My work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs has enriched my life. One of those enrichments comes in the form of Barbara Stumblingbear, a student in a class I taught for the Department of the Interior. Barbara is the Food Service Director for Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. Haskell is a tribal university that was founded in 1884. While it initially was a boarding school designed to assimilate Indian children, the school is now an accredited university. It offers programs that lead to associate as well as baccalaureate degrees. The student population is comprised of enrollees from 140 Tribal nations and Alaska Native communities.

These early attempts at assimilation represent a shameful part of our country’s history. N. Scott Momaday of the Kiowa Tribe speaks and writes about those attempts. (He won the Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn and was also awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush in 2007. Additionally, filmmaker Ken Burns bestowed upon Momaday the American Heritage Prize.)


In an interview for PBS’ American Masters series, Momaday refers to a speech given in 1892 by Captain Richard Pratt, the Army officer involved in establishing the first Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In that speech, Pratt shared the aim of these boarding schools throughout the country: “Kill the Indian. Save the man.” Indian students, including Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win a Gold Medal, were forced to assimilate by not speaking their native tongue, not engaging in their tribal activities, not honoring their cultural traditions.

By contrast, athletic coach Pop Warner didn’t care about the ethnicity of his Carlisle Indian School football team. He only cared about winning. Fans of college football are aware of one of the most shocking upsets in all of college football history. It happened in 1911. The Carlisle Indians, with an 11-1 record, faced the Harvard team. Thorpe scored all the points in that game, using the “hidden-ball” trick play Coach Warner had learned from John Heisman.

Thorpe’s career didn’t end with college. He subsequently played on professional teams in football, baseball, and basketball. And, after Carlisle closed in 1917, many of his teammates played for the National Football League in the 1920’s. Equally impressive is the fact that numerous Indians’ players would eventually end up in the National Football League and other professional football teams during the 1920s.


“Prejudice.” The very word evokes a range of fears within us if we are the subject of it–fear of being hurt, misunderstood, mocked, treated unfairly, ridiculed, denied opportunities, et cetera. But just as it is wrong of others to make assumptions about those who are different–different because of appearance, age, gender, religion, residence, degree of education, position, background, or the color of our skin–it is equally wrong of those who experience prejudice to assume they cannot overcome these obstacles or to assume that the prejudice is shared by everyone in a given environment. Read Barbara Stumblingbear’s story.  It illustrates what can be accomplished with strength and self-confidence.

Push to the front. Enjoy life’s parade.

My friend and I didn’t say a word. But we looked at each other and in that  moment, we both knew she was wrong. My friend was Comanche and I am Kiowa, but it didn’t matter that we were from different tribes. We were both Indian and we had both seen others make assumptions about us before.  

I remember this particular moment with great clarity. It occurred when I was in the ninth grade. We were quite poor then. But my friend and I were given 25 cents a day and a free lunch. This helped our families quite a bit.  We worked in the school cafeteria but doing tha meant we had to leave Home Economics class 15 minutes early. This was no problem for me because I had been cooking and baking and sewing since I was seven years old.

It was a problem for the teacher, though. She complained to the principal that we were missing an hour and fifteen minutes from her class each week.

The principal decided in our favor. But we lost favor with the teacher from that point on. I was strong enough not to be influenced by her words, though.

Where does such strength come from? Part of my self-confidence, I’ve come to realize, stems from an incident in my childhood.


At times, it seems there are insurmountable difficulties preventing us from reaching our goal. In truth, many of these obstacles are surmountable. The feeling of being trapped, of being lost amid competing demands, is often just an illusory feeling–not a reality.

When I was growing up in Oklahoma, we lived near Fort Sill. There was always a parade being held there. Because I was so young and so little, I could never see what was happening at the front. I would stand there and pout. One day my father noticed my misery. He pushed me forward. “Just keep moving up there,” he said. I got halfway through all those legs and turned around to look for him. With his hands, he made a pushing gesture. It encouraged me to keep going.

Sometimes, all these years later, when I am facing a difficult challenge, I think about my father. I can see him with his hands in the air, silently encouraging me to keep moving forward until I get to the front.


Barbara Stumblingbear has not permitted other people’s prejudice to create prejudice within her. Doing so, she realizes, would deny her opportunities to which she is as entitled as anyone else.

When I was in high school, there were only three Indian students in a graduating class of 500. I felt as if we were outsiders, especially when they made fun of my name. I had started an Indian Club for the students and we had a white counselor. He saw me in a new light. He encouraged me to move beyond my present circumstances. He had more faith in my ability than I myself did at that time.

I did go on to college, as he had said I could. Before I graduated, I had  married, borne three children, and then divorced. In my senior year of college, I was working in the guidance office when I saw an opening to work at Haskell.

I got the job, but before I received my first paycheck, we were nearly starving.

Opportunity literally came to my doorstep, disguised as a white man.  He was the Kellogg cereal sales representative with some leftover cereal samples. Did I want them? Did I want them? Those little boxes meant survival for my family until my first paycheck finally arrived.


When Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula visited a cancer patient in the hospital, he asked the perfunctory question, “How are you doing?” The patient’s words said, “Okay”; his eyes said, “Not okay.” Mr. Shula then, instead of offering platitudes, asked for help: “I need you in training camp this July–on the field, ready to go.” He explained his intent to take the team all the way to the Super Bowl that year. 

The patient was Miami Dolphin player Mike Westhoff, who ultimately recovered from bone cancer. He never forgot that encounter, “I thought he would tuck me in, but he didn’t. He treated me the way I could be, not the way I was.”


Think about people you know, yourself included, people who usually operate at peak-performance levels. If the value of their potential contribution–to the careers, to their organization, to the family structure, to a cause, to a relationship–were realized, if the best of which they were capable were being utilized–how would these persons behave?

List some of the actions/behaviors they would be likely to exhibit. And then vow to incorporate those actions into your own operating style. If you can, you will probably not experience the regret described by author Paulo Coelho, “How much I missed, simply because I was afraid of missing it.”