Wednesday, October 02, 2013


How smart is a Blackfeet?  Well, WHICH Blackfeet?  What do you mean by “smart?”  In what situation?  By whose standards?  You see how ambiguous all this stuff is.  We’ve learned a new word lately:  “algorithm.”  It’s a formula, a set of criteria, a mock-algebra for organizing information on the internet.  It’s not e=mc squared.  More like:  “smart” is what I say it is, times what’s convenient at the moment, times the amount of evidence they have, minus the difference between this culture and that, plus many times the amount of resentment I carry.

Doug Gold (white) was considered to be very smart.  His father, the Reverend James Gold, came to Browning early in the 20th century to be the Presbyterian missionary.  (The Methodists were a different bunch.)  His son, Doug, followed after finishing his military service in WWI.  Doug’s daughter is now Mary Wippert, married to Lloyd Wippert and living in retirement in Valier.  The older family members are buried in Cut Bank, including both James and Douglas, their wives, and some children.  James was a victim of depression.  It was thought that if he were here with the noble Indians in sight of the magnificent mountains, doing good and getting lots of fresh air, he would cheer up.  Instead he ended in Warm Springs.  

Doug Gold was one of those absent-minded professors.  He would come to visit the T.E. Scrivers, leave his galoshes by their front door, later cross through the back door on the path to the Sherburnes, and then leave from the Sherburne front door, shocked to discover that his galoshes were missing.  Nevertheless, he brought in a friend who was a doctor to address the trachoma plague on the rez, where the chlamydia bug had damaged many eyes, and they were successful in saving eyesight. But his major contribution to the community was organizing School District #9, becoming the first superintendent, and overseeing the construction of the building now called Napi.

After leaving Browning, Gold went to Helena to serve the state education department and then to New York City.  At some point in his progress to a Ph.D., he wrote a thesis in which he compared the IQ scores of full-bloods with the IQ scores of mixed bloods.  IQ tests measure how well a person does on an IQ test.  How well one does on the IQ test depends upon how well one matches the expectations and assumptions of the person who composes the test.  Since they are invariably composed by some academic in a city, probably a white man with a skew towards Britain, the farther away from that sort of worldview a person is, the lower their IQ -- and the more in-sync with that worldview, the higher one’s IQ.   An IQ test measures how well a person does on an IQ test and an IQ test measures how much like the composer of the IQ test the person is.  

Gold’s thesis said that mixed-bloods were smarter than full-bloods. Some people assumed that was genetic, a racist assumption.  But the truth was that mixed-bloods were more assimilated than full-bloods.  Smart has nothing to do with it -- it’s about culture.  If a full-blood Blackfeet had written the IQ tests, the results would have shown that full-bloods are smarter.  The question is, if such a test written by full-bloods were available today, who would be the smartest people according to that test?  What percentage of today’s tribe might pass?

The real danger of such a test, a culture-based test, is that sometimes people are between cultures -- so how could the test measure anything useful?  In fact, those who pay attention to such things tell us that we are between two distinct ways of thinking today.  In fact, IQ tests have had to be completely rethought. I'd be willing to bet that a lot of Blackfeet old-timers would do better on a "Raven" test that today's standard whiteman.

This is one of the best TED talks ever.

Dr. James Flynn talks us through the major change in the way people think between the times when we all lived in villages, didn’t go to high school, and only thought about what we could see and use.  There was no television, people didn’t travel or even read much, and earning a living took all their attention.  They did not make abstract classifications, never considered hypotheticals, and only eye-witnessed evidence counted to them.   People didn’t theorize or even read much.  Now the impact of science and cognitively-based jobs has changed everything, even on the rez.  The task of tribal colleges is to bring the tribe across that change.  It’s not a matter of dumb-to-smart -- it’s about getting from one habit of mind to another that’s more effective today.

Doug Gold became alcoholic.  One can be very smart and still be brought down hard through one’s genome, one’s circumstances, the flow of events.  Mary Wippert, who spent her life teaching special ed kids, has been lucky and is delighted to be in Valier with Lloyd.   She is hurt when her father is attacked.

If you asked me whether Blackfeet would do well on the modern “Raven” IQ test, I would say, “Heck, yeah!  How could they not do well on a test that defines intelligence according to a really smart bird!!”   Try it out for yourself.  The proper name is “Raven’s Progressive Matrices” and it is non-verbal, no words, which would have been helpful with full-bloods who spoke only Blackfeet -- no surprise.  English-speakers tend to confuse intelligence with a fancy vocabulary.

Autistic people, both high-functioning and low-functioning, tend to do very well on this kind of IQ test.  They see patterns, which is one kind of intelligence.  However, they don’t necessarily relate to other people very well, which is another kind of intelligence.  There are several intelligence tests, which go in and out of fashion, and everyone likes best the ones where they score the highest.  That may or may not be intelligent.

When I was in high school, we were all tested for IQ and the teachers were told what our scores were.  Naturally, when they graded papers, they tended to give “smart” kids the  benefit of the doubt but come down harder on “dumb” kids, since they didn’t deserve special treatment.  (Huh?)  I saw my score, which was “coded” by being cut in half.  Mine was seventy-something or sixty-something -- I can’t remember which.  So if you accept 130 as the dividing line, I was either gifted or not gifted.  Of course, some days I was more gifted than others.  Mental things are going downhill for me these days. 

In college I had a roommate whose IQ was 180.  She got pregnant and had to leave school.  How smart was that?  My biology lab partner had an IQ over 150 and had read that people with IQ’s that high couldn’t properly communicate with ordinary people.  How smart is that?  How many people make a living doing the things an IQ test tests?  Like, for instance, taking IQ tests as a job.  How smart would that be?  It’s enough to drive a person to drink.  But is that smart?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Huk, I ain't too smart. I took that whole Raven test without realizing there was a $20 charge to see the results.