous. It reminded me of a drunken frat party or something," Iron Eyes said. "So there was a small group of Natives, probably about five elders, and some black folks and these 60 or 70 kids and the kids were trying to disrupt or drown out any noise the other groups were doing."
Iron Eyes said he was about 40 feet away from the commotion and didn't want to get involved for fear of violating his probation. He said he would've intervened had the confrontation become physical, which it did not. He described the high school boys as being "like an angry mob, jeering at these people who they outnumbered like 10 to 1. A bunch of them were wearing those MAGA hats. It was just really unfortunate. Really a sad situation."
The group of boys, of course, was from Covington Catholic High School in northern Kentucky, in suburban Cincinnati. The video, particularly of one boy wearing a red "Make America Great Again" cap popularized by President Donald Trump staring down a Native American elder beating a drum, went viral on social media Saturday and became a national story. The Covington group was in Washington to participate in the annual March for Life anti-abortion rally.
The elder was Nathan Phillips, a member of Nebraska's Omaha tribe who now lives in Michigan. Phillips is a Vietnam War veteran. In videos showing the incident, Phillips remains stoic as the MAGA cap-wearing boy stands close and others surround him mocking and laughing.
"It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: 'I've got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,'" Phillips told The Washington Post. "I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat."
Iron Eyes said some of the high school students were yelling, "Build that wall!"
Phillips eventually finished his song and prayer and he and the other elders were able to exit the national mall without incident.
"It was a horrible ending to a beautiful day. We had indigenous people come from all over the world to participate in our march and then to have our elders be mocked and jeered like that was upsetting," Iron Eyes said.
Iron Eyes blames Trump for hostility toward Native Americans and other minorities. He said the president's use of "Pocahontas" as a slur of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's alleged Native American ancestry and a recent tweet mocking the U.S. military's slaughter of Indians at Wounded Knee have set an antagonistic tone.
"What would motivate kids to do that? Trump sets the tone for a lot of these people. He gives them license to act the way they do. These were young kids. Why did they feel it was appropriate to act the way they did?" Iron Eyes said. "Some of them were chanting, 'Build that wall.' What does that even mean in the context of this day? It has nothing to do with policy. It's just become like a racist chant they identify with. These young kids felt empowered."
Iron Eyes said he'd like to see young people taught more about Native American history and the history of racism in the United States.
"It's time for truth-telling, to teach these kids about the true history of Native Americans. We keep sweeping this stuff under the rug -- the genocide against Native Americans and slavery and racism. We don't want to talk about it," Iron Eyes said. "I get it. It's very painful. It hurts to talk about it. But the only way we're going to solve our issues is to confront them in an honest manner.
"We're very encouraged that the Diocese of Covington and the high school have taken responsibility for this and are promising they'll take action, but how did we get here that something like this happened today?"