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School to investigate taunting of Native Americans by students

NBC News logo NBC News 2019-01-20 Dennis Romero and Natalie Valdés

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A Catholic archdiocese outside Cincinnati is investigating the actions of some of its high school students during the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington Friday.

Some students wearing Make America Great Again hats and clothing appeared to surround and may have taunted a Native American troupe as it performed the "American Indian Movement" song about strength and courage. It's not clear which of those young people surrounding the Native Americans are students of Covington Catholic High School in Covington, Kentucky. There appears to have been jeering by another group of people preceding the incident caught on video.

But the Diocese of Covington criticized any students who participated in the action, which broke out as a group from the school was in Washington for the anti-abortion event March for Life.

Its statement, forwarded by archdiocese spokeswoman Laura Keener, singled out Native American leader Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam War veteran and Omaha elder. In social media videos of the incident Phillips can be seen singing as a male taunts him smilingly and gets close to his face.

The male was not identified.

"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, D.C.," the archdiocese's statement reads. "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 archdiocese said the matter was under investigation and students could be expelled.

a group of people looking at a cell phone: A student wearing a Make America Great Again hat looks at Native American Nathan Phillips as he performs the "American Indian Movement" song about strength and courage.in Washington on Jan. 19, 2019. © @ka_ya11 A student wearing a Make America Great Again hat looks at Native American Nathan Phillips as he performs the "American Indian Movement" song about strength and courage.in Washington on Jan. 19, 2019. When asked for comment by NBC News, the interim head of the Vatican press office Alessandro Gisotti said the diocese of Covington had already "strongly condemned" the students' actions.

During the incident some young people appeared to surround Native Americans and others started to jump and chant. One young person is heard saying during the Native Americans' song, "This is deep."

In an interview with MSNBC's Joy Reid on Sunday, Phillips said he approached the group of students after witnessing them going back and forth with a group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites.

Phillips said the students surrounded the significantly smaller group, as participants of the Indigenous People's March watched on the sideline.

Drumming and praying to God to help end the march on a positive note, Phillips said he approached the rivaling groups in hopes of defusing the situation.

"Look at my America. Look at my black and white brothers here. They’re tearing at each other. We are at a point where you can't stand by and watch this," Phillips said.

Phillips told NBC News that some of the young people surrounding him chanted support for President Trump's proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Chants of 'Build the wall' and other things that were even worse," he said as he stood in the rain in Washington. "They were brought up to believe I’m less than human."

The elder said he's getting hateful phone calls and is afraid to answer his phone in the wake of the incident, which came nearly a week after Trump mocked U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's claim to Native American ancestry.

"I’m still trying to process it," Phillips said. "Who they were, who those young folks were, where they came from and who’s bringing them up. Where were the chaperones? How did this come to this point ... ?"

"It’s gonna take us all to come together," he added. "I’m about prayer, but then you have to have some action to go with it."

On Sunday, Phillips said he doesn't know if the boy in the video should be expelled from school, but said the trip's chaperones should be fired.

"Where were they? How did they allow these students to come to this point after an hour of this happening? Were they with them? Were they encouraging them?" he said of the chaperones.

Debra Haaland, who with Sharice Davids became the first Native American women to ever be elected to Congress, said the video and growing intolerance made her "really sad."

"These young kids should be taught to respect their elders, that they're important," the New Mexico Democrat said. "People ... they're getting so bold with what they're saying."

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