A US diocese has apologised and vowed to take action after videos emerged showing boys from a Catholic private school mocking an elderly Native American man at a rally in the capital, Washington, prompting widespread criticism.
The Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on Friday coincided with the March for Life, which drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters, including a group from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky.
Videos circulating online show a youth staring at and standing extremely close to Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American man singing and playing the drum.
Other students, some wearing Covington clothing and many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and sweatshirts, surrounded them, chanting, laughing and jeering. A student wearing clothing from Owensboro Catholic High School was also present.
In a joint statement, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School apologised to Phillips. Officials said they are investigating and will take “appropriate action, up to and including expulsion”.
“We extend our deepest apologies to Mr Phillips,” the statement read. “This behaviour is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.”
According to the “Indian Country Today” website, Phillips is an Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran who holds an annual ceremony honouring Native American veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.
Marcus Frejo, a member of the Pawnee and Seminole tribes who is also known as Chief Quese Imc, said he had been a part of the march and was among a small group of people remaining after the rally when the boisterous students began chanting slogans such as “Make America great” and then began doing the haka, a traditional Maori dance.
Frejo told the AP news agency that he felt they were mocking the dance and also heckling a couple of black men nearby.
“When I was there singing, I heard them saying, ‘Build that wall, build that wall’,” Phillips said, as he wiped away tears in a video posted on Instagram. “This is indigenous lands. We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did.”
In another video posted on Twitter, an Indigenous Peoples March protester shouts: “Just because you stole the land don’t make it yours,” to which a student wearing an Owensboro Catholic High School logo responds, “Land gets stolen, it’s how it works. That’s the way of the world.”
Frejo said he joined Phillips to defuse the situation, singing the anthem from the American Indian Movement with both men beating out the tempo on hand drums.
Although he feared a mob mentality that could turn ugly, Frejo said he was at peace singing despite the scorn. He briefly felt something special happened as they repeatedly sang the tune.
“They went from mocking us and laughing at us to singing with us. I heard it three times,” Frejo said. “That spirit moved through us, that drum, and it slowly started to move through some of those youths.”
Eventually, a calm fell over the group of students and they broke up and walked away.
A ‘Heartbreaking’ display
State Rep Ruth Buffalo, a North Dakota politician and member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, said she was saddened to see students showing disrespect to an elder who is also a US military veteran at what was supposed to be a celebration of all cultures.
“The behaviour shown in that video is just a snapshot of what indigenous people have faced and are continuing to face,” Buffalo said.
She said she hoped it would lead to some kind of meeting with the students to provide education on issues facing Native Americans.
US Rep Deb Haaland, of New Mexico, who is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and had been at the rally earlier in the day, used Twitter to criticise what she called a “heartbreaking” display of “blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance”.
Haaland, who is also Catholic, told AP she was particularly saddened to see the boys mocking an elder, who is revered in Native American culture. She placed some of the blame on President Donald Trump, who has used Native American names such as Pocahontas as an insult.
“It is sad that we have a president who uses Native American women’s names as racial slurs, and that’s an example that these kids are clearly following considering the fact that they had their ‘Make America Great Again’ hats on,” Haaland said. “He’s really brought out the worst in people.”