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U.S. diocese, school apologize after students mock Indigenous demonstrator in heated confrontation

A diocese in Kentucky has apologized after videos emerged showing students from an all-male Catholic high school mocking Indigenous Americans outside the Lincoln Memorial after a rally in Washington.

Student shown in video says he did nothing to provoke anyone and sought to calm the situation

A diocese in Kentucky has apologized after videos emerged showing students from an all-male Catholic high school mocking Indigenous Americans outside the Lincoln Memorial after a rally in Washington.

The Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on Friday coincided with the March for Life, which drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters, including a group from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky.

Videos circulating online show a youth standing extremely close to a Native American man as he chanted and played a drum. 

Other students, some wearing Covington clothing and many wearing red "Make America Great Again" hats and sweatshirts, surrounded them, laughing and jeering.

On Sunday, groups traded blame online for who was responsible for the confrontation, with competing videos purporting to show the Catholic students being insulted by black religious activists before the confrontation with Native American veteran Nathan Phillips.

Phillips told The Associated Press on Sunday that he felt compelled to get between the black religious activists and the mostly white students with his ceremonial drum to defuse a potentially dangerous situation.

The teen at the centre of the video, Nick Sandmann, said in a statement on Sunday that he did nothing to provoke anyone and sought to calm the situation. 

In an email to The Associated Press, Sandmann said students were waiting at the Lincoln Memorial for buses to return to Kentucky on Friday when four African-American protesters there began insulting them. He said the students began yelling "school spirit chants" to drown out the protesters and he did not hear students chant anything "hateful or racist at any time." 

Though many commenting on the internet were taken back by Sandmann staring at Philipps, the teen said he was "not intentionally making faces at the protestor. I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation."

Students could be expelled

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

"We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips," the statement read. "This behaviour is opposed to the Church's teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person."

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

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.

Men approached students

In a phone interview, Frejo told The Associated Press he felt they were mocking the dance and also heckling a couple of black men nearby.

One 11-minute video of the confrontation shows the Haka dance and students loudly chanting before Phillips and Frejo approached them. The footage doesn't show any black person being heckled, but one black man with a camera smiles as he shoots footage of the group.

Other videos posted to social media purport to show Phillips approaching the youth in question, beating his drum close to the student's face. 

An online statement claiming to be from a Covington student who was at the scene said Phillips was "beating his drum directly in the face of my friend."

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 said he briefly felt something special happen as they repeatedly sang the tune.

'We're not supposed to have walls here'

"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.

"When I was there singing, I heard them saying 'Build that wall, build that wall,"' Phillips said, as he wiped away tears in a video posted on Instagram. "This is Indigenous land. We're not supposed to have walls here. We never did."

He told The Washington Post that while he was drumming, he thought about his wife, Shoshana, who died of bone marrow cancer nearly four years ago, and the threats that Indigenous communities around the world are facing.

"I felt like the spirit was talking through me," Phillips said.

'Blatant hate'

State Rep. Ruth Buffalo, a North Dakota state lawmaker and member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, said she was saddened to see students showing disrespect to an elder who is also a U.S. military veteran at what was supposed to be a celebration of all cultures.

"The behaviour shown in that video is just a snapshot of what Indigenous people have faced and are continuing to face," Buffalo said.

She said she hoped it would lead to some kind of meeting with the students to provide education on issues facing Native Americans.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico sharply criticized what she called a display of "blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance."

Haaland, who is also Catholic, told The Associated Press she was particularly saddened to see the boys mocking an elder, who is revered in Indigenous American culture. She placed some of the blame on U.S. President Donald Trump, who has used names like Pocahontas as an insult.

"It is sad that we have a president who uses Native American women's names as racial slurs and that's an example that these kids are clearly following considering the fact that they had their 'Make America Great Again' hats on," Haaland said. "He's really brought out the worst in people."

With files from The Associated Press