School apologizes after incident with teens in ‘MAGA’ hats and a Native American elder

Update: The student seen in the video has released a statement saying he was not provoking the Native American elder.

A Northern Kentucky Catholic high school joined federal and state leaders Saturday in condemning its students’ treatment of a Native American in Washington, D.C.

But first there was a swell of heavy criticism on social media nationally as video shared widely showed one young man in a Make America Great Again hat stand for an extended period extremely close to and in front of a Native American demonstrator who was beating a drum. The youth periodically smiled while a group of other young men around him cheered and laughed.

Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills and the Diocese of Covington apologized for the behavior of their students in a statement Saturday afternoon, saying “the behavior is opposed to the church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.”

The students had taken the trip to Washington to attend the March For Life. The Indigenous Peoples March also was held Friday in the nation’s capital.

Videos of the encounter between the young men and the Native American collected millions of views. Many comments on Twitter chided the students for making fun of and disrespecting indigenous marchers. Some people came to the defense of the students, saying their side of the story had not been told.

The Indigenous Peoples March issued a news release Saturday, saying that more than 30 counter-protesters, including Covington youths, “aggressively surrounded” the Native American elder on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Covington Catholic and the Diocese of Covington condemned the actions of the school’s students toward the Native American in the video and Native Americans in general and offered their “deepest apologies.”

They added: “The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion. We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our most sincere apologies to all those attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement.”

The all-male, private school has about 560 students. High school principal Bob Rowe could not be reached for comment.

Covington Catholic’s website also was not reachable Saturday afternoon, and the school’s Facebook page, which had been visible Saturday morning, was no longer available by Saturday afternoon.

People tried to identify the young man who was the focus of the videos, but a name that was circulated online early Saturday afternoon was incorrect.

The American Indian in the video was Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam veteran, said Indian Country Today.

The publication said Phillips is an Omaha elder who hosts a sacred pipe ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to honor Native Americans who are war veterans. He is former director of Native Youth Alliance.

In a separate video, Phillips said he heard the young men saying, “Build that wall. Build that wall.”

“This is an indigenous land. We’re not supposed to have a wall here,” Phillips said in the video. He also said he wished he could see the energy of the young people redirected to efforts like helping the hungry.

One man told the Associated Press that he joined Phillips in singing the anthem from the American Indian Movement to defuse the situation after the students chanted “Make America Great” slogans and appeared to mock the haka, a traditional Maori dance, that the boys were doing. Marcus Frejo said he felt the students also were heckling a couple of black men nearby.

Darren Thompson, an organizer for the Indigenous Peoples Movement, said in the news release that the incident “is emblematic of the state of our discourse in Trump’s America.”

“It clearly demonstrates the validity of our concerns about the marginalization and disrespect of Indigenous peoples, and it shows that traditional knowledge is being ignored by those who should listen most closely,” he said.

The reaction was intense as news of the incident spread.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, said on her Twitter page, “The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking. “ Haaland is one the first Native American women elected to Congress.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes referred to the incident on her Twitter page, saying, “Kentucky, we are better than this.” She noted that Americans celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. this week and “his work to ensure equality for all through nonviolent civil disobedience.”

In a statement, Grimes said, “In spite of these horrific scenes, I refuse to shame and solely blame these children for this type of behavior. Instead I turn to the adults and administration that are charged with teaching them, and to those who are silently letting others promote this behavior.”

She called on the school “to denounce this behavior. As a proud alumnae of a Catholic high school, I know a school that stands for ‘Building minds, Living Faith,’ would not stand for this.”