A Catholic school in Kentucky has condemned a group of its students after they were recorded harassing a Native American Vietnam veteran in a video that went viral on Saturday.
The students, many of whom were wearing “Make America Great Again” caps, from private, all-male Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills were in Washington for an anti-abortion rally on Friday when they were filmed surrounding Nathan Phillips and mocking the Native American’s singing and drumming.
One teen in particular is seen standing in front of Phillips, staring into his face with a smile. Fellow students, many in hats and sweatshirts with President Donald Trump’s “MAGA” slogan, cheered him on and chanted, “build the wall, build the wall”, Phillips said.
The footage was shared online by organizers of an indigenous peoples’ march that also took place on Friday.
The video prompted a torrent of outrage online. Actress and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted that the footage “brought me to tears”, while actor Chris Evans tweeted that the students’ actions were “appalling” and “shameful”.
In a joint statement, the high school and Diocese of Covington condemned the actions of the students “towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general”.
“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.”
“The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to an including expulsion.”
Covington Mayor Joe Meyer, a Democrat, said the “appalling” footage had rightly inspired “a tidal wave of condemnation” and that his town was now being linked with “intolerance and ethnic intimidation” because of the boys’ actions.
“The videos being shared across the nation do NOT represent the core beliefs and values of this city,” he said in a statement.
In a separate video uploaded to social media, the 64-year-old Phillips, an elder of Nebraska’s Omaha tribe, wiped away tears as he described the incident.
“I heard them saying ‘build that wall, build that wall’. These are indigenous lands, we’re not supposed to have walls,” he said. “I wish I could see that energy of that young mass of young men, put that energy into making this country, really, really great, helping those that are hungry.”
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.
Phillips holds an annual ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to honor Native American veterans, according to media reports.
He is a well-known Native American activist who was among those leading the Standing Rock protests in 2016-2017 against the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota.
Democratic US Congresswoman Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo tribe, said on Twitter that Phillips had risked his life for his country, and that the students showed “blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance”.