Red on the outside, white by whose standard?
It’s the end of the school year and the graduation announcements are coming in. I’m proud to see how many Native American graduates there are. But I’m also saddened to see how many there aren’t.
Ever since I first started college in 1976, I have known how important it is to have the support of family and community. Too many Native students in my classes dropped out of college and medical school for various reasons, but one of the biggest reasons was lack of support.
Many of them were the first in their family ever to go on to college or graduate school.
Often family members don’t really understand what a challenge it is to further an education.I remember my cousins telling me to “go out and get a real job” when I decided to go to college out of high school and telling me how easy I had it going to school instead of working in the woods.
I was drinking when I first started college and my cousins would try to get me to go drinking on Sunday so I couldn’t make it to classes on Monday. They were good at it and they often succeeded. My early college grade point average of 0.00 after two quarters bears this out.
We live in a competitive world, but traditionally we are not a competitive people. Our heritage is to share our wealth. Our heritage is humility. Our ancestors shared their belongings and food when times were good and knew they could depend on others when times were bad. Having a “giveaway” and sharing your wealth is not uncommon with Native American people who have been honored in some way.
But there is a difference between humility and hurt. I remember being called an “apple” when I went on to college. “Red on the outside and white on the inside.” “You think you’re better than we are.” “You act like you’re white.”
All these words came from family members and close relatives. All from people I loved and trusted. These words still hurt now, years after they were spoken. There were times when it would have been much easier to give up and go to work than to stay in college.
We have lost much over the years, but the only way we are going to move forward is by educating ourselves. Our future leaders need to be able to live in two worlds in order to truly help our people. This is not an easy thing to do and we all need to support anyone who is trying to do this. Not only in our own families, but ANY Native person going on to Tech School, Community College, College, Nursing School, Law Enforcement, Law School, Medical School, Dentistry or any other profession that brings us honor.
We need all of them and cannot afford to have even one of them fall by the wayside. Their success is our success. If they fail, we fail.
I’ve been a doctor since 1994 and have always asked kids what they want to do when they grow up. Most often they don’t know, but some do.
I had an eighth grader come in to the office, her answer was immediate: “I want to be a veterinarian!” She had never really talked to a veterinarian and didn’t know how to go about it. I didn’t know any local veterinarians, so I looked in the phone book.
The first one I called was happy to set up a meeting with her and it was arranged before the office visit was over. That was two years ago and she still shadows the veterinarian on a regular basis. She thanks me every time she sees me, but my part was easy. She’s the one doing all the work and she’s learning things they can’t teach her in school. Her parents are supportive of her plans and because of that she’ll be a great veterinarian some day.
Sometimes things don’t work out so well. A fifth grader wanted to be an Orthopedic Surgeon. Every time she came in, I called her “doctor.” She got to help set up the x-ray machine when she broke her wrist and got to set it up again when she came in to get her cast taken off. Her grandmother didn’t approve of this.
“Why do you have to put those silly ideas in her head, anyway? She’s not smart enough to be a doctor.” Her younger sister was with her in the room and laughed when her grandmother said that. I called her “doctor” on a later visit and tears welled up in her eyes. “I don’t want to be a doctor anymore. I think I’m going to do something else.” But she couldn’t tell me what that something else might be.
The twins, Caleb and Jared Dunlap, started working with me when they were still in high school. They drove the nurses crazy and they could run circles around them on the computers in the nursing station. These boys are bright and funny and have the full support of their mother. They were called the same names I was called when they were growing up. But it didn’t stop them. In the next week or so they will be graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles. Their goal has always been to make a difference for Native people and they are on track to do just that. We couldn’t make it to their graduation, but want them to know we couldn’t be more proud of them.
The cards have been stacked against most Native American students and to graduate from college is a great accomplishment. Not everyone will understand what this means. But we understand.
Future employer: Standing in front of you is someone who comes from a long line of people who are no strangers to adversity and hardship. Their ancestors survived when it seemed survival was impossible. Those ancestors stand behind them now and future generations are depending on the success they show here. Challenge them. Respect them. Give them a chance. But don’t underestimate them, because they’ve already beaten the odds.
Arne Vainio, MD.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at email@example.com.