Native American activists and allies gathered in Washington, D.C., on Friday for the Indigenous Peoples March — just days after President Trump joked on Twitter about a Native American massacre. Toward the end of the powerful rally, however, a group of non-Native teen boys wearing red Make America Great Again hats accosted and taunted a Native elder. Video of the incident has been widely shared online and, understandably, has sparked outrage.
As the Cincinnati Enquirer reports, the group of young men in MAGA hats seen harassing marchers in the now-viral video are students at the Covington Catholic High School, which sends a delegation of its students to Washington to attend the anti-abortion March for Life annually. This year, the rally was held the same day as the Indigenous Peoples March.
The video shows one of the teen boys, Nick Sandmann, standing right in the face of a Native elder, as others are seen chanting and taunting around him. Indian Country Today reports that the elder in question is Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder who is also a veteran of the Vietnam War and the former director of the Native Youth Alliance. One attendee who shared video of the incident on Instagram wrote that she was “pushed and laughed at by teenage boys who grew up to believe that their lives are more important than ours.”
Another post describing the incident reads, in part: “As we tried to move through the crowd, they closed in tighter around us, and wouldn’t allow anyone to pass. It was obvious that they wanted any excuse for the day to turn violent. They repeatedly ‘bumped’ into us, trying to agitate people into confrontation. But instead, the very few of us left stood quietly, trying to remain calm. I was seething with anger and rage and disappointment. I was so confused about why these boys would go out of their way to harass such a small, vulnerable group.”
Although parents and chaperones were present, multiple witnesses on social media say they did nothing to intervene.
In a separate video, Phillips is seen speaking out about the incident. “I heard them saying, ‘Build that wall. Build that wall,’” he said. “You know, this is indigenous land. We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did for millennia, before anybody else came here.” He also said he wishes that he could take the “energy” of the young man who accosted him and put that into “making this country really great, helping those that are hungry.”
Representative Deb Haaland, who recently became one of the first Native American women to be elected to Congress, condemned the incident on Twitter. “This Veteran put his life on the line for our country. The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking,” she wrote.
On Sunday evening, Sandmann released a statement “to correct misinformation and outright lies being spread about my family and me,” in which he characterizes himself as the victim of numerous confrontations on Sunday.
“I never interacted with this protestor,” Sandmann said of Phillips. “To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me. 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.”
He also paints himself as a “faithful Christian and practicing Catholic” — someone who tries to “remain respectful of others, and to take no action that would lead to conflict or violence.” Per his statement, he is “ready and willing” to cooperate with any investigation the diocese of Covington may undertake.
This post has been updated.