A Kentucky Catholic school may take disciplinary action against their students after a group of the MAGA hat–wearing teenage boys taunted a Native American elder at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, DC, on Friday.
Several viral videos show the young men, nearly all of whom are white and wearing pro-Trump gear, chanting at and mocking the man on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
One of the teens can be seen standing face-to-face with the elder, smirking and saying nothing, while the man sings and beats a drum.
The indigenous protester was identified by Indian Country Today as Nathan Phillips, a member of the Omaha Nation and a Vietnam War veteran. He reportedly hosts a ceremony each year honoring Native American veterans at Arlington National Cemetery and is also the keeper of a sacred pipe.
Kaya Taitano, a 26-year-old student from Guam, told BuzzFeed News she filmed the videos of Phillips. "You can tell he has power in his being," she said in a phone interview.
Phillips told the Washington Post Saturday that he had been singing an American Indian Movement song that serves as a ceremony to send the spirits home when he noticed that tensions started to escalate.
“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’” Phillips told the paper. But after one of the teens wearing a MAGA hat stood in his way, he said, he continued to drum and sing.
“I felt like the spirit was talking through me,” Phillips said.
In an interview with Taitano following the incident that she uploaded to her Instagram, Phillips said he wished he could see those teens "put that energy into making this country really great, helping those that are hungry."
"I heard them saying, 'Build that wall, build that wall,'" said Phillips, who could not be immediately reached for comment by BuzzFeed News. "You know, this is indigenous lands. We’re not supposed to have walls here — we never did for millennia, before anybody else came here."
It was not the first time Phillips has faced racist harassment.
According to Fox 2 Detroit, a group of Eastern Michigan University students in 2015 berated him with racist slurs and pelted him with a beer can while they were dressed up as Native Americans for a theme party.
"They had their face painted," Phillips said at the time. "I said, 'What the heck is going on here?' 'Oh, we are honoring you.' I said, 'No, you are not honoring me.' ... [They said,] 'Go back to the reservation, you blank Indian.'"
After videos of the incident on Friday were posted online, they soon went viral, with people calling the teens racist and urging for consequences.
Due to the clothing some of the students in the video were wearing, people quickly deduced the teens were from Covington Catholic High School, an all-male Catholic school in Park Hills, Kentucky, a suburb of Cincinnati.
According to the school's website, students had been in DC to attend the March for Life, which also took place Friday. The school deleted its Facebook account and set its Twitter to private after the incident.
In a joint statement to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School rebuked the students' actions and said they could be expelled:
"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, DC," the statement said. "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 matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion," the statement continued. "We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement."
At least one boy was wearing a hoodie from Owensboro Catholic, another school in Kentucky. In one video, a man tells the group of boys that they are on stolen land, and the boy in the Owensboro Catholic hoodie responds, "Land gets stolen. That’s how it works. It’s the way of the world."
Tom Lilly, president of Owensboro Catholic Schools, told the Owensboro Times that some middle school students traveled to Washington, DC, for the Right to Life March on Friday.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Lilly said administrators were only aware of one student — the boy featured in the video — being involved in the incident. He said the student was in high school and was not on a school-sponsored trip.
"The student is deeply remorseful for the comments he made," Lilly said. "I found the videos terribly disturbing."
Lilly declined to comment on whether the student would face any disciplinary actions but said faculty were notified about the incident on Saturday and that they hoped "to turn this terrible event into a teaching moment for our children."
"We can not undo what’s been done, but because of what our Catholic School System represents, we SHOULD be held to a higher level of accountability," Lilly added. "We will not fail that obligation."
Representatives for Covington Catholic High School and the Diocese did not immediately return requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Hunter Hooligan, a 27-year-old from Baltimore who attended the Indigenous Peoples March with his sister, said by the time the teenage boys showed up, only 10 or 12 people who had participated in the march were still gathered at the monument.
"The boys just kind of, like, surrounded us, and we like tried to move through the crowd. And one boy in particular just like totally refused to move, and that’s the boy you see in the video who is standing directly in front of Nathan," Hooligan, who also recorded video of the incident, told BuzzFeed News Saturday.
He said that for at least 10 minutes, the group of about 50 to 70 boys chanted various things, including "build the wall" and "gone in 2020," and jumped and danced around the small group of demonstrators.
"What made me feel scared was the mob mentality of the situation," Hooligan said. "That type of tactic of instilling fear and intimidation and overpowering and outnumbering has been a consistent weapon of white supremacy against indigenous people."
The incident sparked enormous backlash online, with many people sharing their disgust and sadness.
Someone even briefly edited the school's name on Google to "Covington Catholic White Male Entitlement High School."
James J. Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest, harshly criticized the high schoolers' "attempt to shame and disrespect" Phillips.
"These actions are not Catholic, not Christian, and not acceptable," Martin said.
Alison Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state, released a statement blaming "the adults and administration that are charged with teaching" the teens, and called on the school to "denounce this behavior."
"This is not the Kentucky we know and love," Grimes said.
A number of Democratic lawmakers also spoke out about the incident and in support of Phillips.
Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib said, "It reminds us of the growing hate & oppression we are all up against."
New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who was one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress in November, called the video "heartbreaking."
"This Veteran put his life on the line for our country," Haaland said. "The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration."
“What we saw yesterday, the display surrounding Mr. Phillips, is emblematic of the state of our discourse in Trump’s America,” said Darren Thompson, an organizer for the Indigenous Peoples Movement. “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.”