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Be Smarter About Education! The Ph.D Crisis in Indian Country

Steve Russell
3/5/14

This was to be a weekend of data entry for my income taxes. TurboTax wants to triple what they charge to file Schedules C and D, and I have to either pay up or enter a lot of stuff for myself the first year that any of the programs will do for you in subsequent years. I got interrupted when a big envelope showed up at my door.

From the return address, I quickly figured out what was inside and was ripping it open like my five-year-old twin grandkids did their birthday presents last week: Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2012.

I opened the booklet inside to distribution by “race and ethnicity” and started reading.

African-Americans have increased their Ph.D.s 87 percent in the past 20 years, which sounds great until you see they are now getting 6.3 percent of the degrees awarded, 2,079, while representing 13.1 percent of the US population.

Hispanics have doubled their numbers of Ph.D.s in the past 20 years, which sounds all right until you see they are now getting 6.5 percent of the degrees awarded, 2,141, while representing 16.9 percent of the U.S. population.

Then came the sentence in the report that told me what I didn’t want to hear: “The number of American Indian or Alaska Native doctorate recipients fell to its lowest point of the past 20 years.” In numbers, that’s 102 doctorates or well under one-half of one percent awarded to a group representing (allegedly) 1.2 percent of the population.

I confess this hurt more back when I was in the business of producing Ph.D.s, because it felt like a personal failure to look under every rock for potential Indian candidates. But it still hurts enough that I take on the job of convincing others that this is bad news to hear that while other minorities are making too little progress, we are making none.

The whole idea of “progress” is problematic to public opinion in great chunks of Indian country. You can’t entertain “progress” without value judgments about where you are right now and where you are going and those value judgments, the argument goes, contain a profound disrespect for “tradition” and are a symptom of “assimilation,” the death of a culture. Others of us think that assimilation is the life of a culture because it’s not a one-way street.

When two cultures interact, neither remains the same. To think that one must totally disappear is to apprehend the disappearing one as profoundly inferior. The Indian fighters, of course, seldom verbalize our inferiority as a reason for our academic underperformance. They let the numbers speak for themselves.

If we address the dismal numbers, we either blame the racists or we point to the numbers with pride, as evidence of successful resistance to the colonial enterprise that challenges us to assimilate or die.

Many of my white students were greatly concerned with this thing called “globalization,” which means to them that their competition is not their neighbors but other kids halfway around the world that are multilingual, just as smart, and way hungrier.

Indians, of course, shall never go hungry, and the commods shall arrive as long as the rivers shall run. Would it be tacky to point out that the rivers are drying up, and the solutions to that problem are going to require advanced education in many fields, not the least of which is political science?

Right now, there’s a woman in my tribe coming out of an environmental science Ph.D. program. She serves on the tribal council and is running for chief. I’m not sure yet how I feel about that, but I am sure what the knowledge represented by that Ph.D. means. It means that she’ll be better fixed to do a good job if she wins and she’ll have plenty of opportunities to do important things for the tribe if she loses.

In my field, sometimes people will get snarky with a college student in the family, asking, “Does the world really need another lawyer?” Actually, Indian communities are hardly over lawyered, but that’s not the point. That degree is evidence that you know a lot of stuff that is going to come in handy for you and yours if you never set foot in a courthouse.

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Paul James's picture
This is really funny, and not. ... Indians, of course, shall never go hungry, and the commods shall arrive as long as the rivers shall run. Would it be tacky to point out that the rivers are drying up, and the solutions to that problem are going to require advanced education in many fields ... As an anthropology instructor I often see native students at my Univ. go to other programs, I usually understand their decision, there is need across Indian country for education in almost every field, and most pay better than anthropology. Still, having more Native PhDs in Cultural Resource Management, and teaching at Universities would help to solve a lot of problems.
Paul James
Wanbli Koyake's picture
Hau Steve, Pilamaya, I thank you for your voice. If we only count western knowledge, higher education, p.h.d.s, as the only kind of knowledge worthy of addressing our problems as Original Peoples undergoing Genocide, then I'd say Hoka he!, go for it! Our Genociders get to tell us what reality is and how we should act accordingly, true, but the larger truth is, the western system of knowledge is ignorant of what Life is, what Life's about –as a living entity, western knowledge is an infantile, high functioning, Greed Addict. True, it allows some of the disadvantaged –the lower races, classes, women, lgbt's, american indians– to get a technocratic education and help administer our group's Genocide. I see that our community lives are being professionalized by these advanced degree holding natives; that is, if you do not have a degree, if you are not on a career track then your say in the life of your community is reduced to data, a quote in someones paper, most usually you will be vaguely quoted as "The Elders, said…" "What then of a "tradish" "education", what use is our age-old knowledge to young and old if it is only seen on the pow-wow grounds or in ceremony? Where is the value of our kinship/knowledge systems? Truth is age-old wisdom trumps knowing –everytime! How is it that we have withstood centuries of Genocide and we still haven't blown anybody up or become serial killers? Kinship is why! I'm sure that when the sun sets on humanity there will be still be plenty of people self-identifying as american indian, native american –they just won't know what they missed by ignoring the stories (wisdom) of their ancestors; they'll never had had the chance to test that wisdom in their modern highly educated world. As the ancestors of the unborn generations, we should be calling for an Original Wisdom Education. The Lakota call it Lakol Wicohan, Lifeway of the Friendly People. And there are countless versions of Lifeway –even within our Lifeway. There's no one way. At least we should demand better terms for the mortgages that student debt is putting on young people's lives !
Wanbli Koyake
Wanbli Koyake's picture
Hau Steve, Pilamaya, I thank you for your voice. If we only count western knowledge, higher education, p.h.d.s, as the only kind of knowledge worthy of addressing our problems as Original Peoples undergoing Genocide, then I'd say Hoka he!, go for it! Our Genociders get to tell us what reality is and how we should act accordingly, true, but the larger truth is, the western system of knowledge is ignorant of what Life is, what Life's about –as a living entity, western knowledge is an infantile, high functioning, Greed Addict. True, it allows some of the disadvantaged –the lower races, classes, women, lgbt's, american indians– to get a technocratic education and help administer our group's Genocide. I see that our community lives are being professionalized by these advanced degree holding natives; that is, if you do not have a degree, if you are not on a career track then your say in the life of your community is reduced to data, a quote in someones paper, most usually you will be vaguely quoted as "The Elders, said…" "What then of a "tradish" "education", what use is our age-old knowledge to young and old if it is only seen on the pow-wow grounds or in ceremony? Where is the value of our kinship/knowledge systems? Truth is age-old wisdom trumps knowing –everytime! How is it that we have withstood centuries of Genocide and we still haven't blown anybody up or become serial killers? Kinship is why! I'm sure that when the sun sets on humanity there will be still be plenty of people self-identifying as american indian, native american –they just won't know what they missed by ignoring the stories (wisdom) of their ancestors; they'll never had had the chance to test that wisdom in their modern highly educated world. As the ancestors of the unborn generations, we should be calling for an Original Wisdom Education. The Lakota call it Lakol Wicohan, Lifeway of the Friendly People. And there are countless versions of Lifeway –even within our Lifeway. There's no one way. At least we should demand better terms for the mortgages that student debt is putting on young people's lives!
Wanbli Koyake