December 8, 2021

How Native American Families Challenged School Desegregation

While the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, memorializes a single Supreme Court case, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is currently advocating for legislation to tell the stories of all the included court cases. Researching lesser-known cases such as Briggs v. Elliot or Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County sparked questions about other obscure cases in the fight for school desegregation. How did other historically excluded communities suffer from and challenge segregation in their schools? Below is a look at two cases related to Indigenous communities.

In the early part of 2021, awareness of Indigenous residential schools increased with the discovery of mass graves at the site of Canadian residential schools. However, in the United States, few cases regarding residential schools exist in the legal record. Students were mostly taken from reservation communities. Attempts to bring cases to court were either met with contempt at the idea of a Native American challenging the law or simply dismissed because they were outside the court’s jurisdiction. The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversaw reservation issues, which would include such complaints, but it had a vested interest in not actually pursuing them.

Brown v Board of Education Map

Map of the various schools that were involved in the cases which were eventually rolled up into the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case.

Instead, school desegregation cases regarding Native American students involved white day schools and families who lived off the reservations. The Dawes Act of 1887, which broke up “Indian land” by deeding it to the heads of families and granted citizenship to participants, intended to “civilize” Indigenous populations by forcing a white way of life. Assimilation brought advancement, or so the narrative went. While this was meant to eradicate Native American culture, families used evidence of their settler-style living to argue for a better education while still maintaining connections to their traditional heritages.

The following two cases in Oregon and California are part of a broader project to understand the scope of cases dedicated to combatting unequal education opportunities in the United States, specifically with regards to non-Black communities of color. Hispanic and Latinx students faced language-based discrimination due to their legal status as white. On the other hand, Indigenous students fought back against attempts to assimilate them into the white population and so eradicate their culture. Since the foundation of our country, the central goal of United States Federal policy towards Native Americans has focused on assimilation into white society and eradication of Indigenous cultures.

In the cases below, both the Crawfords and the Pipers exploited this policy direction to their advantage. Although they became models of assimilation on the surface and to the court systems in order to gain better education for their children, they still retained connections to their culture and identity despite the system’s best efforts.

Klamath County, Oregon

During the era of segregation by law, the “one-drop rule” labeled anyone with so much as a single Black ancestor as Black themselves and consequently a second-class citizen. However, this rule was not consistent across white efforts to oppress people of color. People of mixed white and Native American heritage could be treated as wholly white, if they “voluntarily adopted the customs, usages, and habits of civilized life.”

In Klamath County, located in southern Oregon, William Crawford and his daughters Naoma and Juanita made full use of this policy. Both of the girls’ grandmothers were Native Americans, but for two years they attended a white school. In 1912, however, the school board created an Indian school and refused the Crawford girls admission to the school that they had been attending. Crawford sued for admission in Crawford v. School District No. 7. By providing evidence that he and his family lived as white settlers did, Crawford argued that his daughters were United States citizens under the Dawes Act and therefore eligible to attend white schools. They won their case because the state had not yet legalized school segregation.

A Sanborn Map from 1911 of Klamath Falls in Oregon

photo by: Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

A 1911 Sanborn Map of Klamath Falls, Oregon, once home to Naoma and Juanita Crawford's mother. The structure on the corner of High Street and what is now N. 2nd Street (now on the National Register of Historic Places) belonged to Oregon Supreme Court Justice Henry L. Benson the judge in Crawford v. School District No. 7.

Despite their claims to live as white settlers did in a non-Indigenous community, the Crawford family still held individual allotments of land on the Klamath Indian Reservation under the Dawes Act. This would not have impeded their claims to living white lives, however, as the very act of land ownership was imposed by the US government as part of the process of assimilation. As a matter of fact, such land ownership directly contributed to the dissolution of Klamath lands. Because of the Klamath Tribe’s assimilation under duress, the reservation was terminated in 1961. While the tribe regained federal recognition in 1986, the restored reservation only amounts to 308 acres (1.248 square kilometers).

The usage of the term “civilized” in this case speaks to the prevailing belief that assimilation into white society could be successful by eradicating an individual's culture and heritage. In her book Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast, historian Paige Raibmon calls this practice the “one-drop rule of civilization,” in contrast with the one-drop rule of Black discrimination. Proof of assimilation and of abandoning traditional lifestyles and practices was, in theory, enough to give them the same status as white settlers.

Big Pine, California

Image of a bronze sculpture standing in front of a school building with the words Big Pine Unified Schools and the date 1921 above it.

photo by: Pamela Jones

In 2014 the county erected this statue of Alice Piper in front of what was Big Pine High School.

During the early 20th century, the small town of Big Pine in southern California was home to both white families as well as Paiute citizens. In 1920, the school board constructed a new high school using taxpayer money from both populations, but forbade Paiute students from attending. At the time, a government-run school for Native Americans existed in the community. However, federal funding was scarce, and maintenance of the building was neglected.

In 1923, a 15-year-old Paiute schoolgirl named Alice Piper wished to attend the Big Pine High School. She, along with six other unnamed Paiute students, were barred from attendance and subsequently sued the school board in Piper v. Big Pine School District of Inyo County.

Piper's family claimed that they were disconnected from Indigenous culture because they lived and owned land off the reservation and paid taxes in both the county and state. For the court, this was enough evidence that they were assimilating into white culture, which would allow Piper, and her peers in similar situations, to attend the public Big Pine school. Because their parents were taxpayers, the students were protected citizens despite their Indigenous heritage. In 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren cited Piper v. Big Pine as a precedent for his ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

However, later records and memories of Piper's life show that this might have been just a ploy to get her a better education. Sociologist Marisela Martinez-Cola explains that the case was about “access that was deserved rather than access that required surrendering identities and communities.” Far from cutting ties with their Indigenous heritage, the Pipers claimed membership in the Paiute Tribe of Inyo County, California. Alice Piper eventually served as headmistress for the Carson City Stewart Indian School in Nevada. In California, she kept a house with a greenhouse on the reservation for her entire life and buried her parents in a site maintained by the Paiute Tribe. Despite claiming that she had assimilated, Piper still maintained her cultural heritage.

While the government day school originally built for the Indigenous students was given to the Forest Service for their rangers to use during the Second World War, the Big Pine school still stands today. In 2014, the 90th anniversary of the decision, a statue of Alice Piper was raised on its front lawn in recognition of Piper and the court case.

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Sarai Dai was the Summer 2021 Brown v. Board Intern for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is currently pursuing a MA in Public History at the University of South Carolina. Research interests include sport history, diplomatic history, and international relations, all during the Cold War period. Her prospective MA thesis will track the development of youth ice hockey in North Carolina from the 1970s to 1997.

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