After outrage, new context in viral video of Native American, smiling teen

Native American elder Nathan Phillips is seen with Nathan Phillips. (Courtesy CNN)

WASHINGTON — Viral video of a Native American elder standing face to face with a smiling teenager in a “Make America Great Hat,” surrounded by laughing schoolmates at the Lincoln Memorial, sparked news reports and social media outrage, apologies and complaints of mob justice.

Two days later, details of what brought a Covington Catholic High School student and a Native American activist together — yards from where Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech — are painting a more complicated picture.

News reports and social media rants described the teen as “smirking,” and incorrectly characterized the school group as chanting “build the wall” — a rallying cry for supporters of President Donald Trump.

However, Native American elder Nathan Phillips, who was encircled by the teens, who were in Washington for the abortion rights opponents March for Life rally, now says he approached the teens.

Several additional videos of late Saturday afternoon at the Lincoln Memorial — shot by bystanders — show the choreography that brought the teens into close proximity with Phillips, who was beating a hand drum.

Phillips said he walked toward the students, who were within shouting range of a group of black men who identified themselves as Hebrew Israelites.

Social media video showed the group preaching their beliefs, and at times cursing at the students and the Native Americans:

The 64-year-old Phillips told The New York Times he intervened because he feared racial tensions between the teens and the Hebrew Israelites were “coming to a boiling point.”

Phillips said, “I stepped in between to pray.”

Another member of Phillips’ group, Marcus Frejo said, “We chose to go over there, to sing a song to hopefully change something.”

Social media video showed Phillips and his group walking between the Hebrew Israelites and the Covington students, who were waiting for the bus to return to Kentucky after the march:



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Phillips walked slowly, beating the drum, and eventually stopped in front of the teenager wearing the Make America Great Again hat:



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As depicted countless times on social media, the man beat the drum, the teen stood still, smiling, while his classmates laughed, and in some cases, jeered:

Phillips and other bystanders reported hearing bigoted remarks from the teens.

Sunday, the teenager who stood face to face with Phillips identified himself, in a statement released by his family through a public relations group.

“I am the student in the video who was confronted by the Native American protester,” said Nick Sandmann, a Covington Catholic High School junior, in the statement.

Sandmann concurred with Phillips that the high school group was being abused vocally by the Hebrew Israelites.

A leader of the group — Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan — told The New York Times his words had been misconstrued, and his group was being mocked by the students.

“I know we seem aggressive reading the Bible, but the Bible states for us to cry aloud and don’t spare anybody’s feelings,” Banyamyan said. “We’re not violent or ignorant.”

Sandmann said the group had asked their teacher chaperone for permission to do school spirit chants “to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group.” The school has not commented since the student’s statement.

After a few minutes, he recounted the Native American group walking toward his classmates.

“The protester everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him. I did not see anyone try to block his path. He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face,” Sandmann wrote.

The student said someone in Phillips’ group yelled that the students “stole our land,” and should “go back to Europe.”

Sandmann said he was “startled” that he was the focus of the attention. “I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse (sic) the situation.”

“I realized the everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand,” he wrote.

Sandmann did not mention the word “smirk,” which was used often in criticisms of the group’s behavior, that had prompted an apology from the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School.

“I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation,” said Sandmann. “I harbor no ill will for this person.”

Sandmann said he and his family have been the recipients of vile comments and threats.

“I am being called every name in the book, including a racist, and I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination of my family’s name,” he said, adding he is cooperating with his school’s investigation into the circumstances of the incident.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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