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