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

Steve Russell
3/5/14

Then there’s the good old Indian Health Service. Wouldn’t it be great if that meant health services provided to Indians by Indians, meaning no disrespect to white folks working off their school loans?

If we agree it’s no fun depending on Uncle Sam, we need to think about how to, pardon the word, progress.

Nearly three-fourths of the white and Asian doctoral recipients had at least one parent with a college degree. For the rest of us, it’s roughly half. I come from the half with no college in the family.

Was I just lucky? I don’t think so. My grandparents read to me from the time I first have memories. There were always books in the house and I got a library card the day I could find the library. We often didn’t have a lot of food, we never owned a car, and we didn’t have a television until I was in the fourth grade, but if I said of something that I “needed it for school,” they would somehow provide it.

They taught me about the Trail of Tears but they also taught me about Will Rogers. Somehow, it escaped my notice that Rogers did not finish high school, because what I took away was that he was smart and funny and Cherokee and white people admired his wit as much as Indians did. I was exposed to plenty of opinions about the intellectual inferiority of Indians, but those opinions did not come from within my family.

Now that I’ve had a teaching career, how did that hold up? Did I find my Indian students or other minorities mentioned here to be less bright than my white students? No. Period, full stop, no. No. Our kids are just as smart as other kids.

As a group, minorities did appear less certain of their own abilities, excepting Asians, who attacked their studies as if the hounds of Hell were nipping at their heels. I think those hounds were mom and dad. We are more ambivalent than those Asian “tiger” parents.

I can’t have a conversation about Indians in higher education among folks back home or on the reservations I’ve visited without hearing about the kids not coming back. What can I say to that when I didn’t come back? Education does open young people to temptations that would not otherwise exist for them.

To be young is to experience temptation, with or without higher education.

When you have no money, there are all kinds of temptations to get some outside the law and very much outside of tribal traditions. Do you know any traditional meth cookers?

A kid who gets a doctorate in anything is at risk of leaving because he or she has somewhere to go. What kind of cultural preservation is it that depends on lack of opportunity?

The vast majority of our kids, we all know, land somewhere between criminality and graduate degrees. They live out ordinary lives in ordinary jobs. They do no worse than their parents and no better.

Unless we as peoples are satisfied in a condition of dependence, that has to change. Leaving is not an issue if we have nowhere to go. Supporting our relatives is not an issue unless we have a means to make our own way in the globalized economy.

I go back to my data entry problem and, yes, it’s a problem, but it’s a high-quality problem. You don’t have to pay income taxes if you have no income. Choosing among opportunities off the rez or staying to create opportunities on the rez is a problem, but it’s a high-quality problem. Who do you know who lives with no problems at all?

We need to teach our kids not to fear those high-quality problems, and the primary way to banish that fear from their lives is to banish it from our own.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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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