An Oklahoma man, Barrett M. Dahl has accused a top Obama official of attacking him from behind and beating him up at the 2015 SACNAS National Conference: The Diversity in STEM Conference in Washington, D.C. last year.
William Mendoza, executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, says an incident did occur at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center late on the evening of October 30, 2015, but adamantly denies that he was the aggressor.
Eyewitnesses in attendance for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) event back Mendoza’s account of the altercation, and inaccuracies in Dahl’s version suggest he may have fabricated at least part of his story.
Dahl, now 28, tells ICTMN that he is “associated with” the Choctaw and Sac and Fox tribes and that he is very active in both. The Choctaw Nation Tribal Council, he says, passed a resolution stating that Mendoza will never again be allowed to set foot on the tribe’s land and has provided a legal team to help him pursue a lawsuit against Mendoza. Dahl declines to name his legal team or any of the witnesses he says his attorneys are interviewing.
Choctaw Nation Communications Executive Director Lisa Reed says she is not aware of any tribal ban on Mendoza or of any Choctaw Nation lawyers assigned to help Dahl.
Dahl and Mendoza, along with his wife Heather and their three youngest children, ages 9, 6 and 2, were attending a pow wow at the Gaylord Center. For Dahl, it was a part of a field trip to the conference with classmates from Fort Lewis College in Colorado. For Mendoza, who lives nearby, it was a community event.
Dahl says he had just walked into the ballroom and sat down when he was approached by a large man in a grey button-down shirt. Dahl reports, “He said, ‘You are a “weetard” for wearing a Redskins shirt. He repeated that. He said I was offending him. I ignored him, then he spit in my face…. I was just sitting there. I irritated him more and he kept calling me a weetard. I got up and left the ballroom to get the police. He followed me out of the ballroom. At the escalators I was attacked from behind. He wanted a physical fight. I did everything I could to ward him off.”
William Mendoza sustained injuries to his wrist, ribs, head and face in an altercation with Barrett Dahl on October 30, 2015.
Mendoza, Oglala-Sicangu Lakota, gives this account: “[Soon after arriving at the venue,] I saw this individual walking across the room in front of everybody and he was wearing a Washington Redskins jersey…. As he was walking towards us, my wife and my children saw him. At some point he turned around and on the back of his jersey there were in all caps [the words] INJUN PIMP…. I looked around the crowd. Others were tapping one another on the shoulder and pointing to this individual.”
Mendoza decided to try to talk to Dahl, as he has done before with other people wearing derogatory imagery. “I extended my hand to him and I said, ‘Brother, where are you from?’ Brother is a term of endearment, one that I would approach anybody with, Native or non-Native, given that we were at a pow wow and it’s an environment of reverence…. So I approached him with respect. He shook my hand. I shook his hand. I said, ‘Can you tell me a little bit about your shirt?’ And he said, ‘Washington Redskins’ and he kind of smiled. I said, ‘Are you aware that the name and image are offensive and harmful, especially those of us with children?’”
Mendoza continues, “He said immediately, and I could sense his explosiveness, ‘I don’t have to fuckin explain shit to you. If you want to step outside and take this outside I’d be happy to explain it to you.’”
According to Mendoza, Dahl got up and shoulder checked him as he walked by.
The allegation that Mendoza spit at Dahl and called him names is one Dahl has repeated during television interviews and it appears in the print news stories about the event, but the three witnesses to this part of the incident that ICTMN talked to are emphatic that Mendoza did neither.
Chris Boston, Chickasaw, was also there with his family. “Bill at no point said anything offensive or raised his voice. His tone was completely professional…. Mr. Dahl was already seated and Bill came up to talk to him and the guy acts like he couldn’t hear him so Bill bent down to talk to him. But no, there was no spitting. He didn’t spit on him at all.”
Dahl has denied that the words “INJUN PIMP” were written on the back of his shirt. However, Randall Hughes Jr., Oglala Lakota, a classmate of Dahl at Fort Lewis, tells ICTMN he clearly remembers those words on Dahl’s shirt and notes that they were particularly problematic at a pow wow honoring missing and exploited Native women. Gaynell Realbird, Shoshone Bannock, who works for the federal government in meth prevention, verifies that the phrase was written on Dahl’s shirt, as does Chelsea Fish, Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, who was there with her 10-year-old daughter and who works for the U.S. Dept. of Justice.
Mendoza’s attorney provided the names of these witnesses. Boston and Fish say they were acquainted with Mendoza before this incident. Hughes and Realbird say they had never met him. Dahl refused to provide the names of any witnesses.
What happened next took place outside the ballroom near the escalators. Mendoza says he had left to find a police officer; Dahl says the same thing. According to Mendoza, he and Dahl encountered each other at the top of an escalator and when he tried to apologize, Dahl threw a cup of hot coffee in his face and then punched him several times in the face and the ribs after they had both slipped on the coffee spill and fallen to the ground. “He kept hitting me in the face, kept hitting me in the side and I literally felt like I was fighting for my life. He was trying to really hurt me,” says Mendoza.
According to Dahl, Mendoza followed him out, attacked him from behind and beat him severely. Dahl says the bones in his arms were “sticking up” or “sticking out” because his ulna and radius were shattered. Pressed to clarify whether the bones had broken through the skin, Dahl would not respond. “I am screaming for medical care, but the police won’t give it,” he says.
This is the point at which Realbird came upon the scene. She knew neither of the participants, who were being interviewed by police and venue security personnel. “Bill was calmly talking to the police,” she says. “Dahl was really loud, throwing his arms around.” Asked if Dahl’s arm appeared to be injured, she says she didn’t see any injuries on either of them and that Dahl was not asking for medical help. She says Dahl “was flailing his arms around and did not look like he was in pain.”
This account is consistent with what Politico writes about the police report: “The police report describes both men as having ‘minor injuries’ and says both were treated with ice and declined to be taken to the hospital.”
It is also consistent with the medical records Mendoza provided to ICTMN, which show he later went to the ER with injuries to his wrist and ribs, as well as abrasions and contusions to his face.
Despite repeated requests, Dahl has not provided any medical records that would verify he went to the hospital that night or that he had surgeries on his arm to repair the damage he claims. ICTMN specifically asked for a medical report that shows the date and details of his first surgery, which he claims he had to fly back home to Oklahoma for and received two days after the incident, or any bill from a hospital showing that information. He did provide a copy of an invoice for physical therapy received in January in Durango for a wrist injury.
Barrett Dahl alleges that he sustained significant injury to his arm and write during an altercation with White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education Executive Director William Mendoza.
Dahl says he and his family took his story to the press about three weeks ago, 10 months after the event, in anticipation of setting up a gofundme account to help pay his medical bills, which he says now total more than $53,000, and in preparation for filing a lawsuit against Mendoza and the U.S. Dept. of Education. (In a new development, the Durango Herald, the first outlet to publish a story about Dahl, on August 24, printed a retraction, saying that Dahl’s father claims he was not the one who had made the statements the Herald attributed to him. He said his son had impersonated him in phone interviews and emails.)
The headlines have repeatedly stated that Dahl is autistic. A 2003 letter from Dr. William H. Scimeca to Dahl’s parents states that he meets the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Disorder and a learning disorder. According to the Autism Society, people with Asperger’s have less severe symptoms than people with autism, and they do not have language delays. “A child with Asperger’s Disorder may just seem like a neurotypical child behaving differently.”
While the press has made much of Dahl’s autism, when asked what effect it has had on his life, Dahl says he does not understand sarcasm and his facial expressions sometimes do not match his feelings. He says that he failed speech and debate four times. However, he spoke articulately and coherently, albeit sometimes very vehemently, with ICTMN for over an hour, with the same competence as he showed in his television interviews.
In the end, the police let both men go without arresting them and neither has filed a criminal complaint against the other. Mendoza says, “Afterwards, I started thinking through the avenues that I wanted to take. First and foremost, it weighed on me that this was a student. At this juncture I knew nothing about his disability. I began thinking about him as a Native student of my former alma mater. This is who I advocate for. This is the epitome of being lost and being impacted by harmful imagery and symbolism in some of the most disturbing ways. He was impressionable, obviously vulnerable to the harmful imagery affecting his identity and well-being.”
Mendoza reached out to Fort Lewis College to suggest a meeting for reconciliation and restorative justice. He says he was told by the president of the college that such an effort would not be productive given the people involved.
Dahl states that the altercation with Mendoza caused him to leave Fort Lewis College just one course short of a degree in biology, in part because he can no longer hold a pencil and in part because he did not feel safe.
He says, “I met with college administrators to tell them my story and said that for my own safety I didn’t want Bill Mendoza on campus. They wouldn’t do that. They invited him back as a public speaker. There was a big pow wow at Fort Lewis. I physically left town because the college was not protecting me.” Mitch Davis, public affairs officer at Fort Lewis College tells ICTMN that Mendoza has not been invited to the college at any point in the past year.
Dahl claims that because of his disabilities he is classified as a disabled dependent whose parents are responsible for his medical bills and his affairs. He states that his mother holds his power of attorney. He provided ICTMN a 2014 document from the state of Oklahoma stating that he is a disabled dependent and is covered under his mother’s health and dental insurance policy.
Mendoza has been receiving vitriolic and threatening emails from people who support Dahl and have taken existing reports of the incident at face value. Mendoza says he is talking with his department about a security detail.
Mark Zaid, Mendoza’s attorney, says they have suggested that the Dept. of Education request an inspector general’s investigation of the whole incident and that Mendoza would welcome such action.