Colene Winn Lopez graduated from Fall River High School in 1985, but still vividly remembers the day her fifth grade teacher pinned her against the wall, screaming in her face that she was a “dirty little Indian” who “wouldn’t amount to anything.”
The experience was so traumatic it undermined the rest of her school years, the McArthur resident says now. “I can still see his eyes, I can smell his breath. I thought he was going to hurt me. This is not something that happened solely to me,” Winn Lopez said “most of our Indian kids from my era had similar experiences (in school).”
Winn Lopez, a member of the Ajumawi Band of the Pit River tribe, said those terrifying school memories resurfaced recently when she heard political candidate Bryan Caples, who’s running for Shasta County Superintendent of Schools, make derogatory comments about Native students during a May 3 candidate forum.
During the forum, Caples told the audience that Native students as well as young people involved in “the court” and “community schools” are “the reasons why in our communities that we don’t want our wives going out to get milk at 8 o’clock at night because they might get mugged or they get hurt.”
Later, he also described “special education” students and Native American students as “small populations who need extensive help,” suggesting that “we need to get to the point where we’re working with those kids in small groups, not putting them into a classroom with 30 or 35 other kids. We need to be working one-on-one, two-on-one, three-on-one, five-on-one with educators who know their needs and are able to help them at that level.”
Caples is running under the campaign slogan, “Students First,” but Native parents say his comments reflect a staggering ignorance about both the potential and actual accomplishments of their students. His comments also seem to contradict both state and federal law, which require students with documented disabilities to be educated inclusively in mainstream classes whenever possible. Restricted settings, such as Caples suggested in his statement, are never appropriate based on race.
Several Native parents interpreted his words as a call for segregation. They also said Caples’ attitudes towards Native students seem rooted in tired stereotypes that they’re dumb, criminal and unlikely to succeed.
“We’re still the dirty savages,” said David Martinez, a Winnemem Wintu Tribal Member and a Whitmore resident, in reaction to Caples’ comments. “They won’t say it, but it’s in their belief system that we can’t be a real ‘American’ if we go to sweat lodge, if we put on feathers and go dance. . . .(his comments) felt like the Jim Crow-era coming back.”
Shasta Scout reached out to Caples several times to provide an opportunity for him to clarify or provide an explanation for his comments, but did not receive a response.
For decades, local Native families and educators have advocated tirelessly to make public schools less hostile and more supportive of Native students, and their efforts have resulted in important reforms in recent years. They say Caples’ comments are emblematic of the pernicious attitudes among some educators that continue to put students at risk and could undermine recent progress.
“I hear Bryan Caples words, and it’s almost like setting us back 50 years. So many of us had uncaring teachers and peers who failed us to stick up for us Native kids.” said Winn Lopez, who after her graduation from Fall River went on to serve on her tribe’s health board and council. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like to have someone in that office like Bryan Caples who is supposed to try to help us but already feels like we’re a failure.”
After Shasta Scout provided her a link to a video of the forum and excerpts of Caples’ comments, Mary Levi, the Chairperson for the California Teachers Association’s American Indian/Alaska Native Caucus, said Caples should publicly apologize for the comments. A longtime elementary school teacher herself, Levi echoed local Native parents in saying Caples’ statements lend doubt about whether he’s fit for office.
“If you’re running for that job, and you’re making statements like that without listening to the Native community, you’re not equipped for that position,” Levi said. “He’s not taking the opportunity to find ways to educate himself, and it’s disappointing.”
Martinez, the Winnemem Wintu tribal member, observed that Bryan Caples should have already had the opportunity to meet and learn from Native parents during his time as superintendent at Burnt Ranch Elementary School District in Trinity County, where nearly 20 percent of the students are Native American. The Record Searchlight reported on his termination from employment there as part of their coverage of his turbulent work history
Caples views towards Native students are particularly important because Shasta County has one of the largest populations of Native students enrolled in public schools in the state. Under the leadership of current Superintendent Judy Flores, who is running against Caples for reelection, the Shasta County Office of Education has invested significant time, energy and resources into developing what’s known as the American Indian Advisory (AIA). The group, which includes representatives from all of the local tribes, serves as an important avenue for Native parents, children and educators to improve the education experiences for Native children.
Since forming in March 2018, the AIA has organized cultural competency trainings for teachers, developed policies to reduce Native students’ absenteeism, begun creating curricula about local tribes, and successfully lobbied for the passage of AB 516, which allows Native students to received an excused absence for attending ceremony. The Wintu Tribe of Northern California, Redding Rancheria and Winnemem Wintu Tribe have officially endorsed Judy Flores due to her collaboration with local tribes and Native families.
Key to the success of the advisory group, Native collaborators say, has been current Shasta County educators’ willingness to learn from the community, conscientiously build relationships and provide a space for Native families to discuss their experiences. Native students face unique challenges in public schools, ranging from problematic textbooks and systemic discrimination to cultural misunderstandings, and many Native parents say it is rare for educators to consult with them on collaborative solutions.
“We’ve had so many people lie to us that we don’t trust easily. You can’t just talk at Native parents. You need to get us together in a room and listen to us when we say what our kids need and what their talents are,” said Cindy Hogue, (Dawnom Wintu), a middle school teacher who also serves on the board of Anderson Union High School District.
Local Native community members say their children generally tend to be respectful, quiet and conflict averse, in part as a survival strategy passed down generationally. Hogue, the middle school teacher, said her aunt and mother told her not to speak about her identity to her teachers. As a light-skinned Native person, she was encouraged to simply “pass” as a non-Native in order to avoid being discriminated against.
“We weren’t supposed to say anything, we went to gatherings in secret, nothing was public,” she said. “It’s only in the last 10 or 15 years that I actually feel comfortable putting it out there that I’m Wintu.”
While Caples comments suggested that Native youth endanger the greater community, the reality is that public schools have often been hostile and dangerous environments for Native youth themselves.
Hogue and other Native community members are related to survivors of Indian Boarding School survivors who retain living memory of how education has been used as a weapon of cultural erasure. As a result of this history, many Native families have complicated relationships to public schooling, where they not only fear their kids will face discrimination but also be immersed in a system that doesn’t value their tribal wold views and cultures.
“Many of our Native families are unsure about the educational process because it was what historically broke down the culture, broke the language, broke down our songs and stories,” Levi said. “Anybody who’s a good superintendent will get the community involved, listen to them and focus on uplifting Native students.”
April Carmelo, a highly experienced local Indian Education coordinator agreed, saying “All the studies show that a lot of the struggles we have relate to intergenerational trauma that was brought on by the cultural geoncide and assimilation policies of our federal government.”
Carmelo who is a citizen of the Greenville Rancheria and also of Wintu, Maidu, Tongva, and Ajcachemen descent added. “How dare he speak about Native students in a negative way when we’re descendants of genocide?”
Data shows that systemic racism continues to affect Native students today, which scholars and Native families attribute to the lingering influence of the boarding school era on public education. According to a groundbreaking analysis “From Boarding Schools to Suspension Boards,” Native students are suspended at significantly higher rates than non-Native students at public schools throughout the state. In Shasta County, Native students represent just 4 percent of total enrollment but are nearly twice as likely to be labeled chronically absent and twice as likely to be suspended.
Researchers found this discrepancy was not because Native students were more likely to misbehave. Instead, discrimination based on educators personal biases or pre-existing attitudes, is often the cause. Native students may also be disciplined for attempting to resist problematic curricula that denigrates their cultures, such as a “Pilgrims and Indians” Thanksgiving activity or a history lesson celebrating Gold Rush pioneers who killed their ancestors.
Hogue who has been a teacher for 30 years, and she has seen how teachers can be biased toward Native students. She recalled one incident when she was trying to discuss with a fellow teacher how to help a couple of struggling Pit River students in her class. She recalled the teacher said, “They’re just Indian kids. What do you expect?”
Hogue, Winn Lopez and others say conditions at the public schools have improved immensely for Native children in recent years and students are becoming increasingly successful. Shasta County data provided by Carmelo indicates that 97 percent of Native American students graduate from high school and 24 percent earn college credits while in high school.
While they remain steadfast that their advocacy will continue, several Native educators fear that Caples, if elected, would undermine much of the American Indian Advisory group’s groundbreaking work and the scholastic gains of Native students.
“(Educators like Caples) don’t see that each of our Native students could be a future tribal leader of a sovereign nation . . . they don’t see the potential,” Carmelo said. “These students are our future leaders, but he degraded them.”
“In order for our kids to be successful, the collaboration with Native parents and tribes has to be there to bring about the change to these systems that have failed us,” Carmelo continued. “The change has to come from us.”
Disclosure: In his previous position at Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), Marc Dadigan assisted Judy Flores in connecting with potential and future members of SCOE’s American Indian Advisory group in 2018. He has no ongoing professional connections with HHSA or SCOE.
Marc Dadigan is Shasta Scout’s Associate Editor and Community Reporting covering Indigenous Affairs and the Environment. His writing has been published in Reveal, Yes! Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, and Indian Country Today. He welcomes your emails at [email protected]
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