Amid mounting outcry and an announcement from officials at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky that it had launched an investigation into the incident, the student seen in footage that was shared widely online said he had been seeking to defuse the situation after the protester, Nathan Phillips, 64, approached him.
“I am providing this factual account of what happened on Friday afternoon at the Lincoln Memorial to correct misinformation and outright lies being spread about my family and me,” Nick Sandmann said in a lengthy statement provided to the media.
“The protester everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him. I did not see anyone try to block his path. He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face.”
He added: “I never interacted with this protester. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me. We had already been yelled at by another group.
“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse [sic] the situation. I realised everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict.”
The boys asked permission from adults accompanying them to perform school spirit chants, he said, to counter a “hateful” tirade directed their way by another group of demonstrators. “At no time did I hear any student chant anything other than the school spirit chants. I did not witness or hear any students chant “build that wall” or anything hateful or racist at any time,” he said.
In the days since the incident on Friday, the students have been accused of everything from displaying white male privilege to blunt racism.
Some defending the boys have said they were the victims in the situation, pointing to separate footage showing they had been subjected to a barrage of abuse by a third group, claiming to be “Hebrew Israelites”, who hurled homophobic slurs at them.
The Indigenous Peoples Movement, which organised the march Mr Phillips had attended, said the incident was “emblematic of our discourse in Trump’s America”.
“It clearly demonstrates the validity of our concerns about the marginalisation and disrespect of indigenous peoples, and it shows that traditional knowledge is being ignored by those who should listen most closely,” Darren Thompson, an organiser, said in a statement.
“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,” he said.
“I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way, and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”
He said he continued to drum and thought about his wife, who died of cancer four years ago, and other threats faced by indigenous communities.
He said: “I felt like the spirit was talking through me.”
Mr Sandmann added: “This is the first time in my life I’ve ever encountered any sort of public protest, let alone this kind of confrontation or demonstration.
“I was not intentionally making faces at [Mr Phillips]. I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation.”
The Covington group was reportedly in Washington DC to attend the anti-abortion March for Life event. On Saturday, school officials and the Catholic diocese of Covington released a joint statement apologising for the behaviour of the students.
“We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general,” the statement said. “The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”
Covington mayor Joe Meyer, a Democrat, said the “appalling” footage had rightly inspired “a tidal wave of condemnation” and that his town was now being linked with “intolerance and ethnic intimidation” because of the boys’ actions, Reuters reported.
Mr Sandmann, the student, said he had forwarded his account of what had happened to officials at the school and was willing to cooperate with its investigators.
“I am being called every name in the book, including a racist, and I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination of my family’s name,” he added. “My parents were not on the trip, and I strive to represent my family in a respectful way in all public settings.”
He and his family had received threats following the incident, he said.