Watch Your Red-skinned Back: Racist Notes Surface in California Schools
Notes reading “Watch Your Redskinned Back” and “White Pride Bitch” were left March 4 in the lockers of two Pit River Tribe students at a Northern California high school where parents have alleged for months there is systemic, racially charged abuse of their children.
The notes were reported by parents to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, and deputies are investigating whether it constitutes a hate crime. Believing that the atmosphere at Burney Junior-Senior High School has become too toxic and dangerous, two Pit River parents have already transferred their children to the neighboring schools 16 miles away in Fall River Mills.
“I have to protect my daughter. (The administration) should have done something at the beginning, but they sat on their hands,” said Matilda Wilson, whose daughter Sarah, 12, received one of the notes and has been the subject of regular racial taunting. “They have been calling the Native kids names like ‘dirty rotten Indians’ and ‘wagon burners’, but the staff just passes it off as if ‘it’s just kids being kids.’ But then it escalates.”
Pit River tribal member Sharon Elmore’s daughter, Alexis Elmore, 12, received one of the notes. Elmore said the incident made her cry as she remembered suffering similar bullying when she was the same age, a sentiment echoed by many other parents who say racism in the schools has persisted for generations.
“When I heard about the notes, I was really scared. I dropped out in ninth grade because of how bad the racism was, and it’s sad it has never really stopped,” Elmore said. “They’re just randomly attacking our Native kids, and the teachers are looking the other way.”
Elmore believes the notes are related to white students reportedly creating a “Redneck Club” as a response to the Pit River students holding elections for their Native Youth Council. Many running for council had posted “Native Pride” stickers on their lockers, which were later defaced, Elmore said.
Fall River Unified School District Superintendent Greg Hawkins said he met with Burney Junior-Senior High’s principal and vice principal about the incident and they are taking the matter seriously. He said he was unaware of any previous reports of racial issues at the school and said they had not made any decisions whether specific action was necessary to address the situation.
“We value our relationship with the Native American community members, and it’s our goal to have a safe school for everyone,” he said. “But the bottom line is we have to know what’s going on to fix it. We encourage the students and parents to contact the administration if there’s a problem.”
However, Pit River parents have been talking with Indian Country Today Media Network about the racist bullying and the alleged lack of response by administrators since December, and their allegations are remarkably similar to those in recent legal complaints filed in December by the American Civil Liberties Union, Yurok Tribe and Wiyot Tribe of Table Bluff Rancheria against two Humboldt County school districts.
These allegations are being made in a region that is not far removed from the genocide suffered by Northern California tribes during the Gold Rush era when Indians were hunted by government funded militias, forced into slavery under California law and later sent to boarding schools to be converted to Christianity.
“The cowboys and Indians days have never ended (in Northern California),” Elmore said.
In the Humboldt complaints, parents alleged staff ignored their concerns of racist bullying until the Indian students reacted out of frustration, leading to detentions and suspensions while the bullies were relatively unpunished. This led to a cycle, the complaints allege, of Native students regularly being disproportionately suspended and being pushed into continuation schools, where college preparatory classes are unavailable.
Pit River parents shared similar concerns about Burney schools during a January 31 meeting at the Pit River tribal offices, where Elmore and others gathered to discuss her meeting with the high school’s principal, Ray Guerrero. The previous day, Elmore had sent a letter notifying him of her daughter Alexis being sexually harassed by other students during what is known at the school “Slap Ass Friday” and “Crotch Shot Thursday”, which had forced Alexis to change for gym in a teacher’s office in order to feel safe.
Parents at that meeting said racism began to escalate about a year ago when Pit River 7th grader Tyler LaMirande, his two siblings and his mother Michele LaMirande had moved back to the Pit River Tribe’s reservation from the Bay Area after Tyler’s father had passed away from kidney disease.
Tyler had grown his hair long in honor of his father, and students would pull him down by the hair in gym class as well as call him a “long-haired freak” and homosexual slurs, Tyler and LaMirande said. When Tyler was suspended in October after fighting a student who ridiculed his hair, Guerrero told her that she should cut Tyler’s hair to stop the bullying, LaMirande said.
“I can already see Tyler is becoming bitter towards people and angrier. He was a relatively happy kid before he came here,” LaMirande said.
As was reported in the Humboldt county complaints, many of the Pit River students are suffering from depression and anxiety due to the school environments, they and their parents said.
Morning Star Gali, the Pit River Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, transferred her 4th grade daughter, Talissa, from Burney Elementary because she had begun plucking out her own eyelashes from the stress of school. Part of her stress, Gali said, related from teachers being harshly critical or dismissive of her daughter’s perspectives based on her tribal values and history, a problem also raised by many other Pit River parents and students.
“It was concerning that she wasn’t encouraged to go against the grain and that her opinion wasn’t respected when she was the only Native student in the class,” Gali said. “They know better, but they seem like they just want to teach what they want and not go outside of that.”