Is there a doctor in the house?

National Native American History Month: Less than one percent

Wak-O-Apa (Megan, in glasses) and Wee-Hey (Rachel)

Wak-O-Apa (Megan, in glasses) and Wee-Hey (Rachel)

First daughter broke through a chunk of the glass ceiling in November—a tribute to her passion and persistence—and an important event tucked in the shadow of National Native American History month.

Wak-O-Apa joins a small enclave of experts—those who hold a doctor of philosophy degree—a little less than 1.7 percent of the US population.

The accomplishment is perhaps more impressive when you look at the number of American Indians who hold a PhD.

Americans who consider themselves White comprise the group that annually earns the most PhDs–about three-quarters of all doctorate-holders (some 24,000 folks in 2012).

After counting White, Asians, African Americans and Hispanic individuals, American Indians constitute the smallest group of PhDs.

How small is small?

If you crammed 1,000 PhD alumni into one arena, about 735 of them would be White.

About 91 would be Asian, 65 would be Hispanic and 63 would be African American.

How about American Indians?


That’s three American Indians in an arena of 1,000 folks who have earned a PhD.

The question we need to ask is: does it matter?

Does it matter that in an arena full of intellectuals only one-third of one percent hold an advanced graduate degree and are also considered Native Americans?

It matters for several reasons.

Most PhD-holders work in an academic or research setting—settings that can be enriched by looking at problems and policies through an indigenous prism.

Take the example of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Most citizens are mindful that the holiday honors not only the settlers of North America, but includes the original inhabitants who generously fed the first arrivers.

Historians tell us that denizens saved the colonists from starvation.

And those who study Native American history note that, over time, our generous ancestors grew less chummy with the settlers, who would later set fire to Native crops and declare the lands for themselves.

We need to encourage American Indians who are academics, and who have a vested interest in the true tales of conquest, to pass along the unvarnished tales of Thanksgiving.

You certainly don’t need to have Indian blood quantum to know history, but those who embrace a more holistic worldview can offer something overlooked.

For example, Indian PhDs will show their students how science and art are inextricable, unlike the typical science lessons that set aside ethics and context from empiricism.

Or we might learn how natives of Hawaii and Alaska have known for a long time that the landscapes have suffered from changes in temperatures we today call global warming.

While it’s a pity that so few American Indians advance in scholarly studies compared to folks with other backgrounds, I take heart in the hundred-or-so who earn their diplomas and take their seats in the halls of academics each year.

That’s another hundred who can help unravel the stories that Indians are dumb, drunk and illiterate.


In honor of National Native American Month, in honor of my daughters, and in honor of my fellow PhD-holders of Indian ancestry—John, Cornel, Grace, Stephen, Teresa, Kelly, Mitch—all of our thiyóšpaye


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, Climate change, communication, education, global warming, Indian, Native American Heritage Month, native press, Native Science and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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