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 the March for Life 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, who believe African Americans are God’s chosen people, 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 had happened.
During the “Today” interview, Sandmann said he and his schoolmates did not instigate any confrontation and 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 whether he was joining their group. If the elder had walked past him, Sandmann said he wouldn’t have gotten in the way.
“I wanted the 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. They’ve gone from there to labeling me as a racist person, someone who’s disrespectful of adults. They’ve had to assume so much to get there without doing anything to get the other perspective.”
Phillips, who said he walked toward the students to try to deescalate the tension between them and the Black Israelites, said he believes Sandmann should apologize. He said he heard the students yell racist taunts, such as “Go back to Africa!” 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 defuse 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 defuse. 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 a news release from the Indigenous Peoples Movement. Nelson said Tuesday that organizers plan to reach out to Sandmann and to the school.
President 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” by the media.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders echoed the president on “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday and accused the media and “other leaders” of taking joy “in the destruction of young kids.”
“These are kids. Let’s not forget these are 15-, 16-year-old kids that were put in a very tough position and actually handled it very well,” Sanders said, adding that the president is open to having the students in the White House after the government reopens. A partial government shutdown, the longest in history, is now in its fifth week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose home state is Kentucky, also criticized the media and said the students “were met with a virtual deluge of partisan vitriol.” The students and their families, he said, “are paying the price" for exercising their First Amendment rights.
“When the rush for headlines takes precedence over the facts, mistakes are made and our rights as Americans are put at risk,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
The controversy has resulted in death threats that prompted officials to close the school on Tuesday. The county prosecutor said his office is investigating, though he can’t say anything more about the threats.
The all-male school also found itself on the defensive after old pictures of students in what appeared to be blackface at a basketball game surfaced this week. Two students defended their school on “Fox & Friends” Wednesday. One of them, Sam Schroder, described the spectacle as a display of “school spirit,” and said the students “meant nothing by it.” The students were participating in a “blackout” game.
“Blackout” games are fairly common at high schools and colleges, where students wear all black to the sporting events and, on occasion, paint their faces black, too. The practice sparked controversy at Arizona State University in 2014, and the school’s athletics department later asked fans not to paint their faces black to any sporting event over concerns that the look closely resembles blackface, according to the Arizona Republic.
Michael E. Miller and John Wagner contributed to this article.