The region is sparsely populated and dotted with small towns nestled into the east side of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. And it’s the traditional homeland of several tribes, including the Paiute and Shoshone of Bishop, Big Pine, Lone Pine and Fort Independence.
A handful of paroled convicts with known ties to white supremacist prison gangs also live in the valley, according to police officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We know they’re here, but a lot of them keep a low profile because they’re involved in narco-trafficking to support themselves,” said one officer. “We keep a handle on the ones we know about, but a lot of them stay under the radar and live in remote areas. And some are just kids who identify with the racist agenda of these organizations.”
While many white supremacists are not card-carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nation, they bear neo-Nazi tattoos, shave their heads to identify as “skinheads,” and voice racist rhetoric in graffiti and recruitment literature.
Several Paiute families said they have been confronted or intimidated at sports events in Lone Pine and Independence by skinheads throwing racial slurs, but outbreaks of violence here have been rare.
Last month’s written threat to the Bishop Paiute tribe by someone claiming affiliation with the KKK stirred fresh concern among community members that overt racism and hate crimes against tribal members and other minorities may be on the rise, with white supremacist groups recruiting new members through leaflets, billboards, radio commercials, record labels and webcasts.
Several Aryan Nation camps are near Indian reservations in northern Idaho, Montana, Utah and California. White Aryan Resistance founder Tom Metzgerlives in Fallbrook, Calif., near Temecula. WAR describes itself as the country’s most racist group.
American Indians have long been victims of hate crimes in the United States, dating back to the early genocide that accompanied Manifest Destiny and the theft of millions of acres of Indian lands. In California and South Dakota, thousands of Native people were slaughtered when gold was discovered.
Today, many hate crimes are associated with land claims, water rights and treaty-protected hunting and fishing rights for American Indians. Many anti-Indian groups charge that they are only asking for “equality for all Americans,” ignoring Indian nations’ inherent sovereign rights. But some are motivated solely by race.
Negative stereotypes of “drunken welfare Indians” in mass media have contributed to racist assaults, harassment and murders of tribal members.
“A lot of these racists blame others for their low station in life,” said Cal Stafford, chief of law enforcement for the Bishop Paiute tribe. “They say Indians get free money from the government, illegal immigrants are taking all the jobs and no one is standing up for the white race. So they justify their hate crimes by blaming others.”
Hate crimes – defined as criminal acts committed against a person, property, or society which is motivated by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity – are sometimes organized by groups, but often perpetrated by individuals. FBI statistics show that most hate crimes involving assault are committed by people under the age of 25.
The number of organized hate groups in the U.S. increases 20 percent annually, according to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. The report cites several instances of hate crimes against Natives:
In Lansing, Mich., a cross was burned on the front lawn of an Indian mother with two children of mixed heritage. Her 6-year-old sons were terrified.
In a Seattle, Wash. suburb, two young white men approached a Native man standing in front of the Muckleshoot Tribal Center and yelled racial slurs before beating him with baseball bats, leaving him with multiple head injuries.
In 1999, “Indian Hunting Season” flyers were distributed in South Dakota advertising an “open season on the Sioux reservations” against “worthless red bastards, dog eaters and prairie niggers.” The flyers set bag limits of 10 Indians per day with a limit of 40 and prohibited “shooting length-wise in a welfare line.”
In Anchorage, Alaska, police seized a video of three white teenagers assaulting Alaska Natives with a paintball gun from a car on downtown streets. The 2001 video shows male and female victims being hit by marble-sized, frozen paintballs.
In June 2001, the body of an openly gay, transgendered Navajo, Fred Martinez Jr., 16, was found south of Cortez, Colo. five days after he left home to go to a carnival. Police arrested another teen in the murder who allegedly bragged that he “beat up a fag.”
American Indians and Alaska Natives experienced the worst rate of violent crime in the nation in 2000, according to a Department of Justice study. Natives were victimized at a rate of 52.3 per 1,000, twice the rate reported by Hispanics (27.9 per 1,000) and whites (26.5) and one and one-half times that of African-Americans (34.1), according to Bureau of Justice statistics.
Those figures were lower than figures reported between 1993 and 2000, when the average annual victimization rate among American Indians was 105 per 1,000. From 1993 to 1998, the rate was 119 per 1,000.
While no further racial threats have occurred in the valley, citizens from diverse ethnic backgrounds are banding together to stand up against racism through open dialogues and prayer meetings.
“We live in a community where these kinds of things very seldom touch us but when they do, it becomes much more personal because we all know each other,” said Inyo County Sheriff Dan Lucas. “I just need you to know that every man and woman in local law enforcement is there for this community.”
Ted Williams, Third District Inyo County supervisor, told Paiute tribal members, “The community getting together like this is something I have never seen before. You do not have to endure this alone. We are all in this together.”