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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Union carpenters fight racism
Pacific Northwest region to address the problem

Posted: October 15, 2001 -- 3:00pm EST
by: Brenda Norrell / Today Staff / Indian Country Today

PORTLAND, Ore. – American Indian construction workers are pressing for a new committee to address racism and discrimination in the workplace in the Pacific Northwest, where union workers are routinely called "Wagon Burners" and "Chief," harassed and demoted regardless of skill.

Cheyenne Bernard Red Cherries, a union carpenter for 16 years was slammed with constant racial slurs on a welding job in Portland. Although he filed a grievance at the regional level with the carpenters' union, he said no action has been taken. None of the 12 non-Indians on the work crew would substantiate his claim.

"Every day I was either called ‘Chief' or ‘Wagon Burner.' It just became an incredibly unsettling environment to work in. I could not concentrate on my job."

Red Cherries has worked all over America as a union journeyman, but it was only in the Northwest that he encountered bitter racism. In the Deep South in Louisiana, he said he was welcomed with Creole music because most people believed him to be Cajun.

"They brought me alligator meat. I got along.

"I have never experienced racism to the degree I have in the Pacific Northwest."

In one instance he reported an American Indian construction worker found human feces in his lunch pail.

Red Cherries, like other American Indians, said he has had enough.

"Before they start fighting it out physically, the union management needs to address these concerns. I don't think it is the unions, it is the contractors that are signed.

"They are the basic rednecks that have fought Indians all their lives.

"They harass Indians until they quit or go back to the reservation."

Red Cherries, from Lame Deer and Busby, Mont., said he is a Sun Dance priest and medicine man, chief in the Elk Society and an Army veteran, classified disabled from injury in the service.

He said he received no respect while on the welding job in Portland for a Seattle company. "I was treated bad even by the apprentices."

Then, a 54-year-old carpenter-journeyman came up to him, pointing his finger. "Word is you're a bad carpenter and a bad welder."

"I thought it was a joke. I kept working."

When he discovered this was no joke, the single parent became more troubled. "I went home pretty upset that night. Obviously they were trying to intimidate me."

He told those harassing him at work, "I'm a 40-year-old person who has worked just as hard as you to get where I'm at."

Now, after filing a grievance and waiting for four months, ineligible for unemployment because he did not resign and was not terminated, he said American Indian construction workers are never granted the same consideration as whites.

"If you are white and blue-eyed with blond hair, they find you a place right away and guarantee your wage."

Red Cherries, also known as Robert Coltte, and Frank Reynolds, Cheyenne and Arapaho union pile driver, are pressing for a new committee to address racism in the workplace in the Pacific Northwest.

In a letter to John Steffens, executive secretary-treasurer of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, the men told him of the need to consult on creation of an ad hoc committee to address racial issues "relevant to our heritage."

"We feel that in order for Native Americans to be productive on the job site and function as a team with the union, we need to have an avenue by which to address their concerns," Red Cherries and Reynolds wrote.

"We feel only Native Americans can fully and totally represent, understand and speak on behalf of other Native Americans."

They said Steffens responded to their letter and sought the names of American Indians in order to move forward with the recommendation.

"We agreed that to attract and retain Native American members, these issues must be addressed," Steffens wrote Aug. 29.

Red Cherries, chaplain for the Northwest Indian Veterans Association, said Native skilled workers face racial slurs and intimidation while being passed over for promotions.

"We are never put in a position of authority. They are afraid we may just replace them.

"Historically Indians are viewed as people who don't like to work. But there are some of us that get up and work for a living. We go out and build a house."

Related links
Savage Indians
The big chief

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