Profiled on campus

May 10, 2018

Police were called on a pair of Native American brothers on a campus tour at Colorado State University because a parent felt “nervous,” reports Brian Ward.

ON APRIL 30, Thomas Kanewakeron Gray and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray, brothers and Native American students, were racially profiled for the “crime” of attending a tour as prospective students at Colorado State University (CSU).

The teenage brothers arrived a little bit late to the CSU tour after a seven-hour drive from their home in Santa Cruz, New Mexico. During the tour, a parent called the police on the brothers, saying they made her “nervous.” She explained to a 911 dispatcher that there were "two young men that joined our tour who weren't part of the tour” and added that they “really stand out."

Campus police promptly showed up and, despite no evidence of wrongdoing, pulled the brothers out of the tour and questioned them. Body cam footage from the officers shows the brothers explaining that they hadn’t answered questions from the tour guide because they were shy. The officers forced them to show that they signed up for the tour via e-mail--their word apparently not being good enough.

Lloyd Skanahwati Gray (left) and Thomas Kanewakeron Gray were racially profiled at Colorado State University
Lloyd Skanahwati Gray (left) and Thomas Kanewakeron Gray were racially profiled at Colorado State University (Lorraine Kahneratokwas Gray)

The whole ordeal lasted about five minutes, during which the brothers fully cooperated with officers who forced them to empty their pockets and submit to having their pockets patted down.

After finding nothing suspicious, the officers eventually said that the brothers could rejoin the tour, but the group had already left. Thomas and Lloyd apparently never rejoined the group—hardly surprising given that the officer mentioned that someone on the tour called the cops on them.

In a letter posted by the student tour guide to Thomas and Lloyd’s mother, Lorraine Kahneratokwas Gray, the guide explained that their behavior wasn’t the least bit suspicious:

I cannot believe someone on my tour interpreted what your sons “did” (nothing) as suspicious. When they joined my tour, minutes after I left, I was just pleased that they were able to find us. When they didn't introduce themselves, I responded in the way that I have to countless other teenagers who don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of a group of 20 strangers--with a self-deprecating joke.

The brothers had saved all their money to come to CSU, yet were blocked from university spaces that are increasingly becoming less welcoming to students of color.

The boys’ mother, explained to reporters, "This was their dream school, and I wanted to give them that opportunity.”

“I felt they had been the victim of racism and that they weren’t safe there,” she added in a Facebook post. "They're walking on their own ancestors' land, so it breaks my heart."

LORRAINE KAHNERATOKWAS Gray’s comment speaks to feeling of alienation that many Native Americans feel, unwelcomed in places and on land stolen from their people.

The incident also has drawn comparisons to the racial profiling of two Black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks in April, when a manager called police to complain that the men weren’t purchasing anything and were being suspicious--even though they were waiting to have a business meeting.

Native Americans continue to be the subject of racial profiling and are disproportionately represented in the prison population. In Colorado, Native Americans represent 1 percent of the population but are 4 percent of the prison population. In the brothers’ home state of New Mexico, Natives are 9 percent of the population but 11 percent of the prison population.

The modern movement for Indigenous rights—marked by the formation of the American Indian Movement in 1968—saw tremendous police brutality visited on Native activists by cops in Minneapolis and elsewhere around the country. Today, police continue to repress Native activism with violence, including during the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, when Morton County police violently assaulted protesters.

IT’S IMPORTANT to note the legacy of racist education practices and their effect on Native communities in the U.S.

Historically, Natives have not been welcomed in white schools. In Indigenous communities, the legacy of “Indian boarding schools”—whose purpose was to legally steal Native children from their communities following genocidal wars against Natives in the mid-1800s—continues to loom large. The policy of the United States at the time was no longer the physical annihilation of Natives, but the assimilation of Native children into Anglo-American society.

The education of Native children traditionally had been the responsibility of those communities and included a heavy role played by elders. Oral traditions were used, and often are still used today. Such education often isn’t confined to academic education, but also includes the teaching of survival and other life skills.

Indian boarding schools were essentially trade schools that mandated strict gender roles and job skills, rather than stimulating intellectual education. Students were forced to cut their hair, dispose of traditional clothing from their Nation and adopt Christian names. They were also beaten for speaking their native languages. U.S. cavalry captain Richard Henry Pratt, who opened the first such school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, infamously said that the goal for students was to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

A PUBLIC outcry after news of the racial profiling of the Gray brothers at CSU went public forced CSU administrators to respond with an apology, including offering to reimburse the brothers and given them another tour.

In his statement, CSU President Tony Frank acknowledged that “Two young men, through no fault of their own, wound up frightened and humiliated because another campus visitor was concerned about their clothes and overall demeanor.” Frank went on to acknowledge the increase in racist and anti-Semitic hate speech on college campuses across the U.S. in recent months:

The hate that is in the hearts of white supremacists as they attempt to frighten and isolate people across this country is not ignorance. It’s a malignant choice…But history has shown us that hate grows in the face of silence. Hate is not made uncomfortable. Hate does not shrink from fear. What affects hate is our willingness to shine a bright and unwavering light on it and to face it and confront it.

There is no place for hate at Colorado State University, and we will not be silent when we see it.

In the political climate unleashed by the Trump administration, it is no surprise that incidents of racial profiling are making the news. Racism has been part of this country since its inception, and people like the parent on the tour who felt “nervous” around Native Americans now feel even more emboldened to call police on a couple of teenagers doing nothing wrong.

As Lorraine Kahneratokwas Gray made clear, the incident involving her sons is even more dispiriting when considering that large land-based universities like CSU often were created on land that once belonged to Native people, essentially making them strangers on their own land.

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