Article

Alice Piper

An old photo of Alice Piper with a group of Owens Valley Paiute in front of the community center in the 1920s.
Alice Piper stands in the upper back row farthest to the left (next to the window). She is with a group of Owens Valley Paiute in front of the community center in the 1920s.

Photo courtesy of the Laws Railroad Museum & Historical Site in Bishop, California.

Article Written By Ellie Kaplan

Manzanar is most frequently associated with the three-and-a-half-year period in its history when over 10,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated there; however, its story stretches back thousands of years as part of the homelands of the Owens Valley Paiute and other Native peoples. Just thirty-four miles from the current Manzanar National Historic Site, Alice Piper, a 15-year-old Paiute student, made history in 1924 by successfully suing the Big Pine School District to integrate their classrooms and allow Indigenous students to attend their newly built school. The California Supreme Court Case Piper v. Big Pine School District of Inyo County not only changed the treatment of Indigenous students in California schools, but also set a precedent that was cited thirty years later in the US Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.1

Alice Piper was born on June 7, 1908 in Big Pine, California.2 Her father, Pike, was a laborer and her mother, Annie, was a laundress.3 Piper attended the nearby Indian day school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This school opened in 1891 during the height of the assimilationist model of Native American education, as the federal government operated schools to sever Native children’s ties with their Indigenous cultures and homelands and replace them with an Anglo-American curriculum that emphasized careers in manual labor for Native graduates.4 Many of these Indian schools, including the one in Big Pine, were habitually underfunded, offered fewer grade levels, and were generally of poorer quality than the corresponding local public schools. Funding shortfalls and low enrollments had led to the closure some of these Indian schools in the 1910s, with the Native pupils then attending public schools, often to the displeasure of white parents.5 Late nineteenth-century California court cases had affirmed the right of local school districts to follow a “separate but equal” doctrine and most white parents expected segregated schools.6 Thus in August 1923, when Piper and six other Native children attempted to attend the Big Pine grammar school, the school board’s refusal had community support.7

As with many test cases, the lawyer for the Native students was likely strategic in designating Piper the lead plaintiff. A community witness to the case described Piper as “beautiful” and “intelligent,” indicating that she came across in court as an ideal plaintiff.8 Piper’s successful lawsuit, filed in December of 1923 and decided unanimously by the California Supreme Court on June 2, 1924, represented a significant step in school integration in California. The court sided with Piper on the basis that her parents were tax-paying citizens of the United States who had not lived on a reservation.9 At this time, California Indians, like Piper, were not recognized as belonging to a specific tribe by the US government and were thus considered citizens of the United States. In addition, the court cited the unequal quality of the Indian school compared to the public school as reason to support the admission of Piper and the six other Native students.10

Piper never discussed the pivotal court case as an adult.11 According to the 1937 Indian Census Roll, at 28 years old, Piper was single and listed in her father’s household in Inyo County, California.12 She later appeared in the 1961 yearbook for the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nevada, working as an instructional aide for boys.13 Piper died in Los Angeles on August 22, 1985 at the age of 77.14 Ninety years after her triumphant court case, in June 2014, a statue outside the Big Pine School memorialized Alice Piper’s contributions to improving educational equality for Native students in California.15


1 - Nicole Blalock-Moore, “Piper v. Big Pine School District of Inyo County: Indigenous Schooling and Resistance in the Early Twentieth Century,” Southern California Quarterly 94 no. 3 (Fall 2012): 346-77, http://www.order.emory.edu/courses/2015-16/Blalock-Moore-2012.pdf.

2 - “Alice Piper in the California, Index to Census Roll of Indians, 1928-1933,” Indians of California Census Rolls Authorized Under the Act of May 18, 1928 As Amended, Approved May 16-17, 1933, series number M1853, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, group number 75, microfilm roll number 1, database on-line, Ancestry.com, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

3 - “Pike Piper in the 1930s United States Federal Census,” 1930, Township 2, Inyo, California, page 6A, enumeration district 0004, FHL microfilm 2339854, database on-line, Ancestry.com, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

4 - Blalock-Moore, “Piper v. Big Pine,” 354; See: Jon Allan Reyhner and Jeanne M. Oyawin Eder, American Indian Education: A History, 2nd ed. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), chapter 4; Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

5 - Blalock-Moore, “Piper v. Big Pine,” 355.

6 - Blalock-Moore, “Piper v. Big Pine,” 351. “Separate but equal” was enshrined in the US Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

7 - Blalock-Moore, “Piper v. Big Pine,” 364-65.

8 - Inyo Independent, May 10, 1946 quoted in Blalock-Moore, “Piper v. Big Pine,” 368.

9 - Blalock-Moore, “Piper v. Big Pine,” 370-72.

10 - Blalock-Moore, “Piper v. Big Pine,” 347. Coincidently on the same day the Piper decision was released, the US extended citizenship to all Native Americans, regardless of their tribal membership. Although Piper was an important decision, provisions for school segregation were not fully removed from California law until 1947.

11 - Blalock-Moore, “Piper v. Big Pine,” 350.

12 - “Alice Piper in the U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940,” 1937, roll M595_21, page 54, line 11, Carson Agency, database on-line, Ancestry.com, Records of the Bureau of Indians Affairs, Record Group 75, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Acknowledgements:

This project was made possible in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation.

This project was conducted in Partnership with the University of California Davis History Department through the Californian Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, CA# P20AC00946

Manzanar National Historic Site

Last updated: October 14, 2021