The Unlikely Story of Dr. Wahoo, Professor Illiniwek, and RGIII

Steve Russell
January 27, 2013

Lots of things have followed me into my second retirement.  Some, like continuing work with Indian graduate students, are a source of delight. Others less so. I am reminded that I failed to change the world.

The National Science Foundation just sent me the 2011 report on earned Ph.Ds. I immediately headed for the graph that breaks down the numbers by race/ethnicity.

Like all credentials, the Ph.D can represent more aspiration than reality, but the aspiration is worthy by any measure. The objective of a doctoral dissertation is to add to the total store of human knowledge in a measurable way.

It’s true that some Ph.D granting schools are more rigorous than others, the same as undergraduate schools generally or tribal colleges.

My claim is not that the credential is infallible evidence of the accomplishment it is supposed to represent. We all know better than that.  But it’s also more than the union card for the professoring trade, and the more tribal citizens with advanced degrees—Ph.D, M.D., J.D., or others—the more 21st century possibilities are open to the tribe, not just the individuals who get the degrees.

So, yes, if my academic career has involved advancing Indians on the micro level, one student at a time, I remain highly interested in the macro level. I remember a discussion about the minimum number of Indian lawyers it would take to form a section of the American Bar Association and realizing it would require us to literally sign up every known Indian with a law degree (at the time) to what is a voluntary and quite expensive organization (to which I currently do not belong). I remember talking with an M.D. who was working off his school debts with the Indian Health Service and coming to the realization that he did not think much of Indians. I don’t like the view at the bottom of the barrel.

In the 2011 numbers, I noted that Hispanics, at 2,006 new PhDs, surpassed African-Americans, at 1,953.  This has been a continuing trend because Hispanics (16.7% of the population) outnumber blacks (13.1%).  American Indians, even by the expansive new definition that doubled the numbers, and even adding Native Hawaiians, are only 1.4% of the population.  Number of new PhDs?  136. 

Let’s review.

African-Americans are about 13.1 percent of the population and produced about 6.14 percent of the new Ph.Ds.

Hispanics are about 16.7% of the population and produced 6.31%.

Indigenous persons are, on paper, 1.4 percent of the population, a number that is greatly overstated by self-reporting from the Elizabeth Warrens of the world.  We produced .43 percent of the new Ph.Ds.

I watched similar numbers for years involving the J.D. degree.  We are growing in absolute numbers, and we’ll continue to get better because education is as hereditary as lack of education. I am a first generation college student and all four of my kids went to college. So, are we satisfied?

I’m not satisfied, and every time I hear a bright Indian kid accused of “thinking white” for the sin of thinking, I want to revert to savage stereotype.

When Indians do something positive, we are quick to offer cultural explanations for our superiority. It’s about time culture took some of the rap for our academic underperformance.

You want more evidence? Asians are about 5 percent of the population and snagged over 9 percent of the new Ph.Ds. I’ve never heard of an Asian kid being accused of “thinking white” or of trying to elevate herself above her peers.

Speaking of savage stereotypes, some people would say that the problem of our lack of success in education is a problem way bigger than, say, Indian mascots.

With that painful sight of RGIII going down on his knee the wrong way, I was reminded that I care about him as an exciting rookie player from my neck of the woods while I root for the Washington team to lose, always.

In 2008, a referred article appeared in the journal Basic and Applied Psychology, “Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots.”  Like most science, it contains more mathematics than opinions, but I’ll skip the math and go to the money shot in the abstract: 

“We suggest that American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.”

We cut our own throats when we discourage academic ambition, but it’s time that Indians who consider themselves oh-so-practical recognize that when we tolerate Indian mascots, we allow white people to cut our children’s throats with imaginary tomahawks.

I wish RGIII all the best for a quick recovery, and for the day he plays for a team that does not disadvantage Indian children.

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.