MACY, Neb. -- The former chairman of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska expressed disappointment Sunday with the conduct of high school students who were captured on video engaging in a confrontation with an Omaha elder in Washington, D.C.
In the video, students from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, appeared to mock 64-year-old Nathan Phillips, an elder in the Omaha Tribe, as he sang and played a drum. Many of the students wore "Make America Great Again" hats, and one student stood close to and stared at Phillips, a Vietnam veteran.
Phillips was participating in the Indigenous Peoples March, which coincided with the March for Life, an event that drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters, including the Covington students.
Video footage of the incident created a major and contentious stir online over the weekend. Thousands considered the students disrespectful, while rumors swirled -- particularly in conservative circles -- that Phillips was at fault, not the students.
Rudi Mitchell, 79, is a former chairman and elder of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, who met Phillips last summer at a powwow. He was not impressed by the behavior of the students in the video, which he saw in news coverage.
"I was just taken aback at the way those young high school students treated him," said Mitchell, who, like Phillips, is a veteran of the Vietnam War. "One of our main values is respect to elders."
Mitchell said it was an "insult" for the students to behave as they did toward Phillips, particularly since Phillips is a veteran. Members of the Omaha Tribe gathered at the Nebraska State Capitol Sunday afternoon to protest Phillips' treatment, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.
News reports and analysis of the incident have given rise to more than one narrative. Perhaps the most widely reported version, as of Sunday night, was that Phillips had tried to deescalate a heated confrontation between the Covington students and a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites, as was reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Nathan Phillips, who was attending the Indigenous Peoples March Friday, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he was trying to keep peace between some Covington students and the religious group that was also on the National Mall on Friday. The students were participating in the March for Life, which drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters.
"Something caused me to put myself between (them) — it was black and white," said Phillips, who lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan. "What I saw was my country being torn apart. I couldn't stand by and let that happen."
Phillips said it was a difficult end to an otherwise great day, in which his group sought to highlight injustices against native people worldwide through marching and prayer. He said his first interaction with the students came when they entered an area permitted for the Indigenous Peoples March.
"They were making remarks to each other ... (such as) 'In my state those Indians are nothing but a bunch of drunks.' How do I report that?" he told the AP. "These young people were just roughshodding through our space, like what's been going on for 500 years here — just walking through our territories, feeling like 'this is ours."
Nearby, the black religious activists were speaking about being the only true Israelites. Phillips said group members called the Native Americans "sell-outs."
Nick Sandmann, the Covington student who was facing Phillips and smiling in the video, released a statement Sunday about the episode. Sandmann said the Black Hebrew Israelites were making derogatory statements toward the students, calling them "racists," "bigots," "white crackers" and other, more obscene insults.
The students, according to Sandmann, then replied with school spirit chants. His statement maintains that, as far as he knows, students did not chant "build the wall," as has been reported elsewhere.
Sandmann's statement says that Phillips, as he walked through the crowd, was not harassed by himself or other students, and that it was Phillips who positioned himself close to Sandmann's face.
"I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation," Sandmann's statement says.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School issued a joint apology to Phillips, saying they plan to take "appropriate action, up to and including expulsion," the Associated Press reported.
Phillips told The Washington Post Saturday that he felt threatened by Sandmann and the other Covington students.
“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 Post. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”
Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and a local Native American activist, said in an emailed statement Saturday that "Make America Great Again," a slogan popular among Trump supporters and visible on the students' hats, is part of what makes the video so divisive.
“It is easy to pull people apart. Those who donned Make America Great Again hats in Washington and disrespected an Omaha spiritual leader and veteran showed us how easy it is to do that," LaMere's statement said in part. "It is hard to bring people together! That is what Nathan Phillips was seeking to do when young white men maligned his sacred and fervent prayer songs offered for all of us! Their actions were insensitive at best and clearly racist at worst!”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.