School Climate & Safety

Video of Boys Mocking Native American Vet, Unchecked by Adults, Sparks Uproar

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 19, 2019 5 min read
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Guest post by Andrew Ujifusa


A Kentucky Catholic school is facing a public outcry after young people later identified as students at the school were among a crowd that taunted a Native American man participating in the Indigenous Peoples March on Friday.

A group of young people, most if not all of them boys, were filmed mocking and laughing at Nathan Phillips, a military veteran who holds an annual ceremony honoring Native American veterans at Arlington National Cemetery, according to the Associated Press. Indian Country Today identifies him as an elder with the Omaha people. In the video posted to YouTube, a crowd of boys and others surround Phillips at the Lincoln Memorial as he and others participate in the Indigenous Peoples March. While Phillips sings, at least a few students perform a Tomahawk chop, a gesture associated with a few sports teams that is also considered demeaning to Native Americans.

During the video, which lasts for roughly three minutes and 45 seconds, no adults appear to defuse the situation, reprimand the children, or apologize to Phillips. Several people hold up cell phones and cameras to record the incident, and one woman in the crowd refers to others as acting like a mob. The video clip is below:

In a statement issued Sunday, Nick Sandmann, a Covington student who stood face to face with Phillips in perhaps the most widely-shared video, denied that he had meant to disrespect or mock Phillips. Sandmann said that a group of black men, identified in a video as Hebrew Israelites who were separate from the Indigenous Peoples March, shouted insults at people in the area, including the students. Sandmann said he tried to defuse the tension in the area by simply standing in front of Phillips, who later acknowledged that he had initially approached the boys.

“I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me,” Sandmann said of his interaction with Phillips. “We had already been yelled at by another group of protestors, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers.”

Phillips later said that he, too, was trying to pacify the crowd by approaching the students and singing.

In a subsequent video, an upset Phillips said he heard several in the crowd chant, “Build that wall,” although that chant from the boys wasn’t audible in the videos posted Saturday that triggered the backlash. (Many people in the crowd wore “Make America Great Again” hats, the 2016 campaign slogan of President Donald Trump, who supports building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.)

Phillips said he wishes he could see the “mass of young men” work towards “making this country really great.”

And in a third video, Phillips urges the crowd, “Let’s make America great. Let’s do that,” and another man with Phillips admonishes some in the crowd against how they acted. After an exchange about “stolen land” one young person responds to Phillips’ group by saying, “And y’all stole it from the aboriginals. ... Land gets stolen. That’s how it works. It’s the way of the world.” None of the videos show any physical altercations taking place.

At least a few young people in the crowd who mocked Phillips were subsequently identified as students at the all-boys Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky. A spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington said in a statement to the Cincinnati Enquirer that, “We are just now learning about this incident and regret it took place. We are looking into it.”

In a subsequent Saturday statement, the spokeswoman, Laura Keener, told the Enquirer that, “We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general, Jan. 18, after the March for Life, in Washington, D.C. We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.”

The Enquirer reported that the school’s web site said students planned to be in Washington to attend the March for Life, a rally against abortion that took place the same day as the Indigenous Peoples March.

U.S. Rep. Deb. Haaland, D-N.M., a Native American elected to Congress last year, condemned the incident:

Racism is an enduring problem for Native American communities. In a 2015 Education Week Commentary piece, Robert Cook, a member of the Oglala Lakota and the director of Teach For America’s Native Alliance initiative, highlighted an incident in South Dakota where students and their chaperones from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were subjected to racial slurs and harassment at a minor league hockey game.

“We grew up fighting against bigotry and injustice in our homeland. We were told to ‘go back to the reservation,’” Cook wrote. “We were unwelcome guests on the very land our ancestors hold sacred.”

Last year, students at a Wisconsin public schools triggered a similar furor when several of them were pictured giving what appeared to be the Nazi salute. And just this past week, high school students in Minnesota gave the Nazi salute in a photo while holding a sign that appeared to make light of the Third Reich.

[This post has been updated to include Nick Sandmann’s statement, along with additional information about Phillips and the Israelites. It has also been corrected to reflect that Phillips did not fight in the Vietnam War, but is a veteran of the U.S. military.]

Image: Screen capture of YouTube video posted by user KC Noland of Indigenous Peoples March, posted on Jan. 18, 2018.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.