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Native American elder from viral staredown says teen's response is coached, insincere

Posted: 9:19 AM, Jan 24, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-24 15:20:03Z

Omaha Nation elder Nathan Phillips says he thinks Nick Sandmann, the Catholic school teen with whom he faced off last week in Washington, is skirting accountability and needs to apologize for his actions.

Phillips, 64, spoke to the "Today" show the day after Sandmann, who is represented by a public relations firm, told the program that he respected Phillips but that he didn't feel he owed anyone an apology .

After listening to 30 or 40 seconds of Sandmann's lengthy interview, Phillips decided he didn't need to hear anymore, he said. He was upset someone told him to watch it, he said.

"Coached and written up for him, insincerity, lack of responsibility -- those are the words I came up with," he said, "but then I went to go pray about it and I woke up with this forgiving heart, so I forgive him."

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Phillips said he believes Sandmann's statements were crafted by the public relations firm and that the young man needs to apologize to a lot of people, with Phillips being "way down the list," he said.

"Because of the tomahawk chop, the mocking, those things," Phillips said. "There's a lot of times he could have walked away."

Phillips felt moved into 'that whirlwind,' he says

Videos from the incident show a small group of Hebrew Israelites taunting and hurling homophobic and bigoted slurs at the students from Kentucky's Covington Catholic High School before Phillips and other native Americans wade into the crowd. Playing his drum, Phillips eventually finds himself face to face with Sandmann, and they lock eyes as Phillips continues to play his drum.

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Phillips said the students surrounded him, and Sandmann blocked his path to the Lincoln Memorial steps. He heard some students chant, "Build the wall," he said.

Though CNN has seen video in which the students engage in the tomahawk chop taunt, no video viewed by CNN shows the kids chanting, "Build the wall."

For his part, the 16-year-old told "Today" on Wednesday that, in hindsight, he wishes he and his classmates would've left the Lincoln Memorial area, where they were awaiting buses to take them back to Kentucky, when the Hebrew Israelites began berating them. He also expressed regret that neither he nor Phillips walked away once they came face to face.

The teen also said he felt Phillips was trying to intimidate him by playing the drum so close to his face, but Phillips said the drum was meant to ease tensions.

"When I put myself in prayer and used that drum to reach God, that mass of young men surrounded me and the folks that were with me," he said. "It wasn't that I felt like I could stop anything or do anything, but I felt like I was spiritually moved into that center, into that center of that whirlwind."

Asked if he should have walked away, Phillips said he tried to but couldn't.

"I was blocked," he said.

'That forgiveness even goes to those chaperones'

Phillips and other Native Americans had taken part in last week's Indigenous Peoples March, while the Covington Catholic students had participated in the March for Life before splitting up for sightseeing and meeting back up at the Lincoln Memorial.

Before Wednesday's interview, Phillips offered to travel to Park Hills, Kentucky, the Cincinnati suburb where Covington Catholic is located, to talk about the importance of respecting diverse cultures , according to a statement from the Lakota People's Law Project .

Phillips, the Indigenous Peoples March and the Lakota group are trying to set up meetings with the students, members of the community and church officials, the statement said. Sandmann indicated to "Today" he's open to speaking to Phillips.

"Even though I'm angry, I still have that forgiveness in my heart for those students," Phillips told the morning show. "That forgiveness even goes to those chaperones and those teachers who should have just said, 'You students, this isn't the place.' "

Still, he'd like to see Sandmann respond with "some sincerity, some sense of responsibility for his actions."

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Asked Wednesday if he felt he owed anyone an apology, Sandmann said, "As far as standing there, I had every right to do so. My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him. I'd like to talk to him. In hindsight, I wish we could've walked away and avoided the whole thing, but I can't say that I'm sorry for listening to (Phillips) and standing there."

Sandmann denied blocking Phillips' path and defended his classmates, saying racism isn't tolerated at Covington Catholic. His peers were engaging in school spirit chants and are being mischaracterized as bigots, he said. As for criticism that he was smirking, Sandmann also refuted the assertion.

"I wasn't smirking," he said, "but people assume that's what I have (done), and they've gone from there to titling me and labeling me as a racist person, someone that's disrespectful to adults. ... They've had to assume so many things to get there without consulting anyone that can give them the opposite story."

Covington Catholic remained closed until Wednesday morning when it reopened amid threats directed toward the school and its students.

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At least four Park Hills police cruisers were posted at the entrance and exit of the school Wednesday. A police officer or security guard on the main road directed a steady stream of cars into the parking lot and student drop-off area.

Phillips told "Today" that he didn't initially experience any threats, but once the high school students reported being threatened, threats began coming his way, too.

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