Alice Piper, a local Native American heroine, was celebrated in Big Pine with a new memorial statue unveiled Monday, June 2 on the lawn outside the Big Pine High School. The full-size bronze statue is the work of Matt Glenn of Big Statues of Provo, Utah.
It was 90 years ago, in 1923, that this 15-year-old from Fish Lake Valley was denied entry to the newly built Big Pine High School on the basis of her race.
A heroine is defined as a woman of distinguished courage or ability, admired for her brave deeds and noble qualities. But in a larger context, Alice Piper is an American heroine whose compelling story changed history, not just locally but on a much larger, grander scale.
The District trustees in the 1920s had agreed to allow Indian students at the school if their parents voted for a measure that would fund the construction of the school. While the measure passed, the board of trustees refused to honor its agreement.
In the early 1920s, California had a law prohibiting Native American children from attending public school if there was a separate government-run Indian school within three miles of a public school. Piper and six other Indian children sued the school district, saying that their 14th Amendment rights (citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws) had been violated.
In a precursor to the United States Supreme Court decision on Brown v Board of Education in 1954 which stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” Piper won her case in 1924 at the state Supreme Court, in Piper v. Big Pine School District, with the court deciding that Native American children have the right to attend public schools regardless of whether parents of the children are relieved from paying taxes. It did not address the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” in U.S. constitutional law that allowed racial segregation under the 14th Amendment which guaranteed equal protection under the law to all citizens.
In an interesting side note, June 2 also marks the day in 1924 that the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was signed by President Grover Cleveland, which declared, “That all noncitizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States.”
It was not until 1947 in California that the last school segregation provisions were finally removed entirely from California law.
Attending Monday’s ceremony were dignitaries from around the county, state, as well as local and other Native American tribes. The Tule River Tribe and the Soboba Tribe both supported the project with a generous donations to the Alice Piper Statue Project and were singled-out for recognition by Big Pine Unified School District Superintendent Pamela Jones.
Others recognized during the ceremony were the Jill Kinmont Education Center, Big Pine Unified School District and Superintendent Dr. Terry McAteer with the Inyo County Office of Education. There were many donations from large to small made by various groups and individuals, without which the project would not have happened.
After introductions and acknowledgement of supporters from both Pamela Jones and Genevieve Jones, chairwomen for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of Owens Valley, a blessing given by tribal elder Ross Stone, and an Honor Song by the Akamya Culture Group, the first and fifth grade students from Big Pine Elementary enthusiastically sang a song specially written by music teacher Dan Conner to honor Alice Piper for the occasion.
An elementary teacher told Jones, “As my students were sharing their favorite things from the year … several students mentioned singing at the Alice Piper statue unveiling. Just wanted you to know how special the statue and our participation in the program was to them.”
After the unveiling ceremony was completed, there was a gala luncheon by invitation only, which featured a panel discussion with the invited guests from Big Pine High School juniors and seniors from the American History Class, followed by dance performances by Akamya. Capping the festivities was a guided automobile tour of the Old Indian Camp, Old Indian School Site, the Big Pine Paiute Tribe’s Permaculture Project and Alice Piper’s house.
Superintendent Jones has been working on this project since 2009 and said that the idea to honor Alice Piper with a statue in front of the school came from a performance by Sage Romero of AkyMya Culture Group. He had dedicated his performance in honor of Alice Piper at the school’s 100th anniversary celebration.
The idea to honor Alice Piper with a statue began to take off when Jones took it to the school board and the Big Pine Tribal Council. With the help of 2013 Big Pine graduate Alicia Peterson and Romero’s sister, Shannon, the group began developing promotional materials, including a YouTube video. An outreach program was also started to collect the necessary funding and educate area residents on the importance of Piper’s legacy.
Jones says of the project, “This is my hope, that the statue is special to all of our students, and inspires them to think of the importance of their education, and the difference that individuals can make in shaping our world into a better place for all.
“On the day of the unveiling what struck me the most, was the incredible outpouring of pride and sense of ‘it is about time,’ for the recognition of Alice Piper and the Native American role in the desegregation of schools in our country. Tribal members locally, and from all over the state came together to celebrate this day. It was humbling and uplifting at the same time.”
There is also interest in ongoing support of the Alice Piper Memorial Statue Project so annual scholarships can be awarded in her name.
There are many parallels between the story of Alice Piper in 1923 and Rosa Parks, the African American civil rights activist who refused to give up her seat in the colored section to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., after the white section was filled in 1955. Parks was arrested and the result was the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Black residents of Montgomery continued the boycott for 381 days and it ended with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in December of 1956 that bus segregation was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment protections for equal treatment.
Both Piper and Parks were quiet, unassuming, courageous young women and unlikely heroines. Both turned out to be the right person at the right moment in history to advance civil and human rights.
Today, 56 percent of the students who attend Big Pine high school are Native American.