Ninety years ago, a 15-year old Native American girl from Fish Lake Valley took an important step toward access to quality education. Alice Piper and six unnamed co-plaintiffs sued the Big Pine School District and prevailed in the California Supreme Court.
While the courtâs judgment stopped short of abolishing the concept of âseparate but equal,â the case is considered a precedent for the United States Supreme Court decision that did, Brown v Board of Education.
Alice and her parents, Pike and Annie Piper, are important players on the stage of racial equality, but far less known than those whose efforts were helped along by mass media. Soon, however, Piper and what she accomplished for Native Americans will be honored in front of the very school she sought to attend, Big Pine High School.
Sage Romero can be credited with lighting this particular flame. During the 2009 celebration of the schoolâs 100th anniversary, the community outreach coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe dedicated his celebratory dance to Alice Piper. âOf probably 300 people there,â said District Superintendent Pamela Jones, âfew knew who Alice Piper was.â Jones took the idea of honoring Piper to her school board and to the Big Pine Tribal Council. Now, five years later, the details have been worked out and the fundraising campaign is about to launch to make the statue a reality. âThis is a heartfelt project,â said Jones. âWeâve been working on it for a long time.â
A replica of the finished statue has been created by Matt Glenn of Big Statues in Provo, Utah and a page on Kickstarter.com is about to launch to secure backers for the $40,000 project. âThe Kickstarter deadline for hitting our $40,000 goal is 30 days from launch,â said Jones. âIf we donât raise the money by then, we get nothing. No one pays until the campaign is over.â The project was submitted to Kickstarter Feb. 12 and should launch by this coming week. The hope is that the campaign will raise the necessary funds in time for an unveiling on June 2, the 90th anniversary of the courtâs decision.
Romero and Big Pine High School 2013 graduate Alicia Peterson developed a video to promote the effort; Shannon Romero designed the plaque to be set at the base of the statue with a brief summary of the Piper story. Glennâs replica started with a simple pencil sketch. The only problem, according to Jones, was that âshe didnât look like a Paiute girl.â Robert Guiteriez took the only photo of Piper available, a school group photo, and redid Glennâs sketch with Piperâs face. Now, the replica and the finished statue will easily be identified as a member of the Paiute tribe.
Romero, who describes himself as a proactive tribal member promoting the positive aspects of Native American culture, researched Piper for a multi-media presentation with a grant from the California Indian Arts a few years ago. Piper and her accomplishments have remained hidden, âa shadow,â as Romero said. âThere was no big show,â he said. âThe family just did it. It was a different way.â
Viewed nearly 100 years after the fact, the details of the case are almost unimaginable. According to state law at the time, school districts had the power to establish separate schools for Indian children as well as children of Chinese, Japanese or Mongolian descent. Within districts with these separate schools, those children could not be admitted to the traditional public schools. In addition, the federal government had set up schools specifically for Native American children. California law indicated that in districts with federal schools âthese children should not be admitted to the district school,â according to the Berkeley Law Scholarship Repository website.
In 1924, the Big Pine district did not maintain a separate school for Native Americans but there was a federal school within district boundaries. On that basis, the district board of directors denied Piper admission. Piper and six other teenagers sued. According to Romeroâs research, the federal schools taught the students to do âmanual labor, to be servants.â The schools were indeed separate but in no way equal to the public education available to other citizens. The decision was handed down on June 2, the same day Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act.
The court required that Big Pine admit Piper and her co-plaintiffs on the basis that it was the stateâs responsibility to provide quality education, despite the existence of a federal alternative. While it wasnât the resounding death knell to separate but equal schools knocked down by the U.S. Supreme Courtâs Brown v Board of Education decision, it was definitely a significant step in that direction.
For both Jones and Romero, honoring Piper with the statue on the front lawn of the school she sued to get into sends an important message 90 years later. The statue, said Jones, âis a symbol of the struggle to break down barriers.â Itâs also about Native American accomplishments and Big Pine history.
âSome youth have lost their motivation in school,â said Romero. âThey need to see that we fought to be there.â
A Youtube video telling Alice Piperâs story can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuAq_LKOzKg.