Indigenous journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat gave activist and Omaha elder Nathan Phillips a chance to tell his story beyond the sensationalism that surrounds his alleged confrontation with White conservative teen boys at last month’s Indigenous Peoples March.

“Many want to hear [Phillips’] side of the story, but the truth is, it’s hard to tell,” NoiseCat writes in the piece published yesterday (February 4) in The Guardian, ”To really get it, he insists, we need set the record straight about who he is and where he’s coming from – and that means looking beyond what happened that cold Friday. So that’s where we begin.”

The resulting article chronicles Phillips’ journey through childhood trauma and grassroots organizing.

The piece addresses Phillips’ view of his interaction with Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann—but only after explaining his past experiences with anti-Indigenous government policy and community resistance. For instance, Phillips addresses seeking his mother and community on the Omaha peoples’ land, nearly a decade-and-a-half after the child welfare system took him from them:

There’s the time he ran away to the Omaha reservation in Nebraska at 14 or 15 to find his mother: “I went over there and knocked on this door and this little bitty head shot up out of this window and we locked eyes on each other, and then I could just hear her, ‘Oh!’ I mean, it was just the sweetest ‘oh’ I’ve ever heard,” he recalled, his voice quivering. “She knew I would come home one day and look for her.”

Then, there’s the time he ran away to the reservation at 16 with tragically humorous misconceptions about Indians still hunting buffalo and living in tipis and the way his cousins rejected him for being so clueless. “‘Get out of here, White boy,’” [Phillips quotes]. “‘Go home, White boy.’ Broke my heart, man—I just wanted to be Indian again, you know?” He said. “I was raised as a White man. I couldn’t help it.”

Phillips also describes the murder of five fellow students at Haskell Indian Junior College (now Haskell Indian Nations University) during the 1980s. He says that this tragedy pushed him away from drinking and towards his activist future: 

In 1989, after months without much attention and few leads, the Haskell cases made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. “We walked the swamps, and the riverbeds, and the prairies, and the roadsides for them,” said Phillips. “And when we found them, it broke our heart.”

The family of one of the students, a Navajo man, whose body was found in the Kansas river, held a Native American church meeting on the hospital grounds of the college to pray for the dead 19-year-old. Phillips stood security all night outside the ceremonial tipi – a structure that members of the faith sometimes liken to a womb. At many gatherings, like the Indigenous Peoples March, he still carries that responsibility as a protector. He’s been sober now for over 30 years.

“That’s what brought me to the Indigenous Peoples March.” Phillips said, tears rolling down his cheeks. “It’s because we’re tired of this shit.”

Read the full profile at TheGuardian.com