Steve Russell: Struggles in an Indian education

"I remember my low point in the Oklahoma schools like it was yesterday. The Coach was teaching Oklahoma history, which normally meant The Coach was reading the textbook to us. Oklahoma is football country and The Coach is an important person. On this day, The Coach was in high good humor, talking about the discovery of oil on the Osage Reservation.

More precisely, The Coach was telling us about the white vultures who preyed on the newly rich Indians. ''They were selling washing machines to dumb Indians who had no electricity,'' The Coach informed us, adding a ''haw haw haw'' in case we did not get the humor. The Indian kids, maybe a fifth of the class, were looking at our shoelaces and praying for the bell to ring.

Because I was Indian, I was destined to work with my hands, perhaps as an artist but more likely as a carpenter or plumber or some such. This was problematic because I had no aptitude for such things, and further complicated by the fact that relatives who had preceded me in the schools in fact did have artistic talent.

he teachers wanted nothing but the best for me. They knew what Indians do, and they wanted to help me become a very good craftsman or, if I had the talent, an artist. Everyone knows there are no Indian intellectuals, right?

Today, I am a gatekeeper for the intellectual union card, the Ph.D., and I work with two Indian Ph.D. candidates. Need I add that I consider those students to be solid gold, that their existence justifies my own?

My own existence as a tenured professor at a research university is highly unlikely because I'm an American Indian high school dropout from a background of rural poverty. Some day, maybe I will write about how I got here, but I don't expect that my struggles are greatly different from those of other Indian professors.

I've been tenured twice, but both times my writings on Indian issues were belittled. In my third-year review at the University of Texas - San Antonio, I was flatly told to ''lay off the Indian stuff.'' At Indiana, the man who was department chair at the time I was hired professed not to know what it is I do and abstained on my tenure vote."

Get the Story:
Steve Russell: From the bottom of the education barrel (Indian Country Today 3/14)

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