Lewis Griswold

Visalia boy stands up for his Native American culture

Alex Fierro, 10, of Visalia, holds one of his Native American T-shirts.
Alex Fierro, 10, of Visalia, holds one of his Native American T-shirts. THE FRESNO BEE

Alex Fierro of Visalia is only 10 years old, but he’s being hailed in the Native American community as a hero for speaking up about culturally offensive lyrics in a song taught at his school.

After his parents and his tribe complained to the school board about the lyrics, it was pulled from the curriculum at Visalia Unified School District.

Fierro belongs to the Wukchumni (Yokut) tribe and is a fourth grader at Shannon Ranch Elementary School.

“He’s a typical 10-year-old, but he’s very knowledgeable about the goings-on in Indian country,” his mother Debra Fierro said.

Last month, Alex came home from school and told his mother he didn’t want to sing a song in music class.

“It has words I don’t like,” he said.

He was reluctant to tell his mother the words, so she asked him to sing the song, but Alex said no. She asked him to bring home a copy of the song, which he did a few weeks later.

“Once I got the words, I could understand more deeply,” Fierro said.

The song, entitled “Twenty-one Missions,” is about the Spanish missions in California and is written from the point of the view of the padres.

One of the lyrics states, “Men of faith, the Good News preaching, praying, teaching, searching, reaching out to the red man’s soul, oh, what a noble goal.”

Another: “No need to hunt or a gatherer be, come little Indian, dance with me.”

There’s a local story behind the song. It was written by Jack Hannah of Sons of the San Joaquin, a western singing group that is well known in the genre and based in Visalia. They’ve toured the world.

Visalia Unified music teacher Lon Hannah, a member of the Sons of the San Joaquin, was teaching the song to Alex’s class. Lon is Jack Hannah’s nephew.

It is one of eight songs about California history that Jack Hannah wrote. Each year, every fourth grader in the district assembles at the L.J. Williams Theater and sings them in unison with the Sons of the San Joaquin, an event regarded as a highlight of the year for participants.

“There was no ill intent on the part of the Sons or myself or Jack,” Lon Hannah said. “I had no inkling it would cause offense.”

The song ends by asking, “Who was right? Who was wrong?” Hannah noted.

Alex’s mother sent a letter to the school superintendent, principal and teacher, and notified Darlene Franco, the Wukchumni tribal chair, who also contacted the school district.

The next day, Assistant Superintendent Doug Bartsch read the lyrics and “understood the point of view,” he said. He contacted Alex’s mother and Franco to say a formal complaint process would be started.

The school board was meeting that night, and Alex, his mother and Franco addressed the board about the song.

Board president Juan Guerrero apologized on behalf of the district and school board.

“It is offensive to Native Americans,” he said later. “You have to really watch your lyrics.”

The next day, Bartsch met with elementary school music teachers and the song was pulled.

Two days later, Lon Hannah, in a group meeting involving school officials, met with Alex and his family and offered a heartfelt apology.

Native News Online called Alex a “catalyst for change” and wrote a story about the incident that made the rounds on the Internet.

SorryWatch.com, which analyzes apologies, called the district for details and put up a post blasting the song but giving Lon Hannah’s apology an “A.”

Alex, whose favorite subject is science and who plays youth baseball, football and basketball, said he’s surprised by all the attention he’s gotten.

“I feel happy that all my relatives and people who I don’t really know are praising me,” he said.

Alex received a letter from an assistant vice president of the University of Oregon, a member of the Coquille tribe, praising him for his “grace and diplomacy,” and urged him to consider the university when he reaches college age.

His mother said she’s satisfied by how the district handled the matter: “They were all very respectful of Alex, and I was surprised and happy about the result and removal.”

Lewis Griswold covers the news of Tulare and Kings counties for The Bee. His column runs Sunday. He can be reached at (559) 441-6104, lgriswold@fresnobee.com or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.