As Native American activist Nathan Phillips receives more media coverage, more details about his past keep coming to new attention.
Phillips burst into the headlines over the weekend after a confrontation with a group of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky who were in Washington Friday for the annual March for Life was widely publicized.
But it’s not his first brush with wide publicity.
In 2012, documentary filmmaker Maria Stanisheva raised $6,000 on Kickstarter to make a movie about Phillips, centering on his then-wife’s struggle with cancer and a trip the family planned to try to cure her with Native American methods that involved a ceremonial healing ritual.
In order to build the required ceremonial tipi, Phillips needed to travel to Omaha, Nebraska, for special “willow poles.”
After getting the material, Phillips planned to travel to Washington, D.C., where the ritual would take place in front of the White House.
It’s unclear why Phillips needed to perform the ritual in front of the White House in particular.
According to the Stanisheva’s statement on Kickstarter, the Bulgarian native met Phillips and his two children, Aletha and Zakiah, as part of her interest in documenting Native American rites.
“In 2011, after a career as an animation producer, I moved from Bulgaria to New York to work on social documentary films. Interested in learning more about Native American people and culture in the US, I immersed myself in the traditions of the Omaha tribe,” she wrote at the time.
“I met Nathan, Alethea and Zakiah while they were performing a Becoming of Age ceremony in Washington DC in January and was deeply moved by their struggle to integrate their traditional lives and philosophy into a modern Western culture they often find hostile and somewhat oppressive.
“Both Shoshana and her husband Nathan explain that living away from the reservation is a big challenge for them, as the Omaha depend on their tribe in order to perform traditional ceremonies. Nevertheless they have been pragmatic in their approach to survival, following both native and contemporary methods while simultaneously teaching their two children … the indigenous ways.
“But now, as the efficacy of Shoshana’s western medical treatment wanes, an even greater emphasis is placed on their Native American traditions. The family will travel hundreds of miles to perform and partake in a ritual they feel is key to Shoshana’s survival and I will document their journey.”
Shoshona Phillips died in 2015 of bone marrow cancer, according to The Washington Post.
It was in that same year that Phillips was in the news in Michigan about an unconfirmed incident in which Phillips claimed to have been harassed by Eastern Michigan University students — wearing Indian costumes and mocking his heritage.
— Steven R. Wells (@thinkwellsworks) January 22, 2019
Now, he’s in the headlines again, for the confrontation that has ended up embarrassing much of the country’s mainstream media — and even led to threats of libel lawsuits.
After the confrontation with the Catholic high school student, the media rushed to defend Phillips, in part under the false pretense that he was a Vietnam War veteran.
In reality, Phillips was never deployed to Vietnam.
And it looks like Phillips’ misleading Vietnam story helped documentary’s crowdfunding campaign.
In the promotional video on Kickstarter, Stanisheva briefly talked about Phillips’ “difficult” past.
“He was then a Marine in Vietnam,” the filmmaker mentioned before discussing Phillips’ struggle with alcohol.
It’s not clear if Phillips told Stanisheva about his Vietnam story or if the film crew simply failed to do proper research, since that part of his story is falling apart.
But it was clearly part of Stainisheva’s fundraising appeal. In the end, the Kickstarter campaign raised just over $6,000 for the project.
The “Between Earth and Sky” documentary was released in October of 2012. It was selected for the Winter Film Awards Festival in New York City in 2013.
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