Fifth Commentary on TNToT — Chapter 4: “Tearing Down American Indian Educators and Parents”

This is the fifth full commentary on “The New Trail of Tears” (TNToT), a book written by Naomi Schaefer Riley (NSR or the author). The announcement post is here.

  • The first commentary, “Framed by a Friend,” is here.
  • The second commentary, “Turning Indian History against Indians,” is here.
  • The third commentary, “Indians are Saudi Arabia, Not Israel (Oh, and Crying Toddlers)” is here.
  • The fourth commentary, “”Indians as Unmotivated, Dependent Victims” is here.
  • Monte Mills’ guest commentary is here.

Chapter 4 of TNToT is about Indian education. NSR praises certain schools (St. Labre, Red Cloud, for example) because they are private or charter schools, and condemns public schools (Crazy Horse and Wounded Knee schools) and their teachers and administrators, especially Cecilia Fire Thunder.

Ben Chavis

NSR opens chapter 5 with Ben Chavis, a free market advocate, who formerly was the lead administrator of the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, California. He was a conservative darling, written up in the National Review in 2009. He was often praised in those circles for these actions:

During his tenure at the chain from 2000 to 2012, he was criticized for lodging punishments designed for what he called in his book “extra embarrassment.” He once shaved the head of a misbehaving student caught repeatedly stealing; some unruly students were forced to wear humiliating signs. And Chavis often referred to black students as “darkies.”

Ultimately he was caught misappropriating $3.8 million in school funds and forced out. It wasn’t his physical and emotional abuse, or his overt bigotry, it was his money management (and some serious self-dealing). Sadly, this continues NSR’s trend of quoting critics of Indian people and tribal governments that have a history of significantly unethical behavior (see Keith Moore and Stacy Phelps in chapter 3 — NSR does mention Moore’s trouble with the feds on page 141-42, but not Phelps — must be rough to find out your sources are apparently crooks].

NSR points out that Chavis has relocated to North Carolina and started a new school in Robeson County, Lumbee Country. His new math camp was based on similar principles as the Oakland school. In a previous article praising this school, NSR asserted that “most” of students there were Lumbee [in the same article, NSR describes Chavis’ practice of putting campers in “detention” — I thought this was a camp!!!!]

NSR also continues a trend of quoting people who really do not like Indians. NSR reports Chavis “has been called racist by members of his own community.” [at 111] TNToT includes a quote from Chavis condemning “lazy ass Indians.” [at 111] NSR joins in by alleging that Lumbee parents “don’t care” about their children. [at 111] Chavis promised to start a new charter school like the one in Oakland, but that school was  blocked, according to recent news reports.

St. Labre Indian School

Ivan Small, who NSR introduced in Chapter 1 as angry at not being allowed to buy Indian lands as below-market value, is now introduced as the director of the St. Labre Indian School. [at 118] St. Labre is funded by private donations and not tied to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. A few years back, the school paid out $11 million to the Northern Cheyennes for “exploitation” of the poverty on the reservation (which created its own controversies).

TNToT lauds schools like St. Labre. Like probably way too many schools in and near Indian country and elsewhere, it kicks out the children with the most needs and problems, dumping those children on overtaxed and under-resourced public schools, then takes credit for the successes of the remaining students. NSR acknowledges the school’s “paternalistic policies” are what makes it successful. [at 117] No wonder Northern Cheyenne families don’t like Saint Labre. [at 118]

TNToT also likes Red Cloud school, because it requires students to take an entrance exam, etc. [at 138-39]

Teach For America & White Teachers

NSR advocates for “non-Native status” teachers at Indian schools, citing former Manhattan Institute employee Jay Greene for the proposition that “The benefit [of having same-race teachers] is tiny.” [at 127] Prof. Greene is a data guy and probably doesn’t give much credence to things he can’t calculate. NSR likes Joshua Menke, who is apparently successful at Crazy Horse School “despite his non-Native status” [at 132].

Teach For America has a bad reputation for replacing more experienced and therefore expensive teachers in troubled schools with mostly privileged, inexperienced teachers. Kiva Sam, a TFA teacher and an Indian person, is a key source for this note: (1) TFA “was representative of a dominant society of white kids.” [at 130]; (2) “TFA was a bastion of white privilege” [at 131]. Cecilia Fire Thunder of Wounded Knee school also states: “[TFA teachers are] not adequately prepared.”; They “are majoring in something else” besides education. [at 128]

NSR laments that some Indian schools tried TFA but then ratcheted that back. NSR’s chapter 3 friend Stacy Phelps, former administrator at Wounded Knee school, now indicted by the state of South Dakota, got rid of the TFA teachers. [at 127] NSR claims that even if that worked and made the school better, all it is is “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” [at 127] Not sure where all this is going. Wounded Knee struggles but still maintains its cultural identity, as this article profiles.

Cecilia Fire Thunder

TNToT singles out Cecilia Fire Thunder for more abuse. Ms. Fire Thunder is quoted for innocuous and even downright powerful statements like “We don’t discuss charter schools[.] We have local control. We have school boards.” [at 137] And: “We keep politics separate from school operations. We are sophisticated enough not to let politics interfere.” [at 137] NSR mocks Fire Thunder for these statements by turning to now-indicted Stacy Phelps, who heaps derision: “God bless Cecilia. She’s working hard. She has all the major connections. She’s not an educator.” [at 137] I’m thinking Cecilia Fire Thunder comes out ahead in this exchange.

Leave Cecilia Fire Thunder alone, NSR!!!

General Notes:


Most definitely the best thing about TNToT is reading about Kiva Sam.

“Wards of the Bureau of Indian Affairs”

In discussing St. Labre, NSR notes, “A number of his students are wards of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.” [at 118] Does anyone know what this means? It sounds wrong.

TNToT’s Ongoing Racialization of Everything

Endemic through TNToT’s discussion of Indian education in this chapter and elsewhere is NSR’s assertion that Indian parents are to blame. Tied to these attacks on Indian parents (and Indian people more generally) are NSR’s use of what I guess can be called racial allegories — or how Indians compare to other races and ethnicities. Consider this discomfiting statement:

But there’s also this: many of the parents don’t want their kids to leave. It’s almost the opposite of an immigrant mentality. If you spend enough time interviewing working-class parents who have recently [page break] come to America from the Dominican Republic or Mexico or Poland or Russia or Italy, you’ll understand that as much as they love their children, they aren’t hoping that as adults, their children won’t move to a nicer neighborhood. For them, the whole point of coming to this country was to move up socially and economically. Most Native American parents don’t share this attitude.

[at 118-19] Basically, NSR is saying that Indian parents don’t love their children as much as “immigrants” from “Dominican Republic or Mexico or Poland or Russia or Italy.” NSR, stop with the broad generalizations about people based on their race or ethnicity!!!!

Mocking Tribal Employees

NSR interviews a tribal employee named Karl Little Owl, who works as a grant application specialist. She mocks him and the work he does. How awful can TNToT be? Pretty awful.

Mocking Tribal Cultures

NSR alleges on page 119 that most Northern Cheyenne Indians are Christians, which “surprises” her and others. TNToT even backhandedly mocks her informant Ivan Small as a “full blooded Indian” [NSR’s quote marks, not mine] who does claim to know tribal customs.


By now it’s no surprise, but NSR relies exclusively on a Cato report [at 107, lauding Chavis’ Oakland school] and ex-Manhattan Institute figure Jay Greene for her scholarly support.

More Honesty Phrases

“To be honest” makes an appearance on page 107 to enhance the truthiness of this statement: “[O]ne would be tempted to give a long leash to anyone [Chavis] who could get such stellar academic results for students stuck in America’s worst performing districts.” [at 107] In other words, the kind of abuse of Chavis heaps on his students (e.g., calling them by racial epithets and humiliating them) is okay for Indian and poor students of color.

“Truth be told” makes yet another appearance in NSR’s criticism of Cecilia Fire Thunder, accusing CFT of not liking Indian teachers, too. [at 128]

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