January 14, 2010

The Indian Rhodes Scholar

In Road Warrior, Scott Bear Don't Walk, a Crow Indian, writes about his experiences as a Native Rhodes Scholar.

His misgivings about going to Oxford:What about the world I was leaving? My university was 15 minutes from my mother’s reservation, 20 minutes from my grandmother’s house. My father had gone to the same university for law school, and I went to the university preschool. I had never left home. I hadn’t even been out of state. My tribe is ambivalent about its people going away. Going away can make sense, economically, or to study, but in another sense, it doesn’t make any. We were nomads and we traveled, but always within a known world of connections. Our world is known through stories. Sacred ancestors, from before humans existed, had lived in and around where Missoula is presently located.How he was a tribal hero and role model:At my university’s powwow on campus, an old woman dressed in the traditional style with high-top moccasins, calico dress, wide leather belt, and hair scarf, recognized me out of a crowd, put her arms around me and started crying. She said that she told her teenage grandson about me, so that he could be proud to be Indian.

At that same powwow, in a special ceremony I was given the traditional Indian name “Outstanding War Bonnet.” A war bonnet, or headdress, is worn by warriors who have amassed many great deeds, each signified by an eagle feather. My great deed was the Rhodes, and I was given a headdress covered in eagle feathers.

A local Indian health clinic made a poster; it shows a picture of me, alongside a very old picture of my great grandfather, the original Bear Don’t Walk, my family’s namesake. The poster lauds my scholarship, and says, “This is Today’s Warrior: Drug and Alcohol Free.” These posters were pasted on the doors and walls of local businesses. I would run into pictures of myself all over town.
Why he ultimately quit the program:When I got there, I felt the alienation of a place unlike any other I had experienced. My fellow Rhodes had gone to the better schools in America and found in Oxford something familiar: soaring architecture, manners, a belief in a pursuit of excellence. For some, even the tutorial system was similar. I was a fish out of water, or a buffalo out of the tall grass plains, or an American Indian away from his tribe. A sense of displacement reared up.And:An Indian elder once told me that nomadic tribes had figured out a way to live so that they only had to spend about twenty hours a week “making a living.” The rest of the time was spent really living: socializing, telling stories, singing songs through long winter nights. In Western culture, we haven’t figured out how to spend less than forty hours at a desk. In this world, in Oxford’s world, relationships aren’t as important as getting ahead.Comment:  As far as I know, Bear Don't Walk is the only Native Rhodes Scholar.

Some good points here about how heroes and "warriors" aren't necessarily physical fighters. And about how it's hard to shake one's cultural upbringing. The rest of the essay is interesting too.

For more on Rhodes Scholars, see Rhodes Scholar Tackles Native Health and Rhodes Scholar Organized Lenape Exhibit.

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