Steve Russell
Steve Russell's first grade picture.

Doctor, Lawyer, Chief: HELP WANTED On Ideas For Raising More Indian PhDs

Steve Russell
3/31/14

There’s a doctor livin’ in your town

There’s a lawyer and an Indian, too.

This was according to a popular song from 1945, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, and it was certainly true of my town, which was in Oklahoma.

An “Oklahoma Indian,” I learned as an adult, is a bit culturally suspect. Most Indians practice a lot of exogamy, but Indian Territory was supposed to be the last resting place for so many different tribes that it’s not just a matter of white Indians and black Indians, but also 4/4 Indians of multiple tribal nations and the result is cultural cross-pollinating everywhere you look.

I was raised waist deep in Creeks and knee deep in Cherokees. We had relatives “over on Osage” and “over on Sac & Fox,” as the phrase went, but since we never had a car, I could count the number of visits there without taking off my shoes.

I was fortunate to be already schooled on my history by relatives, and so did not have to rely on the Oklahoma schools. But that’s only my history. One of the dumber “Oklahoma Indian” misunderstandings I had is where the Lenape came from. I thought they were from just up the road. The state of Delaware didn’t get my attention.

The little brown kid named Teehee in a small Oklahoma town never had the option to play white boy like the adult Professor Russell does. Taught to revere Will Rogers, it would never occur to me to deny being Cherokee, so I faced public education as a Cherokee and I did no better than most Indian kids do.

Now, I fancy myself a policy wonk, so imagine how I felt when a reporter asked me what changes I would make to higher education after reading my yearly screed about the sorry state of Indian education.

The purpose of this article is to hear from you via the comments section about the one thing you think Indian education needs—mentors, better schools on the rez, etc., so we can get that information into the hands of reporters who, up to now, are only able to cite statistics, not opinions or ideas.

For the rest of you, if you want to know what I think, keep reading.

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

My column spoke to what adults can to for their kids: books in the home, library cards, no buying into Indian inferiority. But what do I want on the policy front?

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Dina Eastman Canku
Dina Eastman Canku
Submitted by Dina Eastman Canku on
As a Dakotah woman with a PhD it started at home for me. My father always told us to get an education so we wouldn't have to work with our hands or have a difficult life. I think it would also be helpful if the schools started encouraging the children at an early age to go to college. Hang up posters of the Education Pays median earnings and unemployment data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics so they can see the difference an education can make in their lives.

Clare Gwinn Holzer
Clare Gwinn Holzer
Submitted by Clare Gwinn Holzer on
I work for a non-profit that works in the "Diversity & Inclusion" field. There are scholarships available and networking to get kids education, internships with Fortune 500 & graduates a leg up into certain jobs. They have sponsorships from major corporations across the US. I wish I could say we help Native Americans. The company I work for helps Latinos. I know there are similar organizations for Blacks and LGBT but I don't know of anything like this for Native Americans. What we need is a streamline to get our people in good paying jobs, positions on Boards of Directors, Jobs as CEOs. You can get a high paying job in corporate America without losing your culture. Most large corporations have Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives. They have money not just for scholarships but for education in Employee Resource Groups, and this is a field I see growing as we see an increase in Latino population. I hope Native Americans can take advantage of this. Please let me know if there is any thing similar to this in the Native American community. I would be glad to help. This is a link to the website for the company I work for Just so you get an idea what I'm talking about: http://www.alpfa.org

lgraff2@cox.net's picture
lgraff2@cox.net
Submitted by lgraff2@cox.net on
I taught for nine years (1985 to 1993) on the Navajo Indian Reservation where I taught Earth Science, Environmental Science, Geology, Astronomy, and was a guest teacher in the American Indian History Class presenting the Indian view of what happened at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I was very impressed with my students and I assure you there are as smart as any kids in America. Year after year I'd ask my students what their favorite class was , and every year 50% said math. I'd love to talk with you and share my experiences and ideas. I came across quite a few reasons for the kids not doing well in the classroom, intelligence was not one of them.

Terry Gomez
Terry Gomez
Submitted by Terry Gomez on
you forgot to add MFA to your terminal degrees. I teach at a tribal college and I know that many of the non-Indians there do not push the students to excel but treat them (us, I was a student at a tribal college) as if that's is as far as we can go. As a Native woman with an MFA, I have been talked down to by former professors and colleagues alike. (all white men) We need more Indian professors who are not "new to their culture" but have lived it, know their language, and their history. I have been blacklisted because I made that statement in front of a white dean, but I'm saying it again.

PE Pitt Gallagher
PE Pitt Gallagher
Submitted by PE Pitt Gallagher on
Begin the healing from translateral violence. When I went to the Native Student department at a past univesity there was widespread wrongdoings against women. The program is cleaning up its act. I see it as the legacy of BIA leadership, where the ineffectual leader serves as the gate keeper. Making sure to learn how to value, support one another and honor diversity would be a great step. I see almost noone from my community in academia with the exception of a few undergrads. Thankfully some of them are taking the leap of faith, as first of their families to graduate highschool. They are not waiting for the programming, making it happen other ways. Its an honor to mentor them. They want to see someone that looks like them, making it happen. I do think our own PhD programs are necessary, however, its important not allow students to marginalized in the main stream. Native programs at school, should work to hold inclusive events and services across programs. Furthermore, it would be helpful to have local Natives on staff so that their is diversity and indigenous people on staff. Combating racism, one classroom/department at a time.

swrussel's picture
swrussel
Submitted by swrussel on
lgraff2, please email me at swrussel at indiana dot edu if you don't want to share your ideas publicly. I'm trying to stimulate a public conversation, but I'll take what I can get. My experience visiting majority Indian classrooms mirrors yours. Our kids have as much intelligence and ability as anybody's kids. What shoots them out of the saddle is not their own shortcomings, but, I fear, the shortcomings of the adults who should have more confidence in them.

swrussel's picture
swrussel
Submitted by swrussel on
Ms. Gomez, I hear you about the MFA as a credential for joining university faculty. My eldest son taught music, but watching the artists in my family and outside it, it did not appear to me that the MFA made them artists like the JD makes a lawyer or a PhD makes, say, a biologist. I intended no disrespect for my colleagues for whom the union card is the MFA. You are correct, and those who have the chops to go for an MFA should not hesitate.

Jason R. Couch
Jason R. Couch
Submitted by Jason R. Couch on
Greetings one and all. I will keep this brief because I am headed for University myself in a few minutes in Oregon. This term I will be finishing up my BS and I should be starting on my Masters this summer. In brief my Tribe, the Creek, have been very helpful with my school funding but with little else. It is nice to get a check in the mail mid way through a term or several months after a term is over as a "bonus" for good grades. It does put a kink in my Wife’s budget thought when the Tribe tends to send it whenever the feel like getting to it rather than on any sort of regular schedule. My problem, however, has not been with the money as much as the attitude of many on the other end of the line in Oklahoma who make my dealings with the Veterans Administration seem pleasant and informative. Only once has anyone offered motivation or help beyond the minimum required by the phone call at hand. So my question is: "How about a little respect and motivation from Oklahoma?" When a student is working their rear ends off to try and better themselves and their world it is infuriating when their contact person at the Tribe just does not seem to give a damn. We are Warriors people. Every day we get up, clean up and plug into the University System, which is not fun most of the time. It is super plugged in to media of every type and intense not just in learning but in being inside a system that does not really get what we are or who we are. In addition to the normal student stuff there is our cultural stuff. When we are required to take courses whose entire concern is the deification of money, for me anyway, it just does not compute and I am rather proud of that. I have to grab my gear and get going but I will summarize with this. Tribe, if you show us respect and get behind us as you would any Warrior it would help a lot. We are on the front lines of a large theater of the culture war and the last you can do is understand that and show some respect by being cheerful, helpful and accountable whether you Tribal job is to work in a support role for us or not. Also, to anyone out there who needs a filmmaker over the summer for Documentary work concerning Indigenous issues or grants for Grad school, please, let me know. Jason R. Couch Muskogee Creek ~ Veteran, farmboy@mind.net

swrussel's picture
swrussel
Submitted by swrussel on
I hear you, Jason. When I decided not to stop with a four year degree, my GI Bill had run out. I contacted the tribe, and the best I can say is they told me out front that my address outside the homeland meant I was unlikely to get any help, and if I did get help, it would not be enough to justify the rigmarole I would have to go through. I appreciated not having my time wasted but, like you, I felt that a little attaboy might have been appropriate when I had just gone from high school dropout to magna cum laude.

Bobbi Toth
Bobbi Toth
Submitted by Bobbi Toth on
As a former educator, and a person who did not earn her PhD until 50, the first thing that comes to my mind is that young students receive the message that they are, indeed, smart enough to earn, not only a college degree, but an advanced degree, be that an MFA, a PhD, or a JD. These messages can come from family members, Tribal leaders, and mentors outside the community. Further, role models are crucial. Visitors from the Tribe, or Tribes who have earned advanced degrees should be invited to the schools--starting at the elementary level and upwards. Another idea might to be take field trips to visit a Tribal member where she/he works. Seeking a college degree, which will lead to an advance degree should be an underlying message throughout every student's lifetime. Talk to students about what the Tribe needs, particularly in terms of what type of advanced degrees--or any college degree, for that matter. In addition, information regarding financial aid is crucial, as well as information about what colleges and universities provide degrees that are well-suited to Tribal needs. For example, I taught at Penn State and there is are excellent programs there. Here is the link: http://www.psu.edu/search/gss?query=Native%20American%20Leadership I am sure that there are other colleges and universities in other states that offer similar programs. Last, reach out to the community--particularly those who may no longer be living on or near the Reservation. Contact recent, or not-so-recent high school and college graduates. Find out what they're interests are in seeking an advanced degree. Also, inquire about any obstacles they encountered in preventing them from earning an advanced degree. All this is just what immediately comes to mind. Should I thick of anything else, I'll let you know.

rjohara's picture
rjohara
Submitted by rjohara on
I'm Anglo-Irish and so have no special insight into Indian issues, but I have a PhD and have advised a lot of students, and these are three things I'd recommend to any prospective Indian scholars. First, don't pursue a PhD because you think it's going to get you a well-paying job, especially in the current economy. If you're looking for financial gain, look to some branch of engineering, perhaps, or finance, or general business. A PhD is a scholar's degree, and never in history have scholars been among the wealthiest people in society. There are a lot of people with PhD's today getting by on part-time jobs with little prospect of anything better. Whatever you do, don't go into debt to get your degree. Beware of universities that try to hook you in with loans. They will make money off you; you maybe will get a degree, and if you're lucky a modest job, and you'll be in debt for years. If you need to take out large loans, consider another course. If you can't stop yourself from studying, reading, researching, teaching, and thinking, then you might indeed be a good candidate for a PhD. If you end up working in a factory, but would still want to spend your evenings and weekend in study, then you might be a good candidate, because it's a calling, not necessarily an occupation. And if it's your calling, don't let your ethnic background dictate your field of study. There's no reason and Indian student can't become a scholar of ancient Greek literature, or African botany, or planetary astronomy, or Chinese linguistics. The "ancient and universal company of scholars" knows no boundaries.
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