Video of Kentucky students mocking Native American man draws outcry

A student wearing a

A student wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat stands in front of a Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington on Friday. Young men and women surrounded Nathan Phillips, and a video of the incident has drawn outrage. (AP)

Updated 5:46 p.m.

A Native American who was seen in an online video being taunted outside the Lincoln Memorial said Sunday he felt compelled to get between two groups with his ceremonial drum to defuse a confrontation.

Nathan Phillips said in an interview with The Associated Press that he was trying to keep peace between some Kentucky high school students and a black religious group that was also on the National Mall on Friday. The students were participating in the March for Life, which drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters, and Phillips was attending the first-ever Indigenous Peoples March happening the same day.

“Something caused me to put myself between (them) — it was black and white,” said Phillips, who lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan. “What I saw was my country being torn apart. I couldn’t stand by and let that happen.”

Videos show a youth standing very close to Phillips and staring at him as he sang and played the drum. Other students — some in “Make America Great Again” hats and sweatshirts — were chanting, laughing and jeering.

“I heard them saying, ‘Build that wall, build that wall,’ ” Phillips says in another video posted to social media, wiping away tears. “This is indigenous lands. You know we’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did, for millenniums, before anyone else came here. We never had walls.”

Other videos also showed members of the religious group, who appear to be affiliated with the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, yelling disparaging and profane insults at the students, who taunt them in return. Video also shows the Native Americans being insulted by the small religious group as well.

The U.S. Park Police, who have authority for security on the Mall, were not taking calls from media during the partial government shutdown.

Covington Catholic High School, a private, all-male school located in Park Hills, Ky., issued a joint statement with the Diocese of Covington on Saturday, condemning the incident and saying it would investigate and “take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”

In a joint statement, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School apologized and said they are investigating and will take “appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”

“We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips,” the school wrote. “This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.”

As of Sunday morning, Covington Catholic’s Facebook page was not available and its Twitter feed was set to private. Calls to the school went unanswered Sunday.

According to the “Indian Country Today” website, Phillips is an Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran who holds an annual ceremony honoring Native American veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.

Phillips said it was a difficult end to an otherwise great day, in which his group sought to highlight injustices against native people worldwide through marching and prayer. He said his first interaction with the students came when they entered an area permitted for the Indigenous Peoples March.

“They were making remarks to each other … (such as) ‘In my state, those Indians are nothing but a bunch of drunks.’ How do I report that?” he said. “These young people were just roughshodding through our space, like what’s been going on for 500 years here — just walking through our territories, feeling like ‘this is ours.'”

He said the situation started to get ugly and he tried to find an exit, The Washington Post reports.

“I felt like the spirit was talking through me,” Phillips told the Post. He says he kept drumming while thinking about his late wife and threats faced by indigenous communities around the world.

Nearby, the black religious activists were speaking about being the only true Israelites. Phillips said group members called the Native Americans “sell-outs.”

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 AP he felt they were mocking the dance.

One 11-minute video of the confrontation shows the Haka dance and students loudly chanting before Phillips and Frejo approached them.

Frejo said he joined Phillips to defuse the situation, singing the anthem from the American Indian Movement with both men beating out the tempo on hand drums.

Although he feared a mob mentality that could turn ugly, Frejo said he was at peace singing despite the scorn. 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.”

Eventually, a calm fell over the group of students and they broke up and walked away.

The videos prompted a torrent of outrage online. Actress and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted that the footage “brought me to tears,” while actor Chris Evans tweeted that the students’ actions were “appalling” and “shameful.”

The incident drew condemnation from Native Americans and lawmakers. Darren Thompson, an organizer for the Indigenous Peoples Movement, which coordinated the march, said in a statement that the incident was “emblematic of the state of our discourse in Trump’s America,” echoing sentiments on social media and among organizers that the current administration’s rhetoric has emboldened acts of harassment and racism.

“It clearly demonstrates the validity of our concerns about the marginalization and disrespect of indigenous peoples,” Thompson wrote.

Another spokesperson for the march, Chase Iron Eyes, also placed the blame on President Trump.

“Conservative people are fearful now,” he said, referencing the recent elections of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress, Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids. “Trump has riled up a reactionary voting block that reminds us that we are a nation founded on patriarchy, genocide and racism.”

Haaland, who was elected to the House of Representatives last fall, also condemned the incident.

“This Veteran put his life on the line for our country,” the Democrat from New Mexico wrote on Twitter. “The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking.”

Covington Mayor Joe Meyer, a Democrat, said footage was not representative of the core values of his town. “Videos of the confrontation are disturbing, discouraging, and — frankly — appalling,” he wrote in a statement. “And they are rightfully inspiring a tidal wave of condemnation.”

Organizers added that the march encompassed more than just that viral moment.

“The good news is, that connection to the sacred may have resonated with some of the Catholic youths,” said Nathalie Farfan, another organizer, in a statement. “What is not being shown on the video is that the same youth and a few others became emotional because of the power, resilience and love we inherently carry in our DNA. Our day on those steps ended with a round dance, while we chanted, ‘We are still here.’ ”

The march stemmed from the 2016-17 protest at Standing Rock over plans for an oil pipeline to cross Sioux Lands in North Dakota. Phillips was also a leader in that movement.

Covington Catholic High School, in the northern Kentucky city of Park Hills, was quiet Sunday as the area remained snow-covered with temperatures in the teens. The all-male school, which has more than 580 students, appeared deserted with an empty police car parked in front of the building.

The private school’s website describes its mission as being “to embrace the Gospel message of Jesus Christ in order to educate students spiritually, academically, physically and socially.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. 

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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