WASHINGTON -- A Native American who was seen in online video being taunted outside the Lincoln Memorial said Sunday he felt compelled to get between two groups with his ceremonial drum to defuse a confrontation.
Nathan Phillips said in an interview with The Associated Press that he was trying to keep peace between some Kentucky high school students and a black 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, and Phillips was attending the Indigenous Peoples March happening the same day.
"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."
Other videos also showed members of the religious group, who appear to be affiliated with the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, yelling disparaging and profane insults at the students, who taunt them in return. Video also shows the Native Americans being insulted by the small religious group as well.
In later footage, one teen stands directly in front of and stares at Phillips, an elder in Omaha, as he sang an intertribal song, Native American media reported.
Nick Sandmann, who said he was the student caught on camera standing near Phillips, shared his side of the story in a statement to local television station WHAS.
"I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation. I realized 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 said, adding that he smiled at Phillips "because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation."
"I never felt like I was blocking the Native American protestor. He did not make any attempt to go around me. It was clear to me that he had singled me out for a confrontation, although I am not sure why," he added.
Sandmann said he never heard his classmates chanting "anything hateful or racist at any time."
Video posted to Instagram captured Phillips' response to that phrase after the confrontation: "This is indigenous lands. We're not supposed to have walls. We never did."
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. In a phone interview, Frejo told the AP he felt they were mocking the dance.
One 11-minute video of the confrontation shows the Haka dance and students loudly chanting before Phillips and Frejo approached them. 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.
During the incident, Phillips said he heard people chanting "Build that wall" or yelling, "Go back to the reservation." At one point, he said, he sought to ascend to the Lincoln statue and "pray for our country." Some students backed off, but one student wouldn't let him move, he added.
Although he feared the crowd could turn ugly, Frejo said he was at peace singing despite the scorn. He briefly felt something special happen as they sang.
"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 gathering and it broke up, he said.
A student who was part of the crowd said Phillips approached one of his classmates as the Black Hebrew Israelite demonstrators accosted the group of students.
"The boy from my school didn't say anything or move - he just stood there. As time went on the man with the drum got closer to his face," the student, who wished to remain anonymous, told ABC News. "The guy with the drum yelled something at us that I could not understand. After a couple of minutes of the man standing there beating the drum in the boy's face, he walked away."
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that some of the teenagers pictured were students from Covington Catholic, an all-boys school in Park Hills, Kentucky. The school's website indicates that its students were in Washington for the 2019 March for Life, an anti-abortion demonstration.
In a statement issued Saturday, the Diocese of Covington confirmed that the young men pictured in the video were Covington students and apologized to Phillips.
"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. 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 diocese said.
"The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion," they added, also extending an apology to March for Life organizers and attendees.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.