the past several months, I poured my heart and soul into trying
to be one of this years eighty-three Rhodes Scholars.
As the grandson of survivors of successive waves of genocide
from the Cariboo Gold Rush to the residential schools, and the only
begotten child of a broken interracial marriage between a spunky
Irish-Jew and an alcoholic artist who stumbled off the reserve and
into a New York bar, I recognize the irony of my ambitions. My story
is probably better suited to a Sherman Alexie novella than a prestigious
The Rhodes is funded by the estate of Cecil Rhodes, a decidedly
terrible man who profited unequivocally from the colonization and
exploitation of African peoples and territories. A proud imperialist,
Rhodes believed that the burden of both History and Progress belonged
to the Anglo-Saxon who must strive to triumph over the savagery
of the ape, bushman, and pigmy. Although Rhodes
explicit endorsement of global white supremacy is noted only in
hushed tones and seldom in polite company, the spirit of his visionto
find and enable the most elite talent among the young and educated
so that they can lead a righteous crusade forward for humanity
remains. Every year, a short list of scholars from around the world
shoulder what was formerly known as the White Mans Burden.
Fortunately, these days it is a bit browner and more feminine than
Rhodes originally envisioned.
The Rhodes Scholarship wasnt designed or intended for
me or my people, and thats exactly why I wanted it so badly.
Long ago, men like Rhodes who amassed fortunes from actions that
included the theft of the lands where our gods reside, our ancestors
are buried and our people still struggle to live a decent life,
decided that humans were players in a zero-sum game and that the
resources and opportunities would not be ours but theirs. When I
won the Rhodes and raided his colonial estate, those men would turn
in their graves while my ancestors danced in the revelry of vengeful
success. I was going to take it all back for Canim Lake (my
home reserve), Oakland (where I grew up) and all of Indian Country.
Maybe it was justice. Maybe it was delusion.
The Rhodes was on my radar for a very long time. But my dream
was almost lost at the start. I knew how competitive it was to win,
and so when I returned from Columbia to Oakland in the winter break
of my freshman year with far from perfect grades, I thought that
Cecil was already out of reach. I pressed on over the next couple
years and was elated to receive, in the spring of my junior year,
an invitation from Columbias Office of Global Programs to
apply for my Universitys endorsement. I had a shot at the
Rhodes after all.
Student Tackles the Powwow Trail and Preserving his Language
Last summer, I spent countless hours in front of a blank word
document, trying to tell my story and convince the powers that be
that I would carry the Rhodes mantle for people who had heretofore
been crushed under its weight. Much to the annoyance of my then
girlfriend and still mother, I spent week after week in my Washington
Heights sublet writing and then erasing sentences. I read the essays
and profiles of prior winners. One day I convinced myself I could
win only to return the next day and ask myself what the hell I was
doing and who I was kidding.
At the eleventh hour, on a flight from New York to Oakland,
I finally put pen to paper. The draft was rough, but the conclusiona
quote from my late grandfather, a survivor of the residential school
system and a laborer with a sixth grade education was fitting:
Shake the hand that shakes the world.
About one hundred drafts, eight letters of recommendation and
six weeks later I received the newsI had been named a finalist,
and I would have the opportunity to interview. I was overjoyed.
It felt like we were going to make it.
I spent a month preparing for my interview with Columbias
Office of Global Programs. They believed I could win, and gave me
all the practice, preparation and advice that I needed to succeed.
Despite the sincerity of my ambitions, I found that the most difficult
aspect of my preparation was feeling comfortable in my own skin.
I knew my candidacy was adversarial to the Rhodes legacy, so I prepared
for every version of the inevitable question: How do you feel
about taking up the White Mans burden?
Our blood is on that money, and I was afraid that I would be
dismissed as a radical if I told them that I wanted to fight for
justice and equality for our people. But after a pep talk from my
mother and an honest conversation with the Dean about my fears,
I decided that if thats how I was going to go down, thats
how I would go down.
I prepared for the interview like it was a powwow, planning
the details of my outfit down to the tie and socks for weeks in
advance. Our ancestors always looked their best when they travelled
to look power in the face, and that day, I was them. But I was also
just a nervous young man, so I let my mother braid my hair and straighten
my tie before walking out the door. I strode onto the University
of California San Francisco campus to meet my panel of inquisitors
and the other Rhodes finalists with confidence braids swinging
down to my butt, ancestors at my back, and my mother sitting with
her fingers crossed in the car.
The Rhodes interview process is dramatic. It begins with a Friday
night cocktail party where the candidates and their inquisitors
from the district meet and mingle. It is followed by a short but
all-important twenty-minute interview on Saturday. By end-of-day
Saturday, the full cohort of finalists gathers in front of the judges
who announce the names of the two Rhodes Scholars elected from the
district. Cecil Rhodes, it turned out, was fond of theatrical interviews
and had, unsurprisingly, a cruel sense of humor.
I imagined myself charging into a Battle-of-the-Little-Big-Horn
of an interview and counting coup on the Rhodes committee. In my
mind, the cocktail party was a much more pompous and patrician affair
than it actually turned out to be. What I had pictured as a fancy
reception serviced by butlers holding silver platters in a grand
hall named after an illustrious 49er turned out to be plastic plates
with crackers, cheese and seltzer self-served in an awkward cranny
named after a biotech company. Truthfully, I was disappointed. If
I was going to meet The Man, I wanted him to be a sexy
English gentleman, not a laidback Silicon Valley mogul.
The selection committee was made up of seven incredibly impressive
Bay Area professionals. There were multiple high-ranking businesswomen
including two CEOs, accomplished scholars and one judge. There was
no blundering Custer for me to outwit or outflank. We, the fifteen
finalists, had our work cut out for us.
As I mentioned before, the most difficult task in the lead-up
to my interview was feeling comfortable in my own skin and feeling
confident in telling my own story. In the long, difficult and self-reflective
preparatory process of finding my center, I managed to convince
myself that my Rhodes inquisitors would recognize the incredible
opportunity that this scholarship represented not only for me but
also for all of Indian Country. To be honest, I didnt expect
to encounter the assumptions, prejudices and even subtle racism
that I found in the room.
At the cocktail party, one of my inquisitors offered up a personal
connection. She had passed through the declining Canadian mill town
that is 30 minutes away from my home reserve. She followed that
fact with another. She loved the interior of British Columbia because
of its great heli-skiing. Heli-skiing? A sport that costs more than
copy,000 per day? Really? Perhaps we had both placed our feet on
the same geography, but we were not talking about the same world.
My mind fluttered to images of small houses with many people but
few beds, undrinkable water and wood-fire furnaces. Houses full
of people I love; people who have never and will never heli-ski.
Out of touch but unintentional, I told myself.
Her next comment brought me back to the present while it shook
me to my core. I explained to her that I grew up in a single-parent
household with my white mother, but that my family on the Native
side took my mother as their sister. This is, of course, the Indian
way. Somehow she managed to find it within the boundaries of the
appropriate to opine, I guess two-parent families are unusual
in aboriginal communities. I laughed awkwardly. How could
I challenge her assumptions in a way that didnt jeopardize
She continued to explore the outer reaches of cultural insensitivity
in my interview the next day. What are the rights granted
to aboriginal peoples under the Indian Act? Granted? Really?
And then, Why dont Indians pay taxes? I paused
for a moment to let the question sink in. I almost expected her
to follow it with, How big was your grandmothers residential
school settlement check?
I corrected her on the taxation question. The belief that Indians
dont pay taxes is a harmful misconception. Furthermore, the
notion that sovereign First Nations who have lost everything need
to buy into Canada is backwards and myopic and completely disregards
the painful realities of history. If I could go back I would add
a pithier insight that only came to me later, A 30-percent
tax on nothing is still nothing. I still find it strange that
one of the wealthiest businesswomen in the nation was asking about
the poorest peoples taxes.
She dominated the interview, and to my dismay, very few of the
questions from the other inquisitors endeavored to understand the
young man before them. They asked about nanotechnology, scientific
literacy, interest rates and inflationlegitimate and important
topics that have absolutely nothing to do with me. I hoped that
they would ask about my leadership on Columbias campus, my
thesis on indigenous memory as a catalyst for political activism,
or my job as an investigator for the Bronx public defenders
office. But they didnt, and my twenty minutes was up.
I exited the interview, thanked the committee members for their
time, and went to grab some lunch. I had a terrible nervous stomachache.
After it was all over, I didnt feel quite as brave as I had
going into the battle. I shook the hand that shakes the world, but
when I stood outside the room, I trembled. The committee deliberated
for over four hours while fifteen hopeful finalists awaited their
fates. We played Heads Up! on someones iPhone and added each
other on Facebook. For a bunch of ambitious perfectionists, they
were actually all very cool.
When the committee finally gathered us round to announce the
names of the two winners, I grimaced with disappointment. Saturday
November 23, 2014 would not be the big win for Indian Country that
I had hoped. To be clear, I lost fair and square to two of the most
outstanding candidates one could ever imagine: a three-season varsity
athlete and junior inductee into Phi Beta Kappa, and the proverbial
kid who is going to cure cancer. (Believe me, this guy actually
will.) I shook his hand and gave her a hug. They will do great things
with their opportunity.
Rhodes would have represented an incredible win for Indian Country
for the first people of this land who are still without basic
resources. While I know that I dont need the Rhodes feather
in my cap as an Indian I have many of those I cant
help but feel disappointment. We came so close. And for the next
Native finalist whoever that might be, I offer this: Do not kid
yourself. As an Indian you will face ungrounded assumptions that
lead your inquisitors to question, disregard or even outright fail
to perceive the immediacy of the challenges we face as Indian people.
Around that table and in the halls of power, we simply do not exist.
But when you shake the hand that shakes the world, look that
power in the face and do not tremble.
Julian Brave NoiseCat is an enrolled member of the Canim Lake
Band Tsqsecen in British Columbia, where he was recently nominated
to run for Chief. Julian grew up in Oakland, California and studied
history at Columbia University in the City of New York. He plans
to shake the hand that shakes the world.