• Graduation Miracles

    This past Friday, the University of Wyoming’s American Indian Studies Program celebrated the graduation of seven American Indian students from college.

    The ceremony was fairly pro forma. Held at the Laramie Hilton Ballroom, flanked by family and friends, each student selected a faculty member to speak on their behalf. Each faculty member shared personal anecdotes about the student, along with a brief biography that the student had put together. It was a nice evening, but far from unique among the many graduation observances across the Nation.  
    I think what made the ceremony portion special, though, were the events that followed a faculty member’s remarks: every graduating student was presented with a Pendleton Blanket, long the gold-standard for gift exchange among American Indian communities. Once the ceremony was over, the invited drum group played a closing song, and an invited elder fanned each student with the incense of burning cedar (a process otherwise known as cedaring in Indian Country).

    It was a pan-Indian ceremony to be sure, but one that reflected the diversity of backgrounds and tribal affiliations of the Native students who call UW home.

    As the evening carried on, there were plenty of laughs and smiles, along with the inevitable tears of pride from families. But as we discussed the achievements of each graduate, it became easy to take their accomplishments for granted. After all, that’s what we do when we celebrate graduates. We celebrate their accomplishments – even if it’s merely finishing the arduous task of a university education itself. No small feat, but it’s expected. As a society, it’s what we do.

    Naturally, as I listened to the accolades, the mindset that “of course, students will amass a number of accomplishments” was never far from my estimation. And yet, now that a couple of days have passed, it’s clear to me that this is so very far from the truth.

    The article is a bit cold on the wires now, but according to Dr. Dean Chavers, Director of Catching the Dream (Ph.D, Stanford University), the accomplishments we witnessed on Friday night were actually quite rare:

    Only 17 percent of Indian students go on to college from high school. And since 50 percent of these high school students drop out before graduation, only 8.5 percent of Indian students enter college. This compares to 70 percent nationally. Thus Indian enrollment in college is only 12 percent of non-Indian enrollment. And 82 percent of these Indian college students drop out before they graduate from college; they never earn a degree. For every Indian college graduate per unit of population, there are 30 non-Indian graduates. And the gap has been getting larger over the past 40 years, not smaller. 

    Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2012/06/16/myth-indian-scholarships-and-native-dropout-epidemic-118525

    Based on this assessment, a whopping 6.97% of American Indians will actually earn a college degree. Set aside the adversity of losing a family member in the midst of college, and set aside the rigors and stress of student competition at the highest levels of college debate (personal disadvantages that two of our students had to overcome), what we witnessed and celebrated on Friday night was the rare graduation of a group of American Indians.

    Far from falling victim of the statistics of Dr. Chavers, our UW graduates joined that narrow 6.97% of their American Indian peers and earned a college degree. Regardless of their GPAs and resumes, upon graduation, our seven students entered a meaningful elite – for who is better positioned to do more, to continue to compete, and to utilize the skills that they have learned to the direct benefit of their communities, than the Native students graduating from college?

    Indeed, perhaps, among no other ethnic group in America is a college degree so important as it is to Native Americans.

    And so, as our Native graduates move from hither to yon, I wish you all well. Thank you for the years you’ve shared with me. Thank you for the perseverance that you demonstrated, however fraught the circumstances may have been. And thank you for allowing me to witness as close to a miracle as we still have in this modern era – the celebration of your collegiate accomplishments.

    And most of all, thank you for the things you will accomplish. May your journal, henceforth, be blank.

  • The Art of Making Strategic Decisions

    In class this week, we walked through a few of the main arguments that set the theoretical framework for building effective tribal governments (See Rebuilding Native Nations).

    According to the authors’, one of the key elements for building effective tribal governments is for tribal leaders to engage in strategic decision making. The whole section reminded me a bit of the biblical adjuration, Where there is no vision, the people perish. I think that passage is actually talking about prophetic visions, but divorcing a quote from context has never stopped me before.  
    Regardless, the point is the same. In order to run an effective government, organization, institute, non-profit, etc., there has to be some vision toward which the entity aspires. For tribes, some of the questions include, What kind of society do we want to create? What’s our primary objective? What values guide our decision making? Where do we want to be in ten years? How do we get there from here? How do our values inform our policies? And, fundamentally, What do we want? 
    While the text applies these considerations, quite correctly, to tribes, the potential applications ofsuch analyses are actually much broader.  In fact, they even lie at the heart of the U.S. Presidential Election:
    • What kind of country do we want? 
    • Would we shut the borders of the United States to Muslims seeking entry? 
    • Would we seriously consider deporting 11+ million illegal immigrants? 
    • Why are we afraid to categorize people who are here illegally as illegals?
    • But, is deportation the best use of our rather finite National resources? 
    • Are we content with a criminal justice systems that disproportionately affects blacks? 
    • Are we content with a nation where top officials can flaunt their violation of our strictest national security laws? 
    • What kind of person would we like to see on the Supreme Court? 
    • How can we provide health care in such a way that we maximize the Liberty interests of citizens, while delivering the best possible service?? etc…

    The point is simply that the questions besetting tribes are no different than the kinds of questions that we face as a Nation. The only difference is that tribes must ask such questions not as free peoples exercising their right to self-government, but as wards under the guardianship of an external government that has assumed the authority to nullify their decisions with the stroke of a pen (See Congressional Plenary Power). 

    And so the question remains for tribal governments, When will the moment in time be right to challenge the legal presumption that Congress has absolute authority over American Indian tribal nations
    Granted, the time isn’t now. But when the time comes, what is the strategy for throwing off the yoke of Washington in order to truly allow tribes to engage in their own exeperiment in government by the consent of the governed?  And make no mistake, consent is key here. Any exercise of tribal self-determination must begin with the will and consent of Indian peoples. 
    Even so, what’s the plan? What would that form of sovereignty look like? 
    Lots of questions to explore and it’s only week one. Onward…
  • Blog Reboot, and Today’s Tribal Governments

    Today marks an interesting shift for Pax Plena. After years of personal blogging and sharing my thoughts on everything from political questions to parenting, I’ve decided to use this platform as a way to share more of my thoughts on my research and teaching interests. Naturally, I reserve the right to share whatever I like, but I hope to use the site as a way to test new ideas, and hopefully bring a bit of what I do in American Indian Studies to those interested. 


    So, consider this an effort to reboot the blog, and take things in a new direction. 

    Toward that end, I’m teaching a course on Tribal Governments this semester (AIST 4100). The enrollment is relatively small with only seven intrepid students eager to take on the complexities of America’s fourth form of government. 

    This is my third year to teach this course, and it has long puzzled me why a class with obvious relevance to a rural state like Wyoming would generate such little student interest. It could be that students are busy and have to prioritize their course load – an understandable outcome given the reality of the semester schedule and the respective demands of various majors across campus. But I suspect the lack of interest has more to do with the subject matter than it does with any scheduling conflicts.


    Part of the problem is that the notion of tribes as governments is something relatively foreign to many students. For starters, the governmental authority of tribal governments finds its genesis in a source of law that falls outside the bounds of the U.S. Constitution. The phrase we use in Indian law is that the governing authority of tribes is ‘extra-Constitutional,’ or one derived not from the efforts of our Founding Fathers, lo so many years ago. Such is the case because tribes pre-dated the U.S. Constitution by centuries, and in their drafting, the Founding Fathers simply did not incorporate tribes into the Constitutional framework.   

    So right away, from the very first day of the class, there is a disconnect to overcome. It’s certainly not an insurmountable barrier. But there’s a degree of difficulty in introducing a new form of government within the U.S. after years of civics courses have engrained in a student’s mind that federalism consists of federal, state, and local governments to the exclusion of all others. 

    And yet, it’s fascinating course to teach as an instructor. If there’s an area of governance where there is still ample room for innovation, development, and creative problem solving, then the work being done among American Indian tribal governments has to be among the most interesting around. My experience has been that students tend to appreciate this point toward the end of the semester – but at the beginning it’s still a distant concept.

    By the end of the semester we will have explored four theme areas: 
    • Tribes as Governments. Here, we explore the nuts and bolts of what tribes can do. Some things will be obvious – tribes can levy taxes, create their own codes and bodies of law, etc. Other things might be surprising to students, like the idea that tribes can issue license plates, or own businesses.
    • Tribes and Other Governments. This theme evaluates the contours of the relationships between tribal governments and the other governmental entities within the American federalist system. Primarily, it addresses questions of jurisdiction. For example, students might be interested to know that in most states, the state government has no jurisdiction over Indian reservations/lands. This may sound find, until students realize the problems this can create in terms of criminal law, given sparse federal law enforcement resources across much of the American west. 
    • Tribes and Development. For many students, this is the most interesting aspect of the course. Unlike mainstream, American governance, where a strong political current actually perceives government as an obstacle to economic progress (a view I’m not unsympathetic toward), when it comes to tribal governance, tribal nations uniformly play a large role in promoting economic progress and development. Often times, a tribal government will find itself in the role of a business owner. Such an action by government in the mainstream context would be rare, and mostly anathema to significant segments of the population. 
    • Critical Analysis. The final theme that I true to imbue in the minds of students is the notion of critical analysis – and the particular challenge of maintaining critical thought when it comes to our overview of tribal governments. While I consider myself an advocate of tribal sovereignty, I believe that it’s equally important for students to understand that tribes are fallible entities indeed. Not every tribe governs well. Not every tribe abides by the rule of law. And not every tribe ensures that its citizens are entitled to equal protection under the laws of the tribal nation. So, while the students will be learning about what tribes can and can’t do, what their relationships are like with over governmental entities, and the impressive innovations that can result from tribal/state/corporate/federal partnership, I also want them to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism throughout the semester, and to consider tough questions that, honestly, may not have an answer.
    Functionally, the course has always gone well. It certainly isn’t a required course by any means, so the students who sign up tend to have some interest in the class, which in turn makes my job a lot easier. Suppose we will know more on this score in a few weeks time, but I’m happy to have the students I met on Monday on board. 

    For now, I’ll leave it here, but don’t be surprised if additional comments and questions from the class make their way into this space. Truth is, I’ve missed blogging – so, it’s nice to have a way to incorporate my academic interests into our now 11 year old conversation here at Pax Plena. 

    More to come…
  • Homeward Bound

    Earlier this afternoon,some of our class was keen to ride the cable cars to the top of a local mountain here in Wellington. Hungry, and dreading the 12+ hour trek home, I opted for the only place in New Zealand where a man can eat for less than $10. McDonalds isn’t the healthiest option, but the burger was fine, and the view of the city below was not unwelcome.

    Strange to think that the trip is winding down already. In fact, just this morning two members of our group left for an extension of their travel abroad, off to destinations in Australia. One other member of the class left for Laramie yesterday.

    Soon, the rest of us will board a plane here in Wellington for a brief jaunt to Auckland, where we’ll connect to LAX and eventually to Denver, and to home.

    I suppose with every trip there’s a bit of wistfulness for the memories made. Over a year ago, when my family and I left New Zealand for Oklahoma, I wasn’t sure that I would ever return. And yet, just over a year later, here I am with a fresh set of experiences that were only enhanced by the students and my colleague on the trip.

    It’s a bit cliché, but like to think that farewell isn’t good bye. If the relationships developed here are any indication, a visit to New Zealand or hosting visitors from New Zealand in the near future isn’t only possible but perhaps quite likely. International travel, something that was once quite alien to my life experience, now seems to be a part of the natural order of things. Sometimes it’s a lot for this kid from Cotton County, OK to absorb.

    At any rate, I’m quite pleased to be leaving for home. I have a wife and son that I’ve missed very much, and plenty of Call of Duty left to play now that classes are over – not to mention the academic research and writing that I need to do as well.

    But in the meantime, I’ll keep a special place in my heart for Aotearoa – the land where my son learned to walk, and the first place our newly minted family called home.

    Until next time, farewell, Friends.

  • A Visit to the Museum

    Te Papa Tongarewa Museum here in Wellington, New Zealand is every bit the epitome of a modern state museum. But what makes this one especially interesting is that its cavernous halls are home to some of the most exquisite collections of Māori artifacts in the world. Our group from the University of Wyoming traipsed through this morning for a quick 90 minute tour of the museum’s Māori highlights. 

    Our tour guide was a surly woman. Short. Somewhat portly. The tenor of her voice bespoke an annoyance with the very premise of answering questions. Naturally, this effect was amplified on those rare occasions when one of us dared to ask one.

    This seems to be a thing with tour guides on this trip. In a separate incident while touring Parliament yesterday, a different guide actually yelled at a poor girl from our class when she paused to use the restroom before the tour even started. Later, the same guide badgered my colleague, a staunch feminist, over Wyoming’s decision to grant women the right to vote.

    To be clear and fair, this guide was very much in favor of women’s suffrage, but his point seemed to be that New Zealand had led the world on this score by becoming the first country to grant women the right to vote as opposed to being merely a state. My colleagues position was that Wyoming’s decision on women’s suffrage was actually done under “false pretenses.” Now that I think about it, I suspect they were talking past one another.

    Nevertheless, fireworks ensued and we all enjoyed the festivities, albeit a bit awkwardly. The name “Te Papa,” according to our tour guide is derived from the Māori words for treasure and basket. As a result, the museum fancies itself as a treasure basket of sorts, or to put matters less obtusely, the home of the nation’s treasures.

    At Te Papa, one of the more interesting parts of the collection was the Māori “meeting house,” or wharenui in the photo above. This particular wharenui was actually stolen (or “confiscated” to quote our guide) from one of the New Zealand tribes as a showcase piece for visitors to Parliament as luck would have it. Perhaps our guide from Parliament gave the tours.

    For the indigenous scholar in me, all of this, of course, begs the question of whether the museum is actually a home to the nation’s treasures or a safe house for the country’s plunder.

    Tomato, tomāto, I suppose.

    In all, it was a lovely visit to the museum. It’s no Smithsonian but the coffee was nice even if the tour guide wasn’t.

  • A Dispatch from New Zealand


    The Tukorehe Marae is an unprepossessing structure. Nestled behind a grove of lush palm trees, its paint is gradually fading, unveiling layer upon layer of cosmetic efforts past. The predominance of white paint is strong in the front. But in the back, it yields to flecks of salmon, and some of the wood has worn itself bare.

    Our host at the marae is a man named Shawn, or “Papa Shawn,” as the kids call him. And while he’s hardly the garrulous sort, he clearly loves this place – a place that he simply calls home. 
    Māori in New Zealand often call a particular “mare,” such as this, home. For the descendants of Tukorehe, a Māori ancestor from the distant past, this marae is theirs, carrying with it all the trappings of ownership as if they had helped Tukorehe himself hew the logs that support its roof. 
    By way of explanation, the focal point of the marae grounds is the meeting house, or wharenui, which resembles a small wooden chapel that congregations in the Southern United States might have used over a century ago. However, far from practicing Christianity, Māori consider their meeting houses to be the living iteration of their ancestors. Photos of deceased relatives line the wooden walls of the wharenui, each ancestor looking after the occupants in a very literal and symbolic way. The walls themselves are ornately decorated with wood carvings and flax tapestries that tell both the exploits of the ancestor, as well as the philosophy/theology that undergirds the Māori worldview. 

    The marae, then, is not so much a chapel as it is a cenotaph dedicated to the presence of the absence of ancestors who never truly left to begin with. 
    If there’s a nugget of wisdom I’ve gleaned from the complexities of the Māori cosmology (one I will, admittedly, never fully understand), it’s that they do community rather differently than we do in mainstream America. 
    I won’t say it’s better, because I’m not sure it is. But it is different, and special. 

    The first difference is the Māori emphasis on all things communal. Sleeping in the marae, for example, is a wholly collective affair. The end result is that our group of ten from the University of Wyoming have spent the past three days sleeping in the wharenui, sharing snores, showers, and sleeping patterns alike. This is, of course, a stark contrast to America where privacy is the order of the day, no matter how much the NSA might say otherwise. 
    The second difference is in the Māori emphasis on social extroversion. Back home, my normal routine involves quiet, reflection, dedicated time for writing, and the occasional game of Call of Duty
    For Māori, nearly every interaction is focused on the shared, lived experience of family or whanauFamilies and extended families all come in equal turn on the marae, sharing meals, entertainment, and social activities in common. Needless to say, this American’s time for reflection has been almost non-existent, and in all honesty this has taken its toll on my frazzled nerves. It seems I crave quiet in the same way Māori crave togetherness. I suppose both the individual and the collective have their place and needs. 
    Of course, I knew all of this coming in. The marae was never a mystery to me given the year/plus that Gwyn, Clark and I lived in New Zealand. But perhaps the difference on this trip is the presence of the absence of my own whanau. While the Māori ancestors look after us from behind their frames in the wharenui, my own family is ensconced miles across the mighty Pacific, visiting family back in Indiana. 
    It seems this is the real lesson from Māoridom. There’s precious little that’s more important than family.  Of course, we all take this to different extremes. 
  • Children at Play

    We took Clark to the park today. The playground equipment had all the usual trappings of a large park in the center of town, including scores of parents, kids, and pooches out for their afternoon walk. 
     
    Amid the chaos, we discovered the slides fairly quickly. Clark and Gwyn spent most of the time going up, and down the slide head first. No worry given to broken necks, or petrified father watching from the side. Only the occasional mischievous glance, and the squeal of joy at landing in the wood chips beneath the slide. 

     
    It’s a remarkable thing to see a child at play. Engrossed in the moment. Utterly fascinated by whatever it is that captures the attention, and imagination of a young mind. 
     
    But what I envy most is Clark’s ability just to be. To enjoy. To play. Some nights when my mind races with things to do, with the things that I didn’t get done, with the typical cares of life that keep one awake late into the night, I wish I had his young heart, and innocence – things forever etched on the face of a child at play. 
     
    I suppose that’s something I can’t get back. And yet, I can’t help but pray it’s something he never loses. 
  • On Leaving

    The hardest part of the holidays is always the ride back to OKC Airport. I’ve made the trip a fair few times now, and while it becomes more familiar, I can’t say that it’s ever any easier.

    In my discipline, we often talk about the unique connection that American Indians have to their lands. And I think that’s right.

    But on days like today, as we prepare to depart and return to the regular business of busy and hectic lives, I wonder if we’re only discussing half of the issue in the relationship between native peoples and their lands.

    For my view, any attachment to place has to be coupled with the family/friends/loved ones who are there. Without relationship, a place is just a place. Land is just land.

    But when one adds in family, and friends, and loved ones, and multiplies this across the generations, an attachment to lands makes a lot more sense.

    In a way, we call this attachment, “home.” And leaving home is always a hard thing to do.

  • Christmas Follies


    Clark pitched a fit this evening. Being somewhat of an expert in fits, I can say with some certainty that this was, in fact, a royal fit – complete with waterworks, wailing, kicking, and clawing down the aisle.

    All of the above wouldn’t have been so bad, had it not been right during the middle of the Christmas Eve service at church.

    My wife Gwyn was set to play the piano for the annual Christmas Eve Service at Brown American Indian Baptist Church. Or as we call it in our family, simply “The Church” – as if any there were any other.

    Assuming the best, we didn’t account for Clark’s…malcontent when separated from his Mother. Much to our chagrin, screaming could well be an understatement to describe what he did in that small, wooden chapel.

    Being the lone parent without obligations in the annual Christmas program (spare the duet I had lately agreed to sing with my sister), defeated, I loaded him into the car and drove home. After he calmed down a bit, I was fortunate to have distracted him with Veggie Tales for the remainder of the evening.

    I was inclined to be upset, but I snapped a shot of the scene above and the frustration I felt melted away.

    It occurred to me, even Jesus was a toddler at one point. And as parenting goes, I’m sure Mary and Joseph had their share of embarrassing evenings with young Jesus too. It’s just sort of what toddlers do. Even Divine ones.

    And so, I fired up Clark’s favorite Veggie Tales and proceeded to get some of the food ready for our family’s gift exchange tonight. Better to productive than mope at what I missed.

    All told, I think things worked out for the best.

    – Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

  • Kids and Accidents


    There’s no more frustrating place for a parent than the emergency room of a hospital.

    While participating in the ‘hanging of the greens’ this morning (a fanciful phrase for decorating the church for Christmas), Clark hit his head on one of the speakers.

    Not being the festive sort, I wasn’t there. But my wife called in a panic and mentioned that Clark had fallen down some steps, and clipped his forehead on the corner of a speaker, leaving him a bloody, wailing mess. She also mentioned the need for stitches, and I was out the door within the moment.

    I arrived at the ‘urgent care’ not long after she did to the sight above. His wound didn’t bleed much. But he had a deep gash and seemed, understandably, crankier than usual.

    The waiting room was filled with people. Some with coughs. Others with aches. None seemed to have the obvious urgency that Clark’s cut had. And yet we waited.

    And waited.

    And waited.

    A full hour.

    In retrospect, I realize this wasn’t very long. But I couldn’t help feeling my blood boil for every able-bodied person that walked past my son’s bleeding forehead.

    In the end, he only needed a couple of stitches. As of this afternoon he’s back to his old, mischievous self.


    But still. There’s no more frustrating place for a parent than the emergency room. And it’s not that other patients were there. Or the wait. Or the skill of the doctors and nurses, who were all top-notch, and wonderful to a person.

    It’s the feeling of helplessness that you have when there’s nothing you can do to make it all better.

    – Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone