Diocese apologizes after students mock Native Americans at Washington rally

A teenager stands in front of a Native American man singing in Washington
In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 image made from video provided by the Survival Media Agency, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat stands in front of an elderly Native American man singing and playing a drum in Washington.
Survival Media Agency via AP

Updated: Jan. 20, 7:15 a.m. | Posted: Jan. 19, 1:15 p.m.

A Roman Catholic diocese in Kentucky apologized Saturday after videos emerged showing students from a Catholic boys' high school mocking Native 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 staring at and standing extremely close to Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American man singing and playing a drum.

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

In a joint statement , 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 behavior is opposed to the Church's teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person."

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

A police car sits at the entrance to Covington Catholic High School.
A police car sits at the entrance to Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., on Saturday, Jan 19, 2019.
Bryan Woolston | AP

"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 lands. 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.

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 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 being heckled, but one black man with a camera smiles as he shoots footage of the group.

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.

State Rep. Ruth Buffalo of North Dakota, a 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 behavior 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, D-N.M., who is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and had been at the rally earlier in the day, used Twitter to sharply criticize what she called a "heartbreaking" display of "blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance."

Haaland, who is also Catholic, told AP she was particularly saddened to see the boys mocking an elder, who is revered in Native American culture. She placed some of the blame on President Donald Trump, who has used Native American 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."

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