Scott Bear Don’t Walk was born in Helena, Montana, but grew up mainly in Billings. He has one older brother and a younger sister. As the middle child, he describes himself as very diplomatic, careful, soft-spoken, wary, and pleasing. He is a member of the Crow tribe. His father, an attorney, has worked with various tribes throughout his career. His mother dedicates her time to work on American Indian health issues. He is the twenty-seventh Rhodes Scholar from the University of Montana. Recently, he completed a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at NYU, where he had the opportunity to work with writers Sharon Olds, Breyten Breytenbach, and Kimiko Hahn. He is a published poet and his long-term goal is being a writer. He is currently in the Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago at the Committee on Social Thought trying to fuse epic poetry and academics into something that matters on the reservation.
What wisdom did your parents try to instill?
It’s never so much an overt lesson as watching what they were about. My father serves American Indians and my mother does, too. What I learned from them is the situation in Indian country is such that whatever you do, you need to come back, try to help, and do something for American Indians who are in pretty rough straits. This was true for my parents when they went to college during the Lyndon Johnson era and it’s true today for me.
So they are both college graduates?
They both are, and in terms of what I’ve done, I don’t think it’s as big as both of my parents going to college. The stories of how they went to college are pretty amazing. Two or three generations before that, American Indians-at least in the West-were new to the reservation, new to a settled life. They were nomadic. New to reading and writing. They were an oral culture. My parents’ generation was the very first to go to college, because of the 1960s, the Great Society and Lyndon Johnson, and the opening up of that era. Had it been a different era, they wouldn’t have gone. They are from different tribes-Crow and Salish-and they met at the state university.
I grew up around parents who had gone to college, so they could relate. They were role models to me in an almost indescribable way. They never said to me, “You’re going to college.” If you see your parents do something and you know that they’ve done it, even unconsciously it’s going to affect you and it’s going to get you there. I didn’t get to college the way they got to college. I stood on their shoulders. They are giants in that sense. There were some notable exceptions, but that generation was the first time the Plains Indians from the West at least were really going to college in any number. They are all remarkable people even today. My parents are in their 60s and they have friends from college they’ve kept up with and they’ve just done amazing things in their lives.
Obviously they believed in you. Were there any other people besides your family that believed in you?
Let me complicate the picture a little bit. If you’re from a minority, especially a very marginalized minority like American Indians (we’re less then one percent of the population today in the U.S.), it’s too easy to say my parents believed in me. They were having a difficult time struggling with the oppression they were receiving. It’s no direct thing, but the opportunities for them were definitely limited and both of them grew up in extreme poverty. In the case of my father, English was a second language for his parents. All of my grandparents had tuberculosis. The conditions for American Indians then (and is still true in many ways today) were as bad as you would find in almost any other country in the world except for perhaps Africa. Material oppression has an emotional component, too. My parents grew up with that. You internalize oppression, so to say that they believed in me, I don’t know exactly. With the trauma American Indians have received over generations, it would be difficult for me to go out on the street of my reservation and find a person who believes in themselves and a person who is passing that onto their children. We’re actually struggling with that as a mighty war between what we’ve been told about ourselves and how we can find a way to exist and thrive today.
What kind of conditions did you grow up in compared to your parents?
My parents grew up without running water, indoor bathrooms, televisions, and telephones. They grew up very, very poor. Their parents did not go to college and in some cases did not graduate from high school. My grandparents’ generation had blue-collar jobs as laborers, farmers, or loggers. My parents became professionals and they are college educated. I didn’t grow up on the reservation. Missoula is fifteen minutes away from my mother’s reservation. Billings is about 60 minutes away from my father’s reservation. I grew up in those two reservation border towns, but I did grow up in a way middle class, but there is something about internalizing poverty. My parents were very poor as were the preceding generations, so somehow I grew up thinking I was poor, too.
In what way did that push you during high school?
I don’t know if it pushed me in high school. I’m atypical from a lot of Rhodes Scholars, not just because I’m American Indian. That was part of it. I was not a stellar student. I can’t tell you what my grade point average was in high school. I definitely know I graduated in the middle of the pack. I was interested in socializing and other things. I was heading down a road that a lot of people with limited opportunities go. I liked to party. I wasn’t necessarily college bound, but my parents had gone to college and somehow that helped me get there. Also, at the time luckily for me the state university had open admissions. If you graduated from high school from Montana, you could go to a state university. I didn’t think about any university outside of Montana. In fact, I had not been outside of Montana.
When was the first time you did leave Montana?
We went on a short trip into eastern Washington my second year of college.
When was the first time you really left the region?
I was a summer intern in Washington, D.C. in 1989 so that was my second year in college. I worked at the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute. I was there because my mother, who was a social activist, had met an American Indian woman who ran the American Indian programs there. Her friend welcomed me-a very green kid from Montana-into that opportunity. It was a very cool thing. What I’m trying to say is my parents saw the big picture when I was too busy being a disaffected, suburban kid. They got me to some opportunities by extreme effort and had gotten to a place to see that through. They made the big leap to warp speed.
In what way did D.C. change your perspective?
In the late 1980s, Washington, D.C. was a pretty scary place. Crack had become a big factor. They called it the “murder capital,” because they had the highest rate of homicides of any place in the United States. It opened up my eyes. It was great contrast to Montana and to my little, idyllic, college mountain town. It scared me in many ways, but it also opened me up to the fact that there were people who did things that they loved. That was true at the Smithsonian. People studied and were experts in, for example, Duke Ellington. People who were experts in Wampum belts. It was their job to do something that was fascinating. I got to see that and that was cool. It was also the first time I got to meet kids or people with any real ambition. It wasn’t true where I grew up and it wasn’t true at my state university so much, or at least not with the people I socialized with. But it would be a huge factor at Oxford.
Who suggested the Rhodes Scholar? How did that come about?
I was taking a feminist ethics course or an esoteric course involved with women’s studies and philosophy ethics. The teaching assistant for the course was a woman named Molly. One day she showed up wearing a different outfit than she normally wore. She was dressed up, looking sharp, and wearing tights. I had never seen her wear tights, so I said, “Hey Molly, you’re dressed up today, what’s going on?” She said she was interviewing for a scholarship and she told me about it. It was the Rhodes scholarship, which I had never heard of. I knew nothing of it. A couple of weeks later, it was big news–Molly had received the scholarship.
I admired her. I looked up to her. She got the Rhodes and I thought that was really cool, but I didn’t think much more about it. There was also at the university an advisor to the Rhodes scholarship. Somehow she got the word that I might be a good candidate. Her name was Maxine Van de Wetering. She was very knowledgeable and very savvy about what it took to get Montanans or University of Montanans into Oxford. She had had some success. It wasn’t just Molly. There was a woman before her named Bridget and a woman after me named Charlotte.
Maxine was in many ways a star maker. She polished my piece of lump of coal into a diamond. After she left, which was after Charlotte, there has never been another Rhodes Scholar from the University of Montana.
So what was it that she saw in you? Who thought you would be a good candidate?
I don’t really know. Basically I would go to her office once a week and she would grill me on any kind of question. At the time, the presidential race between Clinton and Bush was going on. She would say to read the paper, watch television, and keep up with current events. We would talk about them and she would ask my feelings on everything. She helped me learn to express myself.
Did you know she was prepping you?
I walked into her office the first time and we spoke for about twenty minutes. She asked me about my background and what I thought about certain things. I don’t remember exactly what they were. At the end of the session she said, “You’re going to get the Rhodes. You’re going to get it. Do you want it? You’re going to get it.” She’s a very interesting person. I believe she’s from Brooklyn originally. She has an East Coast way of speaking that is direct. It’s very different than in Montana where some people (where I’m from) would never say a single word all day. She was very wordy. In some ways, you can see her as aggressive. I thought it was wonderful. I had never met anyone like her and I really wanted to please her.
Was she your advisor? Is that why you went to visit her that first time?
No, she was not. Basically, someone (perhaps another professor) had said Maxine is looking for potential candidates who want to try out for the Rhodes. If you’re interested, you should make an appointment with Maxine. So I might have, because Molly had done it. Molly was so cool.
What did you like about Molly?
Molly was just interested in all kinds of exciting things. She was interested in feminism, ethics and the French eco-feminists. She was into everything, involved with everything, and excited and alive with life. A lot of other Rhodes might say they were involved with certain things or volunteered. At that time, I wasn’t really like that. It’s a dual story. In some ways I’m atypical from this group, yet I’m still part of this group. I don’t remembering volunteering very much. I don’t remember being particularly that involved. I was somewhat apathetic.
You weren’t a campus leader?
Oh no. This was the late 80s and early 90s and we were suburban kids, at least the kids I ran around with. There’s a philosophy professor here named Albert Borgmann who was an influence on me. He might have been the first person who took an interest in me on campus. In one of the books he wrote, he describes the conditions of post-modernism. We have everything catered to us and this makes us satiated and yet surly. Sullen is the word he uses. The post-modern condition of sullenness. That’s exactly what would describe me in junior high, high school, and college. Molly wasn’t sullen. She was involved. She was interested. She was excited. She cared. There was some part of me that resonated with that, but I have to admit in college I spent a lot of time hanging out, listening to music, riding around on my bike, and drinking beer.
Just the average college student?
I’m completely average.
[Scott Bear Don't Walk left Oxford halfway through his second year.] Once you got the Rhodes, what happened during your first year that made you leave?
A lot of people I’ve talked to in general will say publicly [the Rhodes experience] was wonderful. They met a bunch of wonderful people and they had amazing conversations. That is very true. There is also a fair degree of culture shock and letdown. People who have gone will say it to you privately and as an aside that it was really hard and difficult. I was deeply depressed. I wanted to leave and I thought of leaving, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. Oxford is a place that won’t change for you. At my state university in my philosophy courses they were saying write a paper and tell me what you think. At Oxford they weren’t asking you to tell them what you thought. They certainly weren’t asking for an original thought. But that makes sense both ways.
What do you mean it makes sense in both ways?
I can see how American undergraduates at state universities with liberal professors in a liberal town like Missoula would say tell me what you think. You have an interesting voice. Let’s develop that. I can also see how from a storied, historic university in England, they might say you’re really not going to say anything new. I just want you to tell me the facts. Let me know what happened. Tell me about Romanticism, not your thoughts, or take on it. Read these books and give back to me what you’ve read, because we’ve been writing essays about Romanticism since the Romantic period.
Besides that aspect of the Rhodes experience, did you get anything out of being in England? Did you seize the opportunities to travel?
I did. I saw the western United States. I came back every single term. I was with my girlfriend at the time and I missed her a great deal. She was touring with a local repertory theater out of the University of Montana and they were traveling to different states. And I would go and join them. I was like a roadie, helping unload trucks and bringing in set pieces. We’d go to places in California, Washington State, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. We traveled in small bunches of twenty people and there was fair bit of camaraderie. We saw each other about twenty-four hours a day. It was just an amazing experience. Then I’d go back to Oxford for two months for each term and I barely had a friend in the world. I spent all the time in the library sweating over essays in which I couldn’t have an original thought. It was lonely. I didn’t just miss my girlfriend. For one thing, I would join the tour in Palm Springs or San Francisco and it was sunny and it was America. It was parts of the world I wanted to see. It was the first time I saw San Francisco and Palm Springs. I saw all these places that I would come to know much better later.
If the Rhodes had been to some sunny, California university, it might have been my cup of tea. It was too gray at Oxford. There’s also something about the American West where, aside from American Indian culture, everything is new. In England, everything, at least at Oxford, is pretty old. Computers were just starting to happen in England. Individual telephones hadn’t happened yet. There was a structure of tradition that was very difficult for me. Unlike a lot of other Rhodes Scholars, I didn’t go away for college. I certainly didn’t go to a prep school. This was my first time away from home. I clung to the college life as an undergrad so much. I was there for six years. I had my friends, my things, my professors, and the little places in this tiny town.
You wouldn’t recommend going to Oxford?
No, I don’t know want to sound like I was burned there. I had a difficult time wrestling with my own issues, namely depression. Would I recommend it? Montana is so far away from England that we’ve never even heard of Oxford. And Oxford is the same way. They’ve never heard of Montana. So you’re going to a different place, and in some ways you’re like Major Tom going off into outer space. The question would be: are you really prepared for that? You might have been prepared enough to get the scholarship, but are you really prepared to go through with it?
That’s a different take than saying it’s a wonderful and amazing place. I’m not saying it’s a terrible place. I did meet some amazing people and have some amazing experiences. It’s true to say that the perception of me as a Rhodes Scholar has helped me get jobs, get favor or that kind of thing. I wouldn’t say don’t go. I would say make sure you know what you’re getting into. If you’re a Rhodes and unless you go to one of those schools known for sending lots of Rhodes like Harvard or Yale with means and with summer abroad, you may not even know what it’s like and you may not even find out until you get there.
You said you were pretty sullen, but it sounds like you may have changed into someone more passionate. At what point was that?
I don’t know. I think that happens continuously everyday and in some ways I’m still part of that post-modern, sullen demographic. And in other ways, that’s not true. My journey has been very personal.
It seems like you’ve been heavily involved in lots of creative writing and now you’re in law school, right?
I’m not in law school. I was in law school for four or five weeks. Going to law school was wonderful, because it’s something, had I been 22 years old, it might have been very difficult to quit. I realized very quickly it wasn’t for me. At Oxford, it took me a year and a half to realize it. I mean I knew the whole time, but I felt I had to stay in, mainly because there were many people who were rooting for me, people from my tribe. When I got the Rhodes, I was given a traditional name, Outstanding Warbonnet, by my clan grandfather Alex LaForge. In the ceremony held at the University of Montana, I was standing outside and there was an older American Indian woman dressed in a traditional way. She wore a hand sewn calico dress, moccasins that came all the way up the calves, a scarf around her head, and a thick leather belt. This was the way American Indian women used to dress for many, many, many years. She was quite old and she knew who I was. She came up to me, gave me a hug, and started crying. She said, “I am so proud of you. This is so wonderful. Now I can tell my grandson that there is something he can do.” It was really amazing and an honor to be held in such esteem by her. I realized that anything I was doing wasn’t just something I was doing for myself. I could never be like some sports stars that say they are not role models. I didn’t have a choice. People were going to see what I had done and they were going to add it to the plus list of what American Indians could do.
You have to understand where I live. In Montana, there are many reservations and Indian tribes. The newspaper is often full of negative news about American Indians. The prison population is forty percent American Indian, so you read in the crime pages the descriptions of the most heinous, violent crimes. I grew up with that and that’s part of what I internalized. Even today, I look through the paper and see a headline of three killed in an accident or so-and-so knifed in an alley and I think to myself, I hope they’re not Indian, I hope they’re not Indian. Then I’ll read the name and sometimes it’s a readily identifiable Indian name like mine.
I realized I was another person added to the balance over the weighing of the scales between the good things that American Indians are perceived and perceive themselves being able to do or the not-so-good things. There were people who were very hungry for that, so it was difficult to leave England. I realized all these people had their hope pinned on me. I stayed there that long only for that and it was difficult to leave, because I knew there was such hope.
It seems normally you don’t really care what other people think.
Oh no. I care. I don’t think you can grow up as an Indian in Montana and not hear how you’re perceived or how Indians are supposed to be. With my last name Bear Don’t Walk, if I’m in New York or California, someone will say that’s an interesting name and ask what it means. They want to know about Indians and they want to know where it comes from. Sometimes they have a hard time believing it’s a real name and they’ll ask you all about it. In Montana, they don’t ask you, because they think they already know who you are. And it’s not good. There’s still a war going on and this is the frontier. We’re the last pacified remains of the people who were here already. In a way, we’re an embarrassment. We’re economic competition and a reminder of the bad faith that America is founded on.
Let’s get back to your creative writing and law school. What happened there?
I applied to law school and was accepted. I attended, and I quickly decided it wasn’t for me. I had just received my MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. I’m a poet. Having a steady job that paid well to help American Indians in the criminal justice system or with tribal rights was a good option, but it wasn’t the option that would work for me. I chose something that would be less employable and paid less, because I still needed to develop my voice.
If you grew up in the context that I grew up in, there’s a fair amount of voicelessness. So developing my voice in that sense is not volunteerism. It’s not helping out with Big Brothers Big Sisters. It is charity beginning at home. There’s also a sense with Rhodes Scholars in some cases of noblesse oblige. Their position gives them the responsibility to help those who have less. I think the voicelessness and the internalized (for the lack of a better term) oppression means that I’m the person I need to help save. That’s an issue here in Indian country, but that doesn’t mean I don’t help save others, too. The way we bring ourselves up is by helping others and ourselves.
I think the journey for me has been one from sullenness to finding out my own inner wonder and perhaps even inner beauty. That’s a journey that a lot of people in at least American or privileged parts of the world have to make.
No, they definitely don’t have to.
It’s not something we can assume. We are very far from that kind of insight about ourselves, especially the achievement hamster wheel that a lot of people are on. It doesn’t lend itself to any kind of self-reflection. I wanted to say about my experience with Maxine or what she would describe about me or why I was interesting to her, or even exceptional, she called it “philosophical melancholia.” There was perhaps a downcast, downbeat, yet interested in inquiring part of who I am. Maybe she recognized that. She and Albert [Borgmann] were perhaps the first…you ask about often exceptional teachers…I can’t name any in high school or junior high, when I spent a lot of time partying, trying to look for fun and thrills, and acting out.
What attitudes and behaviors go beyond that thinking of what’s in it for me?
Sure, I grew up in America, but the last numbers I saw for the life expectancy of American Indian men was on average 59 years. The infant mortality rate has been compared to countries like the Dominican Republic. We live in the poorest places in America. In that sense Indian country is a foreign country. The culture is different. The language is different. The opportunities are very grim in some cases. So my perspective is that of an outsider. I never felt that I would be one of the Yale or Harvard kids who are going to lead the country. My community in part and the voice I’m looking for in writing is a voice that American Indians are looking for. There might be 50 Indian writers ever, so it’s an opportunity to add to what it means to be American Indian and to express it. If some thirteen-year-old kid can read something that I wrote and it makes a difference to them and it helps them even a little bit, that would be something I would be very happy about.