When Whisper SunRhodes and her roommate, Braylee Armajo, returned to their Sheridan College dorm room late on Sept. 27, they found a racial slur written on a whiteboard on their door.
“Yuh! Praire (sic) n------.”
The women — both members of the Northern Arapaho tribe — were coming home from Walmart. They’d been on campus for a month, SunRhodes’ first weeks away from home.
“I don’t know how to explain it to anybody,” she said last week. “It’s kind of scary, and I don’t know — it’s just so shocking how it happened. I didn’t think it would ever happen to me. I guess things change.”
“They didn’t even spell prairie right,” said her mother, Lynelle Shakespeare.
The two students went to their resident assistant that night, and the police and other university officials were notified in the morning.
But it wouldn’t be the last time the roommates’ whiteboard was vandalized with a slur.
College President Paul Young said he realized in the wake of the incidents that these weren’t the first times native students had been targeted.
It prompted “soul searching” by the college’s leader, and he said he strove to inform the school. It’s also sparked broader conversations on campus and inspired the college’s native students to come together, SunRhodes said.
“By noon (on Thursday), we had provided materials to our faculty on the campus about the incident,” he said. “The whole campus was notified.”
The campus gathered Sept. 28, less than 24 hours after the first note was discovered, to talk about what happened. People from the Crow Reservation, in southern Montana, also attended.
Young said the discussion was “a little” tense.
“I hear from the other side, ‘Oh, you’re overreacting,’” he said. “To a marginalized population, it’s a very big deal. So this is a setback in that respect.”
Shakespeare traveled to Sheridan from where she lives on the Wind River Reservation, and they spent the weekend out of the dorms. The residence hall didn’t have security cameras, so whoever was responsible — and whether they planned to escalate their attack on the women — was unclear.
Young said he wanted to indefinitely relocate the students to another residence hall on campus, but they wanted to stay.
“There’s a darker possibility to this,” he said. “You don’t want any harm to come to anyone. ... (But) we don’t want to give in to intimidation. If we move our dorm rooms, that’s giving in to this craziness. I can appreciate that.”
Early Monday morning, SunRhodes was heading back to her dorm room when her phone rang. Stay put, she was told. Something else had been written on her door, this time directly naming her roommate.
“BraYlee leave savage.”
“I honestly feel scared,” SunRhodes said. “At first, a cop would stand outside our door and walk us to class. Now they haven’t found anybody, any suspects. ... It’s frustrating. What if the person tries to say something else besides or hurt us?”
Young said he pulled the two students from that dorm and brought in detectives from the Sheridan Police Department, a spokesman for which declined to comment beyond saying that the agency was involved.
Young said he’s had contact from state legislators since the first note was found. Native American groups have sent letters to the school. You probably see this all the time, he was told.
He’s been president for eight years and a high-level administrator there for 13. No, he said, this is the first time.
But after talking with native students, he realized that it’s just the first time he’s heard about it.
“Then I thought later, I’m sure it’s happened,” he said. “I’m sure that these poor students probably face a lot more of this than any of us want to admit or are aware of.”
He was told by students that this was their historic experience at the school.
“We’re in a town at a college named for someone who had a bit of a bad – There’s a whole thing with General (Philip) Sheridan with his attitude toward Native Americans,” Young said, referring to a U.S. Army general who waged violent wars against native peoples and whose troops committed massacres against Native Americans after the Civil War.
“I’m not suggesting changing the name of the college or town, but if we’re serious about making a place for Native Americans, we’re going to have to have deep and serious conversations about all of the obstacles out there,” Young continued.
The college is working quickly to try to do that. SunRhodes and other native students are creating a Native American organization on campus. Last Thursday, the school held a Native American appreciation day that included native food, native speakers and dancing.
Shakespeare said other members of the Wind River Reservation tribes traveled to the event, as did residents of the Crow Reservation.
SunRhodes said the racist notes were “ridiculous” and that native students “don’t deserve anything like that.” But she’s not going to be driven out of town.
“I didn’t think about changing colleges,” SunRhodes said. “I love Sheridan College, and I want to stay. I’m not going to let a rude remark make me go home and quit school.”