Over the past several months, I poured my heart and soul into trying to be one of this year’s eighty-three Rhodes Scholars.
As the grandson of survivors of successive waves of genocide from the Cariboo Gold Rush to the residential schools, and the only begotten child of a broken interracial marriage between a spunky Irish-Jew and an alcoholic artist who stumbled off the reserve and into a New York bar, I recognize the irony of my ambitions. My story is probably better suited to a Sherman Alexie novella than a prestigious scholarship.
The Rhodes is funded by the estate of Cecil Rhodes, a decidedly terrible man who profited unequivocally from the colonization and exploitation of African peoples and territories. A proud imperialist, Rhodes believed that the burden of both History and Progress belonged to the Anglo-Saxon who must strive to triumph over the savagery of the “ape, bushman, and pigmy.” Although Rhodes’ explicit endorsement of global white supremacy is noted only in hushed tones and seldom in polite company, the spirit of his vision—to find and enable the most elite talent among the young and educated so that they can lead a righteous crusade forward for humanity — remains. Every year, a short list of scholars from around the world shoulder what was formerly known as the “White Man’s Burden.” Fortunately, these days it is a bit browner and more feminine than Rhodes originally envisioned.
The Rhodes Scholarship wasn’t designed or intended for me or my people, and that’s exactly why I wanted it so badly. Long ago, men like Rhodes who amassed fortunes from actions that included the theft of the lands where our gods reside, our ancestors are buried and our people still struggle to live a decent life, decided that humans were players in a zero-sum game and that the resources and opportunities would not be ours but theirs. When I won the Rhodes and raided his colonial estate, those men would turn in their graves while my ancestors danced in the revelry of vengeful success. I was going to take it all back — for Canim Lake (my home reserve), Oakland (where I grew up) and all of Indian Country. Maybe it was justice. Maybe it was delusion.
The Rhodes was on my radar for a very long time. But my dream was almost lost at the start. I knew how competitive it was to win, and so when I returned from Columbia to Oakland in the winter break of my freshman year with far from perfect grades, I thought that Cecil was already out of reach. I pressed on over the next couple years and was elated to receive, in the spring of my junior year, an invitation from Columbia’s Office of Global Programs to apply for my University’s endorsement. I had a shot at the Rhodes after all.
Last summer, I spent countless hours in front of a blank word document, trying to tell my story and convince the powers that be that I would carry the Rhodes mantle for people who had heretofore been crushed under its weight. Much to the annoyance of my then girlfriend and still mother, I spent week after week in my Washington Heights sublet writing and then erasing sentences. I read the essays and profiles of prior winners. One day I convinced myself I could win only to return the next day and ask myself what the hell I was doing and who I was kidding.
At the eleventh hour, on a flight from New York to Oakland, I finally put pen to paper. The draft was rough, but the conclusion—a quote from my late grandfather, a survivor of the residential school system and a laborer with a sixth grade education — was fitting: “Shake the hand that shakes the world.”
About one hundred drafts, eight letters of recommendation and six weeks later I received the news—I had been named a finalist, and I would have the opportunity to interview. I was overjoyed. It felt like we were going to make it.
I spent a month preparing for my interview with Columbia’s Office of Global Programs. They believed I could win, and gave me all the practice, preparation and advice that I needed to succeed. Despite the sincerity of my ambitions, I found that the most difficult aspect of my preparation was feeling comfortable in my own skin. I knew my candidacy was adversarial to the Rhodes legacy, so I prepared for every version of the inevitable question: “How do you feel about taking up the White Man’s burden?”
Our blood is on that money, and I was afraid that I would be dismissed as a radical if I told them that I wanted to fight for justice and equality for our people. But after a pep talk from my mother and an honest conversation with the Dean about my fears, I decided that if that’s how I was going to go down, that’s how I would go down.
I prepared for the interview like it was a powwow, planning the details of my outfit down to the tie and socks for weeks in advance. Our ancestors always looked their best when they travelled to look power in the face, and that day, I was them. But I was also just a nervous young man, so I let my mother braid my hair and straighten my tie before walking out the door. I strode onto the University of California San Francisco campus to meet my panel of inquisitors and the other Rhodes finalists with confidence — braids swinging down to my butt, ancestors at my back, and my mother sitting with her fingers crossed in the car.
The Rhodes interview process is dramatic. It begins with a Friday night cocktail party where the candidates and their inquisitors from the district meet and mingle. It is followed by a short but all-important twenty-minute interview on Saturday. By end-of-day Saturday, the full cohort of finalists gathers in front of the judges who announce the names of the two Rhodes Scholars elected from the district. Cecil Rhodes, it turned out, was fond of theatrical interviews and had, unsurprisingly, a cruel sense of humor.
I imagined myself charging into a Battle-of-the-Little-Big-Horn of an interview and counting coup on the Rhodes committee. In my mind, the cocktail party was a much more pompous and patrician affair than it actually turned out to be. What I had pictured as a fancy reception serviced by butlers holding silver platters in a grand hall named after an illustrious 49er turned out to be plastic plates with crackers, cheese and seltzer self-served in an awkward cranny named after a biotech company. Truthfully, I was disappointed. If I was going to meet “The Man,” I wanted him to be a sexy English gentleman, not a laidback Silicon Valley mogul.
The selection committee was made up of seven incredibly impressive Bay Area professionals. There were multiple high-ranking businesswomen including two CEOs, accomplished scholars and one judge. There was no blundering Custer for me to outwit or outflank. We, the fifteen finalists, had our work cut out for us.
As I mentioned before, the most difficult task in the lead-up to my interview was feeling comfortable in my own skin and feeling confident in telling my own story. In the long, difficult and self-reflective preparatory process of finding my center, I managed to convince myself that my Rhodes inquisitors would recognize the incredible opportunity that this scholarship represented not only for me but also for all of Indian Country. To be honest, I didn’t expect to encounter the assumptions, prejudices and even subtle racism that I found in the room.
At the cocktail party, one of my inquisitors offered up a personal connection. She had passed through the declining Canadian mill town that is 30 minutes away from my home reserve. She followed that fact with another. She loved the interior of British Columbia because of its great heli-skiing. Heli-skiing? A sport that costs more than $1,000 per day? Really? Perhaps we had both placed our feet on the same geography, but we were not talking about the same world. My mind fluttered to images of small houses with many people but few beds, undrinkable water and wood-fire furnaces. Houses full of people I love; people who have never and will never heli-ski. “Out of touch but unintentional,” I told myself.
Her next comment brought me back to the present while it shook me to my core. I explained to her that I grew up in a single-parent household with my white mother, but that my family on the Native side took my mother as their sister. This is, of course, the Indian way. Somehow she managed to find it within the boundaries of the appropriate to opine, “I guess two-parent families are unusual in aboriginal communities.” I laughed awkwardly. How could I challenge her assumptions in a way that didn’t jeopardize my chances?
She continued to explore the outer reaches of cultural insensitivity in my interview the next day. “What are the rights granted to aboriginal peoples under the Indian Act?” Granted? Really? And then, “Why don’t Indians pay taxes?” I paused for a moment to let the question sink in. I almost expected her to follow it with, “How big was your grandmother’s residential school settlement check?”
I corrected her on the taxation question. The belief that Indians don’t pay taxes is a harmful misconception. Furthermore, the notion that sovereign First Nations who have lost everything need to buy into Canada is backwards and myopic and completely disregards the painful realities of history. If I could go back I would add a pithier insight that only came to me later, “A 30-percent tax on nothing is still nothing.” I still find it strange that one of the wealthiest businesswomen in the nation was asking about the poorest peoples’ taxes.
She dominated the interview, and to my dismay, very few of the questions from the other inquisitors endeavored to understand the young man before them. They asked about nanotechnology, scientific literacy, interest rates and inflation—legitimate and important topics that have absolutely nothing to do with me. I hoped that they would ask about my leadership on Columbia’s campus, my thesis on indigenous memory as a catalyst for political activism, or my job as an investigator for the Bronx public defender’s office. But they didn’t, and my twenty minutes was up.
I exited the interview, thanked the committee members for their time, and went to grab some lunch. I had a terrible nervous stomachache. After it was all over, I didn’t feel quite as brave as I had going into the battle. I shook the hand that shakes the world, but when I stood outside the room, I trembled. The committee deliberated for over four hours while fifteen hopeful finalists awaited their fates. We played Heads Up! on someone’s iPhone and added each other on Facebook. For a bunch of ambitious perfectionists, they were actually all very cool.
When the committee finally gathered us round to announce the names of the two winners, I grimaced with disappointment. Saturday November 23, 2014 would not be the big win for Indian Country that I had hoped. To be clear, I lost fair and square to two of the most outstanding candidates one could ever imagine: a three-season varsity athlete and junior inductee into Phi Beta Kappa, and the proverbial kid who is going to cure cancer. (Believe me, this guy actually will.) I shook his hand and gave her a hug. They will do great things with their opportunity.
The Rhodes would have represented an incredible win for Indian Country — for the first people of this land who are still without basic resources. While I know that I don’t need the Rhodes feather in my cap — as an Indian I have many of those — I can’t help but feel disappointment. We came so close. And for the next Native finalist whoever that might be, I offer this: Do not kid yourself. As an Indian you will face ungrounded assumptions that lead your inquisitors to question, disregard or even outright fail to perceive the immediacy of the challenges we face as Indian people. Around that table and in the halls of power, we simply do not exist.
But when you shake the hand that shakes the world, look that power in the face and do not tremble.
Julian Brave NoiseCat is an enrolled member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’secen in British Columbia, where he was recently nominated to run for Chief. Julian grew up in Oakland, California and studied history at Columbia University in the City of New York. He plans to shake the hand that shakes the world.