Racial bullying continues to occur at a Northern California high school, even after several students from the Pit River Tribe took a stand against peers who have systematically taunted and belittled them.
Verbal attacks are escalating, said 12-year-old Alexis Elmore, a seventh-grader at Burney Junior-Senior High School.
“They tell me I’m disgusting because I’m Indian,” Alexis said. “They call us wagon burners, dirty Indians and savages.”
Two Pit River students already transferred to other schools after they found notes reading “Watch Your Red-skinned Back” and “White Pride Bitch” on their lockers last month. The notes came as Native students held elections for their Native Youth Council. Campaign materials like posters and stickers were defaced.
Alexis, who ran for treasurer, campaigned with pictures of herself dancing at a powwow.
“Girls came up to me and told me it was witchcraft, and it was wrong,” she said, adding that the bullying began last fall and now has expanded to social media.
Alexis and several other students came forward last month to talk about the constant bullying and an apparent lack of response from school and district authorities. Greg Hawkins, superintendent of the Fall River Unified School District, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Parents reported the notes to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office. The case was sent to the major crimes unit, where deputies continue to investigate whether a hate crime has occurred, deputy Seth Edwards said.
The school, which houses grades seven through 12, has a Native student population that is higher than average for the county and state. According to data from the California Department of Education, 27 Native students attended Burney Junior-Senior High School last year, or about 12 percent of the total student population.
There are almost 1,400 Native students in Shasta County or about 5 percent of the total, and about 40,500 Native students in the state, or roughly one-half of one percent of the total student population.
The oppression isn’t only coming from students, however. After Indian Country Today Media Network published its March 18 story, a columnist at a Shasta County newspaper wrote an editorial piece accusing the Pit River students of “stirring the pot” by advertising their Native heritage.
Walt Caldwell, who writes for the weekly publication Mountain Echo, claimed the charges are “blown out of proportion.”
“From what I can find out, if there is or was a problem, the victims could well have been stirring the pot without thinking,” he wrote. Students with stickers reading “Native Pride” were, “at least subconsciously, asking for or looking for a backlash.”
Caldwell goes on to claim Natives have come a long way since the late-1970s when Indians lived in shacks and the sheriff’s log was “full of Indian-involved incidents.” Now, some Indians graduate from college, he wrote. Now, the tribe has a casino, a health clinic, a gas station and a mini-mart.
“Indian folks have medical and social help,” he wrote. “Indians have good jobs, show up neat and clean and on time for work just like their white counterparts elsewhere.”
This editorial may be indicative of a systemic problem in Northern California, said Art Martinez, a clinical and consulting psychologist who is familiar with Shasta County and the Pit River Tribe—an area where racism has persisted for generations.
“This is not isolated among the students,” said Martinez, who is Chumash. “Oftentimes you will find that the school community or rural community is not going to band together to defend the rights of those Native students. They will band together and attack those Native families.”
Racism in Northern California stems from the Gold Rush era when Indians were hunted and tribes’ rights were terminated, including the right to exist, Martinez said. Much of that mentality still exists, and bullying emerges when Native students stand up for themselves.
“Native people are tolerated to some extent, but really better off thought of as people who are nonexistent, or who don’t have the right to be here,” he said. “This community is very sensitive because it’s where the tribe has asserted its rights—or attempted to—in the past and met with a lot of hostility.”
Although Martinez applauds the Native students and their parents for taking a public stand against bullies, he predicts further difficulties for them. As they move through the school system, they may continue to be targeted—by teachers and administrators as well as students—because they spoke up.
That kind of future can be frightening, but it doesn’t mean Native students should keep quiet, Martinez said.
“This fear you see in children is not only a legitimate fear, but there’s something inside that says they can’t live with this fear every day,” he said. “They have to stand up for themselves.”
Theda New Breast, of the Native Wellness Institute in Gresham, Oregon, points to a legacy of white privilege to explain the mindset of the students and especially Caldwell, the columnist.
“What they’re really saying is that they’re part of a generation that thinks Indian people are less than them,” she said. “White privilege shows up when people say Natives shouldn’t be complaining. They’re so overt in their racism they don’t even know it.”
The effects of this kind of systemic racism can be widespread, New Breast said. Young people who endure it won’t come out unscathed.
“When you’re young and you’re targeted because of the color of your skin or the length of your hair, it damages the spirit,” she said. “That damage takes a long time to heal.”
New Breast wants Alexis and the other Pit River students to know they are not alone in the fight. She is publicly calling on Caldwell to apologize for his column.
“He obviously thought he had all the privileges to write like that,” she said. “It’s like during the gold rush when it was OK to hurt the Indians and kill them. This man thinks it’s OK to kill us with an article. I say No. It’s not OK.”