FRESNO – The day before the January 23 court hearing on her case, Patty Dawson prepared traditional Navajo naneskaadi (tortillas) over an open fire and served a potluck meal for friends who had traveled hundreds of miles to attend her hearing.
The simple trailer home she shares with partner, Delaine Bill, is nestled into remote forested foothills near Kings Canyon National Park on allotment land his family has owned for more than 100 years. There is no running water or electricity— their only source of power comes through a nearby pump-house where they can shower and cook. The family relies on a potbelly wood stove for heat in the winter.
Their ancestors are buried here, and the land holds strong spiritual and cultural ties for the family. They’ve raised their children, kept to themselves and lived a clean life without drugs or alcohol as members of the Native “wellbriety” movement. “Mono people have always lived here, long before settlers started moving in,” says Bill, pointing to hundreds of mortar holes etched into granite rocks alongside a creek on their property that anthropologists say are more than 500 years old.
But the beauty of the land can’t hide the insidious threat at their back door: numerous white supremacists have moved into the foothills, and some of them are running drug operations near national park lands.
While exact numbers are hard to come by, it is well known that the Ku Klux Klan and other groups have had an active presence in the Fresno region since the 1960s, and California now has more than 68 active hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which estimates that at least a dozen hate groups are active in the Fresno area. That includes the KKK, Aryan Nations, California Skin Heads, Holy Nation of Odin, Aryan Terror Brigade, Bay Area National Anarchists, Blood and Honour America Division, the Creativity Alliance and Vinland Folk Resistance.
An Everyday Reminder
For Dawson, who says she was chased, spat on and brutally beaten by Jennifer Devette Fraser and two accomplices last June, there are constant reminders of people who hate Indians.
On their drive to work and school each day, Dawson and her family pass through Squaw Valley, a town that refuses to change its name despite the fact that it is offensive to local Natives and many others.
Dawson says one of her neighbors—who brands his cattle with swastikas—drives by her home most days in a truck adorned with a swastika. It is not uncommon to see men at the courthouse and other public places with shaved heads and swastika tattoos covering their faces, arms and necks.
Due to increasing gang problems, in December 2010, the city of Clovis approved new policies designed to crack down on white supremacist gangs trying to stake out certain parks in Fresno as new territory, said Clovis Police Captain Vince Leonardo. Police now have more power to prevent gang members from loitering in public places and intimidating passersby.
Three days after Dawson’s attack The Fresno Bee reported that three juveniles had been arrested on felony vandalism and hate-crime charges after going on a “graffiti rampage” during which they tagged about 20 homes, cars and fences with swastikas and white-supremacy slogans.
On Halloween night last year, four months after Dawson was beaten, a local Native teen, Jason Cerritos, was buying snacks at the Arco station where Dawson says she was attacked. From the back of the store, he says he saw five or six men in white hoods and gowns talking to a black man standing at the cash register. “At first I thought maybe they were dressed up for Halloween, but then I heard them harassing this guy,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. “They were saying ‘Don’t worry, we’re not prejudiced or anything. In fact, we got some black people in our family—they’re still hanging out back in the trees.’”
They laughed as the man fled, and Cerritos says the clerk told him later that it was not the first time the men had come in dressed in hoods.
Gloria Hernandez, a local activist who is organizing support meetings for Dawson, said, “There was a lot of media attention since the graffiti was in a neighborhood where lots of police and correctional officers live, but there was absolutely no coverage when an Indian woman was beaten unconscious.”
Going to Court
Fraser has been charged with felonious assault; prosecutors say they do not have evidence to prove that the attack was racially motivated, and therefore, a hate crime. Dawson believes her attackers saw the dream catcher and beads hanging on her rear view mirror and singled her out.
Under federal law, the definition of a hate crime is “a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim…because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation of any person against a person or property motivated by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”
Dawson has not received any medical treatment for injuries she suffered—including a concussion, broken bones in her face and nose, and symptoms of PTSD—because she has no insurance, no money and the nearest clinic that will treat her is in Sacramento, a three-hour drive away. She says she mainly relies on her family’s ceremonies and prayers for healing while awaiting prosecution of her attackers. “That’s what keeps me and my family going – spirituality, sweat lodge and the drum.”
At the sacred fire built the morning of the potluck, John Dawson prayed and thanked dozens of guests for coming to support his daughter. Singers from several tribes sat down to a traditional drum sprinkled with a tobacco blessings, and sang Mono, Apache, and Dine’ songs as guests arrived for food and fellowship.
As the conversation turned to the next day’s preliminary hearing for Fraser’s trial, supporters expressed frustration that Fresno and Clovis police have not more aggressively investigated and prosecuted the other two people that Dawson saw with Fraser the day of the attack.
Since the June 14, 2011 assault, three preliminary hearings have been postponed at the public defender’s request, first because Fraser suddenly claimed she was part Native American. The public defender told Judge Bramer that Fraser should only be charged with felonious assault and not a hate crime since she was claiming to be part Native American. However, by the next hearing, Fraser did not produce any evidence of Native heritage.
At a late October hearing, Fraser made an appearance and asked for a continuance because she was going to have a baby. Then on February 6, the public defender told the judge he had just completed a big case and needed time “to reacquaint himself with the details of the Fraser case.” The next hearing is scheduled for March 5.
Dawson says what happened to her was never accurately recorded in the police report that prosecutors are relying on, and she has not been able to find any supplemental police reports that contain her victim’s statement that attempts to explain the attackers’ intentions. “I was unconscious when police came to the emergency room, and I suffered a concussion from the beating, so I couldn’t remember all the details. Things are coming back to me more as time passes, and I’m upset that the police report they are relying on doesn’t have my side of the story,” she said.
“I gave the police statements three times now explaining how those three people hit my bumper, chased me for more than a mile, tried to run me off the road, screamed at me, spit at me, and finally hit me through an open window when I had to stop for a traffic light. Why? I think it’s because I’m a brown woman. I didn’t do anything to them to provoke this.”
Leonard Pine Flower, a father of six who lives in Fresno, says he is compelled to stand in support of Dawson as a Native man who wants to ensure their women and children are safe. “We can’t let them get away with beating our women,” he said. “We worry that our children will be next. We plan to be visible in numbers at every court hearing to make sure the Fresno District Attorney does not ignore this hate crime.”
For Native families who have been dealing with racism directed toward their children and elders alike, Patty represents their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and grandmothers. “I never thought something like this would happen to me,” says Dawson. “But it did, and now I have to speak up so that this doesn’t happen to other women. I just want the DA and the justice system to do their job and prosecute this as the hate crime that it is.”
According to the California Attorney General’s Office, no hate crimes against Native Americans were reported in 2011. Part of the problem, says Olin Jones, director of Native American Affairs in the AG’s Office, is that Indian people assume they will not get justice in the judicial system, so they don’t report them.
Another factor is that many police departments – like Clovis and Fresno – have never had any cultural sensitivity training and may lack awareness of how race plays into assaults against people of color.