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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

‘Navajo gypsies'

Native American students call for firing of principal for ‘racist' comment

By Nathan J. Tohtsoni
The Navajo Times

CORTEZ, Colo. (Dec. 6, 2001) -- In the motion picture Snatch starring Brad Pitt, a character asks another, "What do you know about gypsies?"

The response is, "I know they're not to be trusted."

That's the negative feeling 18-year-old Marvina Pete has been experiencing at Montezuma-Cortez High School since she said her principal, Mark Rappe, uttered the phrase, "Navajo gypsies."

The alleged comment was made during an Oct. 2 faculty meeting when the issue of the high school's high mobility rate (36 percent) was being discussed. The rate has affected the school's Colorado Student Assessment Program (C-SAP) scores.

This is the first year that the state of Colorado mandated high schools to take the C-SAP exam. MCHS scored "low" because many of its Native American students failed to complete the nine-hour exam because they either transferred to schools on nearby reservations or skipped it all together.

Pete acknowledges that many Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute students attend MCHS for a quarter or a semester before transferring to other communities, but she said that doesn't give anyone the right to make that sort of comment. Many of those students commute from the reservation daily, she said.

Pete, a senior, considers Cortez her home. She wants Rappe to be disciplined.

Pete was born in Farmington and attended one year of elementary school in Newcomb, N.M. She has always been proud to say she's from Cortez, at least until recently. She said if Rappe is not fired, most of the 79 Navajo students could be gone by semester's end.

"The students I've talked to all agree, if nothing is done, we're transferring out," Pete said. "We feel if this isn't done, we don't feel important -- that they don't see us as being a part of the community or as equals."

Region-1 Superintendent Bill Thompson said the situation is being addressed and would not comment beyond that.

Missing the point

Rappe, in his third year as principal, apologized over the school's television monitors a few days after making the comment, students say. That has been his only public acknowledgement. He's avoided all news media inquiries. He did not return a message left by the Navajo Times.

Pete didn't accept Rappe's apology and since then, she has appeared before two school board meetings and conducted two community meetings.

"To me, it was more of an explanation of why he used it, it wasn't an apology," Pete said. "He said it was taken out of context. A true apology would be a straight out, 'I'm wrong and I'm sorry,' not an explanation and then, 'I'm sorry.'"

In the school's November newspaper, The Panther Press, fellow student Kyle Wilson, an Anglo, wrote a column, "Forgive but don't forget." The column listed other forms of slurs that are used with regularity like Blonde jokes, "band fag," "fat" and "stupid jocks."

Pete feels that Wilson is missing the point.

"It's easy for him to say that because nothing was said to him," she said. "Yeah, we use those words everyday, but you don't hear 'Navajo gypsies' everyday. It's something that takes some thinking.

"That sort of hatred has to come from somewhere," she said. "He didn't feel the pain I went through. We want (Rappe) fired for the pain I've seen my peers, friends and family have experienced. It can't be justified by a month without pay."

At the Nov. 13 board meeting, Pete was invited into an executive session with the school board to discuss a solution. She won't discuss what occurred, but said Rappe's termination is a concern among her schoolmates.

"I'm not a hateful person," she said, "but we want him out because of how he handled the situation."

Sister's Cornellia and Tashina Vigil have also said that they would transfer out of MCHS if Rappe remains at the helms.

"Basically it's wrong what he said and stuff," Tashina, a sophomore, said. "You know if a Native American said it, the whole school would be all going crazy saying we're racist. If we said something really mean about the White people, we'd be accused and kicked out of the school."

Inappropriate role model

What concerns Cornellia, a senior, is that Rappe felt "safe" in saying the comment to an all-Anglo faculty. It's only the fact that the comment became public knowledge that appears to bother him, she said.

"He had no problems in saying it," Cornellia said. "It was wrong for him to say it. He's our role model."

Both girls indicated that they would live with an aunt in Shiprock and transfer there.

Junior Marcus Thomas, 17, said in addition to Rappe being fired, the reason why should be put on his permanent record.

"It wasn't an appropriate thing for the leader of our school to say. It's kind of frustrating how the other kids see you now, what they're image of you is now," he said.

Cortez Mayor Joe Keck agreed that the comment was inappropriate for a role model to be making. He said the town has been working on improving its image with Native Americans and this type of behavior doesn't help.

"We live in a diverse world and we should respect every culture, all races," Keck said.

The comment comes at a time when the community is dealing with the killing of a 16-year-old Navajo boy. Fred Martinez Jr., a freshman at MCHS, was allegedly bludgeoned to death by a 17-year-old Anglo male in June.

Family members speculate the crime was fueled by hate because Martinez was openly gay.

Keck said neither the person charged in the murder or the Navajo gypsies' comment are a reflection of the community.

"I don't think it's characteristic of the attitude of the people in town. Our diversity is really our strength, not our weakness," he said.

Sending the wrong message

Thompson said the school district is reviewing the situation. He believes that Rappe may regret making the statement. He would not comment beyond that other than to say, "it's a personnel matter and that's the way it's going to be handled."

Region-1 has 3,200 students in its 13 schools with 23 percent being Native American. MCHS has nearly 800 students with 148 Native American.

Thompson said a diversity task force and an Indian club at the high school have been created in response to the students' request. A half-day of cultural activities is currently being discussed, he said.

Katie Yazzie, a concerned parent, traveled to Window Rock to bring the issue to the attention of President Kelsey Begaye. The tribal officials she met with gave her a deadline to present all relevant information.

Pete missed an afternoon of classes to meet that deadline. She also missed being on the varsity girl's basketball team because she missed tryouts to make a presentation to the school board on Oct. 13. After three years of playing varsity, she is not playing her final year.

A Dec. 18 school board meeting is scheduled during which Thompson will share the findings of the review to the board.

Pete said although the Indian club and cultural day are steps in the right direction, she's unsure if anything would be learned if Rappe is not terminated.

"If they choose not to do nothing," she said, "they're sending out the message that anything racial can be said. They're sending out the message that racism is OK."

© NAVAJO TIMES: The Newspaper of the Navajo People

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