“An education saved my life.” These were the words I spoke to a class room of Native American students attending Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence Kansas. There have been other words spoken at Native American schools that were intended to support the education of “Indians.” Rev J.A. Lippincott, in 1898, gave the commencement speech to Carlisle Indian School graduates. Here was his message to advocate for Native Americans becoming educated.
"the Indian is DEAD in you.” "Let all that is Indian within you die!...You cannot become truly American citizens, industrious, intelligent, cultured, civilized until the INDIAN within you is DEAD."
That statement in 1898 during the time when America was trying to figure out how to educate “savages” benefited the expanding America more than Native Americans. Haskell began educating Natives Americans in 1884 mainly as a way to train young Native Americans on how to become just, Americans. Although the boarding schools in the 1880s forced Native American children to attend educational institutions, Haskell School today is a university for any enrolled tribal member.
Another predominate statement from the past efforts of forced cultural assimilation of Native American children was “Kill the Indian save the man.” Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt was the founder and superintendent of the Carlisle Indian School. His plan was to kill the Native American by way of teaching them to be an American. Genocide was becoming much more difficult to justify so his ideal was to send out an army of teachers to produce cultural genocide.
Schools were built or existing buildings were converted. Native American children were forcibly removed from their parents and communities. Children had their hair cut, made to wear military-style uniforms, not allowed to speak any language other than English, and physically, mentally, spiritually, and sexually abused. Although the official policies that allowed for boarding schools ended around the 1940s, some schools converted into typical teaching institutions. Haskell Indian Nations University is one of the converts. It has a long and complicated educational history. Some of the children who were forced to attend in the 1800s did not ever have a chance to make it back to their parents, communities, or cultural ways of life. Haskell Indian Nations University has its own grave yard. The little white head stones with names of children who passed while attending the school and not returned back to their parents represents both standard genocide and cultural genocide. Native Americans and education have a complicated relationship. Trying to deal with this issue is complicated. So, my talk at Haskell had to be unpretentious, humble, and most important, helpful.
I was set to speak at three different classes: two back-to-back classes in the business department, with Dr. Jim Bliven, and one social work class after lunch.
The building where Dr. Bliven’s classes were held looked like the high school I attended in the late 1970’s. The hallways were bland, with institutional non-colored walls and tile floor. Like me, Dr. Bliven is a mixed blood, except he is Hispanic and Native American. He had coal black hair and goatee. He came in to class with baked goods and drinks for everyone. As he introduced me he asked that everyone be sure to help themselves to the food. It was obvious that his class is very laid back, as he is. I stood in front of a large chalk board that already had my name written across one side. I looked out on the students, seated in perfectly even rows of tables and chairs. Many of the men wore coats and ties, and the women were in dresses. It turned out to be “Dress up Day” on campus.
I wanted to send three very strong points about what it takes to be successful in college. My agenda that morning had been stewing in my mind and developing over several years.
“Getting an education has nothing to do with intelligence,” I told them. Although they seemed a bit surprised at first, some shook their heads in agreement. “A person does not have to have a high IQ to succeed in college. A strong belief system is much more powerful than a strong IQ.” There were more heads nodding in agreement.
A strong support system is also very powerful; in order to be successful, students must have a group of people who bolster their efforts of getting an education. I have never heard of a successful student who finished college without outside support. It takes help from family members, friends, professors, and any other person who has a positive, motivating influence. The “loner” does not do too well in college. A loner is someone who is isolated, cut off from connections of supportive others. They could miss a class, several classes and no one would notice. American public universities are not designed to accommodate individuals or an individual’s personal problems. Having a support system in place when personal problems do happen, it vital to success in higher education.
The final thing I wanted these students to leave with was hope. I told them, if I could succeed in college, anybody can. Students are doomed without some level of hopefulness about thriving in college. A strong belief system, a strong support group and hope are the primary ingredients for success in any educational institution.
Clearly and efficiently expressing these important themes is the challenge. In the midst of attending college, I think young people depend more on their overall survival skills than thinking about or strategizing specific productive actions. Entering college is an entirely new environment that young people are expected to navigate on their own; they have left the security and familiarity of their home base, and face new responsibilities and demands, academically, socially, and financially. This reliance on survival skills is especially true for minority youth and particularly for Native Americans, who face far more obstacles than the general challenges of adjusting to the college environment. The only reason Native Americans still exist today is because they fought to survive. From the time that Columbus arrived, throughout the great American expansion, there was an enormous, coordinated effort to rid America of these “savages.”
Survival instincts are in our blood, a hereditary response that has been passed down from our ancestors, whether they were warriors or peace keepers. Our strong survival methods can either be a gift or a curse. During times when our lives are stressed or challenged, like getting an education, if we use these survival skills in a good way along with following a planned-out, organized strategy, we can accomplish just about any task we might face. However, if we only use our survival skills with no plans, we are more likely to retreat to a safe, familiar stance, which often results in rigidity, defiance, and overall failure. Armed with passed-down, gene-level resilience and well-designed plans, we can conquer any challenge. Peace in the New Year, DAP