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Russell: The dark side of tribalism

There is a discussion going on here in Indiana on a list devoted to Indian education about the roaring problems of recruiting and retaining Indian students. I have been pretty silent even though I am a living example of who they are trying to reach. This is because I am at the other end of my life from the student years and I still have no answers.

While that discussion has been simmering, I’ve read a couple of things that might be pertinent, a report about current students’ attitudes toward college grades in the New York Times and a reaction to President Obama’s inaugural speech in Indian Country Today that was the dumbest political discourse I’ve heard since the civil rights establishment in the District of Columbia got up in arms over a public official using the word “niggardly” to mean what it means – “cheap.”

Academia is a foreign land and I had no guides.

I’ve learned from being around upper crust people that there’s no way to hide my origins. One of the ways you betray your background by class is to ask “Where did you go to high school?” For the record, that would be Bristow High School, home of the Purple Pirates, but I did not exceed the ninth grade.

The proper question is “Where were you prepared?” Now, the fact is that those of us who never even saw a prep school from a distance still needed preparation. I got mine serving in the military, which was willing to take a dropout because the Vietnam War was making recruitment difficult. What I learned is best summed up by Yoda: “There is only do or not do. There is no try.”

This brings me to modern college students, white and non-white, who come to me oozing with a sense of entitlement that is foreign to my own experience. I do understand “sense of entitlement.” They would be the “legacies,” who got admitted because of their parents and often got into a fraternity or sorority on the same basis.

My introduction to higher education does include a laughably brief encounter with a fraternity. In my freshman year, I got a visit from a small group of guys younger than myself. I was a GI Bill student and so entered at age 21.

Would I be interested in joining a fraternity? I did not know. It was beyond my ken. What’s a fraternity?

After some chuckles at my ignorance, they described having parties and meeting women. That sounded good to me, but then they told me some things about the initiation process. I will spare you the details, but it involved various rituals of humiliation. Since I always thought the big attraction of boot camp was that having done it you could say you did it and never do it again, that was the end of fraternities in my campus life. But I did find out why I got the invitation.

The fraternity in question was in danger of losing campus privileges because their collective grade point average was nearing 2.0. I was approached as a “grade point horse,” not because they wanted to be my friends. The entitlement to relate to a first-rate university as a place to have parties was unquestioned.

Max Roosevelt, writing in the New York Times Feb. 18, discusses how modern students feel about grades, making op-ed fodder of something I experience every day. Students feel that their grades should, as a matter of right, be related to the amount of effort they put in. If they do everything on the syllabus, they expect at least a B without regard to the result. While I do notice that doing everything on the syllabus is somewhat exceptional, giving a grade for effort sounds a lot like handing a trophy to everybody who finishes. Life is not like that and these kids are but a couple of years from life. When we assign a grade, we certify that they did well, not that they tried.

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Should Indian faculty give a trophy to every Indian student who shows up? This smacks of the sort of tribalism that needs to vanish from the earth, the kind Obama wants to stamp out. His reasons are more weighty. He is concerned with the tribalism of Iraq, of Rwanda, of the former Yugoslavia. The kind of tribalism that not only advantages people who have done nothing to deserve advantage but kills people who have done nothing to deserve killing.

We start by favoring our nuclear family, our clan and our tribe. Nation-states come later, if at all. This is normal, but is it normal not to grow up?

A participant in the conversation about retaining Indian students told of being a faculty advisor to an Indian group and watching persons who lived on a particular reservation get voted into leadership positions to the exclusion of qualified others. So, he complained, what little the university decided to provide for Indian students was always controlled by who had the majority of bodies.

I was thinking, ‘wow: the biggest problem of tribal governments in microcosm.’ If Indian students don’t grow out of that, what good will they do in tribal government when they graduate? Just as if human beings don’t defeat tribalism in its suicidal manifestations, we shall all perish when the earth decides that the solution to our collective failure to live in a sustainable way is a die-off or some tribe with nuclear weapons decides to claim the hegemony to which they believe they were born entitled.

Neither we nor our kids are entitled to anything for showing up or for trying or for being born here rather than there.

Build the bridge and it holds traffic or it falls down, regardless of who we are or what we intend.

Make a law and it does good or it does evil, regardless of who we are or what we intend.

We have been governed for eight years by a man who got into Yale as a legacy and made it to Harvard Business School with a C average, something I assure you our children cannot do.

Now we are governed by a man who went from food stamps to Harvard Law based on what he did. He now tells us to forsake the part of tribalism that puts familiar idiots in charge of people with ability who may not be exactly like us. He is a tribal person, one generation removed from Kenya – where tribalism is still at the killing stage – and his remarks do not offer us harm but rather prosperity.

Will we choose to grow up enough to accept it?

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Bloomington and can be reached at