Tag Archives: Indian

Harvard’s PR Machine and the Cherokees

Elizabeth Warren.jpgSeemingly lily-white Elizabeth Warren’s supposed claim of Cherokee heritage may make for good campaign fodder–incumbent Senator Scott Brown has gone so far as to demand that Warren apologize for allowing Harvard to claim her as a minority–but the real lesson in this latest of partisan battles has more to do with university rather than electoral politics.

For those who have been living in a bubble, let’s rehash: On April 27th, the Boston Herald reported that Elizabeth Warren “was once touted by embattled Harvard Law School officials…as proof of their faculty’s diversity” in 1996; indeed, according to the Herald, Warren was considered the only minority woman on the Law School faculty at the time (a statistic of great interest, it seems, to those who count such things). Following the report, the Warren campaign has been on the defensive as opponent Brown, along with many members of the media, have been questioning (or simply making fun of) Warren’s seemingly cynical careerist use of her Native American heritage. Over the next few weeks, we will doubtless continue to hear details about Warren’s family, and about whether or not she used her lineage in a suspect way.

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Why Campus Mascots and Nicknames Are Under Attack

sky diver.jpgThe University of North Dakota sports teams have been known as the “Sioux” or the “Fighting Sioux” for more than 80 years. But this week the university’s hockey team played and lost in the NCAA playoffs wearing uniforms that said simply “North Dakota.” The reason: Last November, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple signed legislation permitting the university to retire its “Fighting Sioux” nickname so its hockey team could play schools that had boycotted teams with offensive mascots. This was a triumph for the NCAA in its years-long war against “hostile and abusive” nicknames and logos.

Quarrels over the dropping of long-cherished “offensive” nicknames often
generate immense acrimony. I personally observed this battle in my 28
years at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Arguments over
the Fighting Illini and Chief Illiniwek were fierce, even contributing
to the firing of uber-PC campus Chancellor Nancy Cantor.

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An Educator for Indians and Capitalism

In the year 2000, American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, CA, was one of the worst-performing middle schools in the state. Not a single student tested above the fiftieth percentile on state or national exams in math, and only eight percent of sixth-graders and 17 percent of eighth-graders passed that bar in reading (the rate for seventh-graders was zero.) Class attendance rates hovered around 65 percent. Junk lined the hallways, trash and rubbish cluttered the sidewalks and alleys outside. Neighbors called the school “the zoo.”
In Year 2008, American Indian Public Charter School had the highest test scores of any public school in Oakland. It ranked fifth among middle schools across the state.
What happened? A new principal arrived, Ben Chavis. His story appears in a recent book by Chavis and Carey Blakely entitled Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City
According to Chavis, among other things, the school was trapped in a culturalist fantasy. In an effort to instill racial pride and respect American Indian tradition, school leaders developed a curriculum that included courses in drumming and bead-making. The school day started late because they believed “American Indians couldn’t get up early in the morning.” The first hours brought everybody together for a session in which students and teachers discussed their feelings and interests and worries. Meanwhile, truancy, vandalism, and failure continued.
When Chavis took office, it all changed. He substituted “culture” classes with basic math and reading coursework oriented on explicit disciplinary standards. He extended the school year. He assigned detention freely for slight infractions, including a saturday detention period. He gave out financial awards for perfect attendance. He brought local drug dealers and thugs into the school to meet the students and promised them $5 for every absent student they found on the streets and returned to campus. He implemented a four-part education model made up of 1) family, 2) accountability, 3) high expectations, and 4) free market capitalism. In fact, he says, he insisted on “a free market capitalistic mind-set in our students and staff.” And he didn’t complain that the school needed more money.
There is much more to tell about the year-by-year progress of the school, including the firing of incompetent and lazy staff as well as the expulsion of what can only be called a racial pathology destroying the school until Chavis took over. It is a remarkable story of a man of solid work-ethic values and entrepreneurial vision working miracles.

Opening Old Wounds

An unusually bitter academic argument of 2000 came up again at the American Anthropological Association annual convention in Philadelphia. At issue was the long and famous (critics would say, notorious) work of Napoleon Chagnon among the Yanomamo Indians of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil and Venezuela. The Yanomomi are not among the most endearing of what used to be called primitive cultures. They acquire women by raiding nearby villages. In the process, the victors kill all the men, bash the brains of babies out on rocks, then gang-rape the women over and over and cart them home as spoils of war. A 1988 article in Science by Chagnon provoked praise and controversy, but the anger reached its peak in 2000 with the publication of Darkness in El Dorado, a vehemently anti-Chagnon book by journalist Patrick Tierney.
The book argued that Chagnon had exaggerated the violence of the Yanomami, staged some fights, and collaborated with his late colleague, geneticist James Neel, in starting a measles epidemic by vaccinating some members of the tribe.(The name Josef Mengele surfaced among critics of Chagnon and Neel.) In a syndicated column at the time, I suggested that the uproar over Chagnon was a shadow war over other issues—the noble savage myth versus the reality of the Yanomami, the sociobiological approach versus the blank-slate theory, and respect for traditional field work versus the post-Sixties politicized view that anthropology is little more than a destructive form of colonialism. The AAA censured Chagnon, an astounding act by a professional academic group. To the amazement to many, myself included, the association later revoked the censure and did it with unusually blunt language: “The task force compromised its objectivity by merging its investigation with a political agenda, in that its mission in conducting the investigation was intended to challenge ‘Western elites,’ and ‘interrupt regimes of knowledge and power.”