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Hijacking Genocide: An Open Letter

This column goes out to Chiitaanibah Johnson, who I don’t know but I feel like I know. I don’t usually write in such a personal manner, but her story intersects with my life in so many ways I need to tell her and offer the encouragement I didn’t get.

You do need to understand, Ms. Johnson, that you absolutely did hijack his lesson. You sent his lesson plan right off the rails, and that’s the best thing that can happen to a university professor. I lived for the days my class got hijacked because it meant those kids cared as much about the subject matter as I do.

But that is something from my professor days, as is the observation that I got invited to give a job talk at Cal State-Sacramento but did not go because I already had a couple of firm offers and one was from my first choice, the University of Texas-San Antonio. So to meet you on more level ground, let’s step into the Way Back Machine, to when I was 22 years old and a 9th grade dropout from an Oklahoma high school.

Why did I drop out? Better to ask how I made it to the 9th grade.

One of my teachers lived nearby in that very small town and one time, when I was of elementary school age, the neighborhood mulberry tree was producing and I had berry juice all over my face.

“What’s that,” she asked. “War paint?” The kids present laughed. WTF? was not in my young vocabulary, but as an adult, I can’t think of any response beyond WTF? To say I was confused would be an understatement, because nobody ever explained what all stereotype all the time would mean. One thing it meant was no encouragement on the academic front.

I was ejected from a high school English class for having pulled down a textbook from a higher grade off the shelf in the back of the room where I always sat and begun to read Shakespeare. I got so into it I didn’t notice the teacher standing over me until she asked something about the lesson of the day I could not answer and chucked me out.

The same teacher would chuck me out again for turning in a paper by accident where I had written an effort to memorize Lord Byron (“She walks in beauty/like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies…”) instead of the one where I had given short shrift to a stupid grammar exercise.

Oklahoma history class. The teacher was The Coach. Football Coach. Anybody who’s lived in Oklahoma or Texas knows that The Coach is a minor god and, if he wins, probably makes more money than the principal.

The Coach was generally harmless in that he just read the textbook to us and asked questions contained at the end of the chapters. No big challenges, until the day he covered the descent of the human vultures on the Osage Nation because the Osage had kept their mineral rights and they struck oil.

I’m not talking about the vultures that were outed later when Dennis McAuliffe wrote The Deaths of Sybil Bolton. If The Coach had known—and I’m sure he didn’t—he would have deemed us too young to hear about the white men who married into the Osage Nation and then killed their brides for headrights.

No, The Coach was telling stories about selling washing machines to newly rich Indians “and they didn’t even have electricity. Haw haw haw….ignorant Indians.” Every Indian kid in the classroom developed a sudden interest in his or her shoelaces. We left the class in stunned silence and not only did nobody confront The Coach—unthinkable!—we didn’t even talk to each other.

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From these experiences, I resolved to teach high school, because I could do better. I joined the military for the GI Bill, having no other chance at college, and served between the ages of 17 and 21. After an honorable discharge, I was rejected by the University of Texas-Austin, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Marquette University without even being offered a chance to test.

A year later, I went back to the University of Texas and asked the person at the front desk of the admissions office who had run me off if I could talk to her supervisor. I repeated this until I was in the office of the Dean of Admissions, who was amused when I threatened a sit-in and apparently admired my moxie. I had better sense than to mention my tribal affiliation.

The Dean admitted me on “individual approval,” provided I start in a summer session, carry 12 hours, and make no grade lower than C. I happily agreed.

That summer of 1969, Ms. Johnson, is when I was you. I was in a freshman cultural anthropology class and I could not listen to the professor hold forth about the primitive savages without differing. He did not eject me—which would have gotten me ejected from the University—but he gave me the only C I ever got as an undergraduate. That summer, I got three A’s and that one goddam C I did not deserve.

Three years later, with no teaching prospects, my grade point average mattered because I was applying to two top tier law schools, Texas and Yale. I wrote to the jerk and asked him to reconsider my grade, since he was then a minority of one and that one C was the difference between magna cum laude and summa cum laude. He did not answer.

I learned later he was denied tenure at Texas and he passed out of my mind, although his actions did not. About 25 years later, I was involved with the Texas Indian Bar Association and we were having some NAGPRA fights. Because of media coverage, I was contacted by some Indian students at the University of Missouri-Columbia. They complained of a particular professor, and I learned he had landed on his feet and gotten tenured.

I went on to two careers, as a judge and a professor, and now I’m writing for a living. The jerk and I are both emeriti now, but I take some perverse pleasure in having been tenured at a school higher on the food chain than where he landed.

My purpose is to explain why I have the nerve to advise you when I don’t know you, even though I feel like I know you. Here are my comments.

1. Cal State claims you are not out of the class. Go ahead and get out if you can withdraw without penalty, because any teacher who considers having his lesson hijacked a bad thing probably has little to offer not in the textbook. One who professes knowledge should never be a slave to a textbook or a lesson plan.

2. Take it as a given that you will be stereotyped. Going forward, you are the angry Indian woman, but before that your intellect was probably discounted for your ethnicity. You can work this to your benefit if you channel your anger and the only way you can shut it down is with accomplishment, not noise.

3. Your parents have admonished you to complain respectfully and they are right. You are probably smarter than many of your professors and you will probably do more with your life than they did, but that’s in the future. Your goal must be to get from here to there. Courtesy costs you nothing and earns you a lot.

Finally, understand that there are lots of people pulling for you, proud of you, wanting you to succeed. You are not alone. In the words of my daughters’ generation: you go, girl!

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.