Nick Sandmann, the Kentucky high school student whose face became widely known after he stood in front of a drum-banging Native American elder on the Mall in Washington, said he wishes he had walked away and avoided the viral encounter.
“In hindsight, I’d like to have walked away from him and avoided the whole thing,” Sandmann told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, referring to tribal elder Nathan Phillips. “But I can’t say I’m disrespectful standing there and listening to him.
“I respect him. I would like to talk to him.”
The interview, broadcast Wednesday on the “Today” show, was the 11th-grader’s first public appearance since the controversy erupted over the weekend, stirring outrage across a deeply divided political spectrum.
Sandmann and his classmates from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky were in Washington for an antiabortion rally when they crossed paths with Phillips.
Videos surfaced on social media Friday showing Sandmann standing in front of Phillips at the Lincoln Memorial. Sandmann was wearing a red Make America Great Again cap and a smile that some saw as an assertion of dominance and others as nervousness; Phillips, who was on the Mall for the Indigenous Peoples March, was singing and playing a prayer song. Videos of a white boy wearing a MAGA hat while smiling in front of a Native American tribal elder and not budging immediately triggered an emotional response.
Later, more videos surfaced showing a fuller picture of what had occurred. Some videos showed the Covington Catholic students and a group of Hebrew Israelites exchanging taunts. Phillips intervened and walked toward the students — specifically, to Sandmann — as he played a prayer song. Conservatives saw the footage as proof that Sandmann did not instigate the confrontation and condemned the others, including the media, for rushing to judgment.
Sandmann and Phillips have given differing accounts of what happened.
During the “Today” interview, Sandmann said he and his schoolmates did not instigate any confrontation and they did not hurl racist insults.
“We’re a Catholic school. And [racism] is not tolerated. They don’t tolerate racism. And none of my classmates are racist people,” Sandmann said.
Sandmann said the Hebrew Israelites were shouting homophobic slurs at him and his classmates. “I heard them call us incest kids. Bigots.”
“I definitely felt threatened. They were a group of adults, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next,” Sandmann said.
When Phillips began walking toward the students, Sandmann said he wasn’t sure if he was joining their group. If the elder had walked past him, Sandmann said he wouldn’t have gotten in the way.
“I wanted to situation to die down. And I just wish he would have walked away,” Sandmann said.
He added: “Now I wish I would have walked away.”
But Phillips stopped in front of Sandmann, and the teen stood with a smile that he said was his way of avoiding aggression.
“I’m willing to stand there as long as you have this drum in my face,” Sandmann said. “People have judged me based off one expression, which I wasn’t smirking.”
Phillips, who said he walked toward the students to try to diffuse tension between them and the Black Israelites, said he believes Sandmann should apologize. He said he heard the students yell racist taunts. He said they mocked him as he played his song.
Daniel Paul Nelson, of the Lakota People’s Law Project, disputed Sandmann’s account of what happened.
“He claims that he was attempting to diffuse the situation by staring at Nathan the way he did. That’s absolutely preposterous … There’s no possibility that the smile on his face was designed to diffuse. It was designed to instigate, and we believe that he knows that,” Nelson said. “His whole frame is that they were somehow attacked and behaving defensively. No, they were not, not toward Nathan. What they did to Nathan was completely offensive, not defensive.”
Phillips has offered to meet with the students and have a “dialogue about cultural appropriation, racism, and the importance of listening to and respecting diverse cultures,” according to the release from the Indigenous Peoples Movement. Nelson said Tuesday that organizers plan to reach out to Sandmann and to the school.
President Donald Trump weighed in on the controversy Tuesday by blaming the media, saying Sandmann and his schoolmates “have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be.” He said the students were “treated unfairly” and “smeared by the media.”