August 18, 2004
Robert Washington is Native American – Eastern Shawnee. He understands the doors that a good education opens. Among the first in his family to attend college, he changed his course from a state university to Oklahoma Baptist University, a decision he made after meeting the professors on an OBU preview weekend. Graduating in 1978, he worked in the public school system until 1988, when his life took an unexpected turn.
Diagnosed with diabetes and nerve disease, Robert had his left leg amputated in 1988. Not long afterwards, he had his right leg amputated as well. “I had allowed my diabetes to go undiagnosed,” he says with a genuine smile. Robert understands that it is his faith that keeps him running ahead to fulfill his dreams, not his legs. He began to work with the Iowa Tribe in 1989. “Originally, I wanted to work to increase the number of Native Americans going into healthcare careers,” he says. “Perhaps fear of peer group criticism or different expectations make it difficult to communicate educational possibilities, at times, to Native American
young people. Excelling in education is often viewed as showing off.”
Through the Iowa Tribe and with a mandate to service all Native American young people, Robert began a scholarship program called Tenskwatawa, which means “he who opens the door.” In Native American history, Tenskwatawa transformed his life to lead many Shawnees and influence his more recognized brother, Tecumsah (see note that follows). “I want to open up the door of opportunity that education provides,” says Robert. He has opened up a door to more than 25 students, a number that expanded from only three when he began. He and his wife whom he met in 1989 when she answered a newspaper ad, work together to write proposals for grant dollars. In 1999, they received a grant to provide scholarships to students heading toward the teaching profession. “After they graduate, they have to work for one year in a school with significant Indian population,” says Robert, noting several successful OBU students. Robert works with several schools in the area, wherever he can facilitate Native American young people to succeed.
“My faith continues to keep me going,” says Robert. “It gives me purpose. My dream is to see all the Tenskwatawa students graduate and succeed in their lives and careers.” As to his experience at OBU and why he asks Tenskwatawa candidates to consider OBU, he says, “The professors are not going to let you fail. I doubt I would have graduated without their help and interaction.” OBU actively finds ways like the Tenskwatawa scholarship for students to have the opportunities afforded through private education.
In 18th century Shawnee, Tenskwatawa became known as a prophet when he began to preach about a vision he had for Native Americans. As the little known brother of Tecumsah, Tenskwatawa influenced his brother to work toward a Native Confederacy spreading from the Great Lakes to Mexico. They set up Tippecanoe, a Native American town. Its defeat in 1811 by American troops under the direction William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana Territory, brought shame to Tenskwatawa. Tecumsah, however, went on to garner respect. Neither proved trustworthy role models, but Tenskwatawa clearly reverted from what some interpret as a “lazy drunkard” to a leader.