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Nathan Phillips, Native American activist in D.C. standoff, forgives Catholic school students

"Even though I'm angry, I still have that forgiveness in my heart for those students," said Nathan Phillips.
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Nathan Phillips, the Native American activist who was stared down by a Kentucky Catholic school student as he beat a hand drum during a tense moment in Washington, D.C., said he is now able to forgive those who were involved.

"Even though I'm angry, I still have that forgiveness in my heart for those students," Phillips told Savannah Guthrie Thursday in an interview on "Today."

"I forgive him," Phillips said of Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School student who was face-to-face with Phillips. The activist said he was initially disappointed by statements Sandmann released after videos of the incident went viral.

"Insincerity, lack of responsibility. Those are the words I came up with," he said, before adding that after praying about it he "woke up with this forgiving heart. I forgive him."

Phillips was in Washington, D.C., Friday for the Indigenous People's March. Sandmann, one of the students who was attending an anti-abortion rally, said a few Hebrew Israelites began spewing slurs at the group, some of whom were wearing caps with President Donald Trump's "MAGA" slogan (Make America Great Again).

The students began chanting, and Phillips started to beat a hand drum in an effort to defuse the "explosive" situation, he said. He was then met by Sandmann, who stood a foot or two from Phillips' face, with what critics have called a disrespectful smirk on his face. Sandmann said he was smiling.

Phillips said he heard the students chanting "build that wall," and he was "trying to walk away."

"That mass of young men surrounded me and the folks that were with me," Phillips said, adding that when he did find a clearing to walk through, but suddenly in the "clear space, a person was there."

"I was blocked," Phillips said.

Sandmann has said that a teacher with the group of students gave them permission to shout school chants in reaction to the Hebrew Israelites, but Phillips said Thursday he thinks chaperones "should have said to those students, 'This isn’t the place.'"

Still, "forgiveness even goes to those chaperones, those teachers," Phillips said.

Phillips said Sandmann owes many people an apology. He believed the group of students were "mocking" Native Americans, and Sandmann "was the leader of that."

Sandmann said Wednesday that his school doesn't "tolerate racism, and none of my classmates are racist people."

Covington High School was closed Tuesday "due to threats of violence," but reopened Wednesday with increased security. Sandmann said that some in his group have received death threats.

Phillips said he has also received threats. "You know, I didn’t have any problems until the students started saying they were getting death threat, and then as soon as that happened, it started happening with me," he said.

The activist clarified Thursday that he was a Marines reservist during the Vietnam War, but didn't serve in Vietnam. Some reports have said he served overseas in the war.