Home | Contents | Photos | News | Reviews | Store | Forum | ICI | Educators | Fans | Contests | Help | FAQ | Info

Stereotype of the Month Entry

Thomas Sowell Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Cultural Heritages

By Thomas Sowell
June 26, 2007

Among the interesting people encountered by my wife and me, during some recent vacation travel, were a small group of adolescent boys from a Navajo reservation. They were being led on a bicycle tour by a couple of white men, one of whom was apparently their teacher on the reservation.

The Navajo youngsters were bright and cheerful lads, so I was surprised when someone asked them in what state Pittsburgh was located and none of them knew. Then they were offered a clue that it was in the same state as Philadelphia but they didn't know where Philadelphia was either.

These Navajo boys seemed too bright not to have learned such things if they had been taught the basics. They also seemed too positive to be the kinds of kids who refused to learn.

The most likely explanation was that they were being taught other things, things considered "relevant" to their life and culture on the reservation.

These youngsters are not just members of the tribe on the reservation. They are also citizens of the United States of America, and have a right to be anywhere in this country, from Florida to Alaska.

Whether they want to stay on the reservation when they are grown or to take advantage of the many opportunities in the wider world beyond the reservation is a decision that should be theirs to make when they reach adulthood.

But those opportunities will be gone, for all practical purposes, if their education does not equip them with the knowledge that is needed to bring their natural abilities to the point where they are capable of doing all sorts of things in all sorts of places.

One of the men who was with these boys expressed great respect for the Navajo culture and there is no reason to doubt that he has good reasons for that conclusion.

But any culture — whether in or out of the mainstream — is not just a badge of identity or a museum piece to be admired by others.

A culture is a tool for serving the many practical purposes of life, from making a living to curing diseases. As a tool, it has to change with the ever changing tasks that confront every culture as time goes on.

Although we speak English today, we would have a hard time trying to understand things written in Old English from centuries ago. Languages, like every other aspect of culture, change over time.

Wind-driven sailing ships were a great advance over ships propelled by oars but the sailing ships were in turn superseded by steamships and today we have diesel-powered ships.

No culture can stand still.

Among the Navajo heroes of World War II were men who served in American armed forces in the Pacific and broadcast secret military messages in the Navajo language, which the Japanese were unable to translate.

This required the Navajo code-talkers to come up with new words for things like battleships and airplanes, which had never been part of traditional Navajo culture.

Some of these men were too old to be in the military, or too young, but they volunteered to serve anyway. This was an era when people from every background considered themselves Americans and wanted to help defend this country.

We can only hope that there are many more such people now, ready to serve both their country and their people, and that they will see to it that those promising young Navajo boys end up knowing all they need to know in order to be all that they can be.

Unfortunately, in this age of "multiculturalism," there are too many outsiders who want all sorts of cultures to be frozen where they are, preserved like museum exhibits.

Worse yet, too many multiculturalists want many groups to cling to their historic grievances, if not be defined by them.

But among the many ways that various groups around the world have advanced from poverty to prosperity, nursing historic grievances does not have a promising track record — except for those who make a career out of keeping grievances alive.

The youngsters we saw deserve better than that.


Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His Web site is www.tsowell.com.


Natives respond

Tim Giago:  Columnist disparages Native people

Monday, July 2, 2007

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist who happens to be an African American. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. I am sure that he is an expert at the things he normally writes about, but he is an abject failure when it comes to writing about Native Americans.

I am often taken aback at writers who take on the challenge of writing about something they know little or nothing about. What happens in most cases is that the writer not only makes a fool of himself, but he also imparts information that is false, ineffectual and worse yet, damaging to the people he is writing about. This is what happened when Mr. Sowell decided to write about the Navajo people.

Mr. Sowell and his wife were on vacation and happened upon some Navajo boys on what he determined was "a Navajo reservation." Perhaps his column would have taken a different slant if he had referred to the homeland of the boys correctly as "the Navajo Nation."

He surmised that the boys were "bright and cheerful lads" but when asked in what state Pittsburgh was located "none of them knew." Mr. Sowell explained away this phenomenon by writing, "The most likely explanation was that they were being taught other things, things considered 'relevant' to their life and culture on the reservation."

Mr. Sowell surmised that any culture, whether in or out of the mainstream, is not just a badge of identity or a museum piece to be admired by others. "A culture is a tool for serving the many practical purposes of life, from making a living or to curing diseases. As a tool it has to change with the ever changing tasks that confront every culture as time goes on," he wrote.

Say what? For the information of Mr. Sowell and his readers, there is probably no ethnic minority that has been forced to go through such dramatic changes in the past 100 years as Native Americans. Not only have they managed to survive with a foot in two distinctly different worlds, but they have managed to maintain their traditions, culture, language and spirituality also.

If Mr. Sowell had taken more than just a passing interest in the land he passed through, perhaps he would have discovered that the Navajo Nation has its own law enforcement, judiciary, government, elementary and high schools, and a wonderful college system all functioning with a high degree of intelligence, diligence and with a success that is the envy of many in Indian country.

Oprah Winfrey made the same lame observations as Mr. Sowell when she visited the Navajo Nation several months ago. She asked tribal members to stage a pow wow for her entertainment and her cameras even though pow wows are not the traditional fare of the Navajo people. Since no pow wow was forthcoming, she created one with old films for her television show not knowing that the attire worn by the dancers was that of the Indians of the Northern Plains and not the Navajo.

If Mr. Sowell had visited Denmark and ran across some Danish boys who did not know what state Pittsburgh was located, would he have admonished them for not getting outside of their culture?

Mr. Sowell writes, "Unfortunately, in this age of multiculturalism, there are too many outsiders who want all sorts of cultures to remain frozen where they are, preserved like museum exhibits."

Oh, if that were only so, Mr. Sowell. An attempt was made by the "outsiders" to strip the American Indian of everything that set him apart as a unique race. Schools were established to strip him of his language. Food was distributed that would create a generation of diabetics. Outsiders converged on the Indian nations to forbid and then strip the Indian of his religious beliefs. The Indian was forced to adapt to the religion of a foreign culture, a foreign language, foreign customs, foreign housing and even foreign medicine.

No the Native American did not remain "frozen where they are," but instead adapted, absorbed, took the good from the new culture, abandoned the bad, and then got on with a way of life that was adjustable to both cultures.

They did not "nurse historic grievances" as Mr. Sowell implies, but fought for their rights as sovereign nations. In order to protect and save what was already theirs, they had to take on the government and the corporations of America. They won historic battles for their water rights, land rights and human rights. They fought for the return of their traditional religions and language and to them; this was not stepping back in time, but bringing time back into balance for their people.

Please understand Mr. Sowell, that the Navajo boys you saw on their bicycle tour were citizens of the Navajo Nation as well as citizens of the United States and like many Native Americans, oftentimes their loyalty begins with their own Indian nation and like the Navajo Code Talkers you praise, their lives oftentimes end in defense of not only the Navajo Nation, but also for the United States of America.

Consider yourself lucky, Mr. Sowell, to be a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, because my research tells me that there has never been a tribally enrolled American Indian accepted in that prestigious institute. Oversight? One wonders.

I hope that in the future you take the time to learn about a people before you write condescendingly and disparagingly about them. And please accept this as constructive criticism.

Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. His latest book "Children Left Behind, the Dark Legacy of the Indian Missions," is now available at: order@clearlightbooks.com. The book just won the Bronze Star from the Independent Publishers Awards.


Educating Sowell

Posted: July 18, 2007
by: Letters to the Editor

This comment is in reference to Suzan Harjo's article, "Cultural heritage and family duty" [Vol. 27, Iss. 4], about Thomas Sowell.

First of all, I am the "white teacher" Thomas Sowell was referring to in his article.

Secondly, I am irate over his gross mischaracterization of his five-minute encounter with us which, by the way, was not even on the rez, but was at Imperial Point at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, a World Heritage site. These 12 14-year-olds had just finished an eight-day, 230-mile bicycle ride across some of the most rugged front and back roads and trails anywhere, in one of the hottest times of the whole year. If he really did ask one of the children about Pittsburgh — because I sure don't remember it, and I was standing right there all that time — it would have been completely oblique to the context of our being there, which was savoring the heady success of such a ride at the edge of the Grand Canyon itself.

Third, this two-month, 1,200-mile ride, called the Tour de Rez, is in its 17th year. It includes several groups of children, about 90 in all this year, and is a partnership with Youth Empowerment Services of Dine' Bikeya and many, many local chapters, agencies, schools and individuals. On one count, at least, Sowell is correct: We do promote Navajo culture as the vital foundation for personal growth. Our paths would not have crossed at the sheep camp we had just spent two days at that week, or the night this week where we stayed at another sheep camp high in the Lukachukai Mountains. Too bad, because as a public school teacher, I can definitely attest that the kids learn more about correct living from here than in Sowell's so-called modern society.

Lastly, I can definitely say that Harjo's characterization of his writing as speculative is totally true. Sowell's piece is about 10 percent correct and the rest is unfounded B.S.

Thanks again for setting the record straight, Ms. Harjo. I don't feel quite so used anymore.

Jim Crittenden
Kayenta, Ariz.

Rob's reply
Sowell has made one of the stupidest leaps of "logic" ever. Because a couple of kids didn't know where Pittsburgh is, an entire culture is frozen in time, unwilling to learn anything new, content to promote a multicultural pride in their own ignorance.

What would Sowell say if 80% of non-Indian American kids missed the same question, as they probably would? That America is sinking into irrelevance, dying of its own excesses, doomed just like the Roman Empire? That conclusion would be about as unjustified and idiotic as Sowell's was.

When it comes to awareness and knowledge of others, the United States is perhaps the most insular country in the West. Americans are well known for their woeful ignorance of geography, history, and other subjects. Here are the facts of the matter:

Study:  Geography Greek to young Americans

The study, which surveyed 510 young Americans from December 17 to January 20, showed that 88 percent of those questioned could not find Afghanistan on a map of Asia despite widespread coverage of the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the political rebirth of the country.

In the Middle East, 63 percent could not find Iraq or Saudi Arabia on a map, and 75 percent could not point out Iran or Israel. Forty-four percent couldn't find any one of those four countries.

Inside the United States, "half or fewer of young men and women 18-24 can identify the states of New York or Ohio on a map [50 percent and 43 percent, respectively]," the study said.

Sowell doesn't know this or he wouldn't be spouting off about how ignorant Navajo children are. Note that he doesn't say anything about non-Indians in equally remote or poverty-stricken environments. Nothing about they're also frozen in time and need to change. His comments, which cast doubt on Indian cultures and only Indian cultures, are vaguely racist.

As for this claim:

Worse yet, too many multiculturalists want many groups to cling to their historic grievances, if not be defined by them.

Too many apologists for Anglo-American dominance—e.g., Uncle Toms like Sowell—want us to forget "historic grievances." They want us to forget that Indian nations are sovereign, that we signed treaties with them, and that we're still obligated to pay them what we promised. Things would be so much simpler for the ruling class if we didn't owe the Indians anything.

Related links
Multiculturalism defined

* More opinions *
  Join our Native/pop culture blog and comment
  Sign up to receive our FREE newsletter via e-mail
  See the latest Native American stereotypes in the media
  Political and social developments ripped from the headlines

. . .

Home | Contents | Photos | News | Reviews | Store | Forum | ICI | Educators | Fans | Contests | Help | FAQ | Info

All material © copyright its original owners, except where noted.
Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

Copyrighted material is posted under the Fair Use provision of the Copyright Act,
which allows copying for nonprofit educational uses including criticism and commentary.

Comments sent to the publisher become the property of Blue Corn Comics
and may be used in other postings without permission.