Steve Russell's first grade picture.

Steve Russell

Steve Russell's first grade picture.

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

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?

When forced to think about it, I decided to walk though my policy thoughts, admitting at the outset that I’m an Oklahoma Indian, which to me means raised among lots of cultures besides my own and that of the colonists.

I’m primarily concerned here about terminal graduate degrees: PhDs, JDs, and MDs, and they are not called “terminal” because they kill you. Rather, they are supposed to signify the end of your formal studies. Those degrees are just union cards for intellectual endeavors that will occupy the rest of your life. They signify education that has gone beyond formality and become part of your identity.

The life of the mind can be so mystical and magical that the fact it can be lucrative is incidental. My early aspiration to have stuff was limited to a home with light switches on the walls, a car that would start every time, and no more government commodities for my family. That aspiration does not require a graduate degree. Given the career choices I made, a master plumber or electrician could earn circles around me, but because of my graduate degrees, how much I earned was a choice.

So let’s start with money.  Does lack of money explain our academic underperformance? I don’t think so, when blacks and Hispanics are improving and we are not. From the inner cities of the rust belt to the colonias of South Texas, other minorities can give us a run for our lack of money. Since the Supreme Court blessed Indian gaming in 1986, a few tribes have done well enough to fund education for all tribal citizens. While those tribes are a small minority, you would think they would produce enough scholars to just keep us even with other minorities, but that’s not the case.

A lot of Indian scholarship money goes begging for lack of qualified applicants

My own problem was that I was totally ignorant of the processes, meaning both higher education and financial aid. Because I was an underachieving Indian, nobody ever clued me in. I didn’t know anybody who had been to college and I thought some people were born to do that and others were not. It would have been good if somebody had told me differently, and told me you don’t have to pay up front.

Of course, if I had known the total costs, I would have been afraid to borrow such sums. As it was, I graduated with a debt load that had me in a sweat for years.

One of the best ways to get children to go to college is to set up the expectation that they will. I was raised with the expectation that I would not. In that, I think I was a typical Indian kid, never mind the Oklahoma part.

First policy prescription from my life: Indian kids need navigators just like Obamacare does. Somebody needs to scout the lay of the land and report that ordinary people can survive there. I acquired my navigators by pulling a hitch in the military and getting placed in a tech school beside people with two and three years of college.

Second policy prescription from my life: Indian country needs not just navigators, but talent scouts. Primary and secondary school teachers need to encourage talent, identify it early, and pass on the best students to an informal pipeline to higher education. Your most promising students should be taking the SAT/ACT three or four times before they have to take it for keeps. Run practice tests repeatedly, inside and outside of regular school hours, and tell them why you are doing it.

These prescriptions take care of blaming the victims of Indian education for not knowing what is possible.

Another way we blame the victims is by saying they have no commitment to the life of the mind even if they get to college. They just want to get a good job. The tribal colleges take the rap for aiming kids low. To the extent they are guilty, it’s because of tribal politicians, who justify spending money on the tribal colleges by pointing to unemployment.

While I would hope that’s political realism rather than accepting limited opportunity, tribal colleges can slip this noose with or without backup from the tribal government. You hire whom you have to hire for the vocational courses—the connected. But to teach the academic courses, the ones that are required for accreditation, you hire people who see themselves as talent scouts. You pursue articulation agreements with four year universities and you pound those early English and math required courses so your graduates are better prepared for the junior year than anybody expects. That is, you compete directly with the big university and you hire people with that expectation.

Sure, your teachers are almost all Masters level, but those introductory courses are normally taught by graduate students at the big university. If you hire the right people and make your expectations clear, you can compete.

I do not accept that Indian students are inferior, but I got that message loud and clear until I was placed in competition with white guys and prevailed. To the extent it’s possible, we need to quit sending that message of inferiority and start getting in the faces of those who do send it.

Until I was in law school with Ivy Leaguers, I never heard the phrase “Where were you prepared?” That’s what the swell folks say where we would say “Where did you go to high school?”

After we have a chuckle at the affectations of the “preppies,” it would be good to take preparation for college, and then preparation for graduate school, as purposeful tasks, just like the swell folks do.

How do uneducated parents produce educated offspring? The same way African-American and Hispanic uneducated parents are doing it: slowly and with great difficulty. But they are moving forward and we are not, so it’s gut check time.

A big difference between Indians and other underrepresented minorities (and I can already see the incoming rotten tomatoes) is that Indian life in the U.S. and Canada is still all stereotype, all the time, and Indians are mascotted—made to act the fool, to dance for massah—with impunity.

Blacks have turned lawn jockeys and pickaninny dolls into historical curios.

Hispanics ran the Frito Bandito out of town.

Advertising agencies are very careful about racial stereotyping of people who raise their voices as one. Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are trademarks too expensive to retire, so they are updated to no longer be hankyheads.

There is social science evidence on the harm of racial stereotyping, which is epitomized by mascotting. My career teaching social science constrains me to admit that the evidence is not as robust as it could be if there were more Indians alive to study.

So, those of you who say the evidence is inadequate, account for these facts in some coherent way other than American Indian intellectual inferiority:

*American Indians are the least successful ethnicity at all levels of education.

*This conclusion remains robust when you account for English as a second language and socio-economic status.

*African-Americans and Hispanic Americans, historically subjected to stereotyping as lacking intellectual capacity, have improved their production of terminal degrees in the last twenty years as that stereotyping has been chased out of popular culture.

*Indian production of terminal degrees has declined even as the definition of “Indian” has expanded by redefinition of the Census category and by “box-checking” during the bygone affirmative action era.

*The social science evidence does not “prove” that high self-esteem “causes” academic excellence because correlation cannot prove causation; multiple regression analysis gives us a more robust basis for concluding that low self-esteem can cause gifted students to underachieve.

I was once giving this kind of talk to a lecture hall at Indiana University. After viewing slides of Indian stereotypes and mascots acting the fool, a white student asked me, sincerely, “Are you telling me that crap would affect the self-esteem of an Indian kid?”

After a long pause and a deep breath, I replied, “The evidence is what it is, but I can tell you that I’m a gray-haired man with three university degrees and that crap affects my self-esteem.” However, I might have added, I’m just an Oklahoma Indian, so my feelings are as suspect among Indians as they are disregarded among white people.

This question goes out to the real Indians who “know” mascotting is trivial in the long list of Indian social problems. Account for the bullet points above without accepting inferiority. “Sour grapes” arguments do not count. Graduate degrees represent skill sets we need.

Please use the comments section below to suggest policy prescriptions if you agree there’s a problem of too few Indians seeking terminal degrees. I agree with the obvious: anything that helps the dropout rate at all levels, from primary school to college, will expand the population available to be talent scouted for graduate school.

The popular song from 1945 went on:

Tell the doc to stick to his practice?

Tell the lawyer to settle his case?

Send the Injun chief and his tommy-hawk?

Back to little Rain-In-the-Face

It must have been inspiring to hear that on the radio every day, for those of our grandparents who had a radio. If you don’t think pop culture holds our kids back, please take some time to suggest what does.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahom, 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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