It’s tough to show Gary Tanner something he hasn’t seen in his 29 years as a coach at Haskell Indian Nations University.
“I think this is the only time I’ve seen a football coach get this far into practice and not have one player quit on him,” Tanner said. “He’s bonding with the kids. Not one has quit. I couldn’t do it. Any coach that I’ve ever known couldn’t do it. He’s just doing something right.”
By “he,” Tanner meant long-time Haskell assistant coach Jimmy Snyder, promoted this season to head coach.
Maybe the bonding comes in part from Snyder’s deep love of Haskell. Maybe it’s partly because of his knowledge of the history of Native Americans feeling like such outsiders in public education. Maybe he knows how to keep two-a-day football practices enjoyable.
Whatever, Snyder is off to a good start with his players, who are psyched for Saturday’s season-opener against Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, N.D. at 1 p.m. The team leaves Haskell’s campus Friday morning for the 10-hour bus ride.
Some day, Snyder will look back on some of the boys on that bus the way Tanner reflects on Snyder’s arrival 19 years ago at Haskell, then a junior college, from Ed White High in Jacksonville, Fla., where he played for first-year Southern Miss defensive coordinator Dan Disch.
“He had his big letter jacket on, looked good and I thought, ‘OK, he’s just a looker.’ But boy he put those pads on and he was a strapping linebacker,” Tanner said, his eyes on fire from the memory. “In fact, he knocked himself out hitting, he was so hard-hitting. I’m telling him, ‘Good job’ and he’s looking right through me. He had knocked himself out and he was standing right in front of me. When we got him to come around, he wanted to go back in there but we wouldn’t let him. He was back out there the next day.”
A member of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, Snyder received an associate’s degree from Haskell, an undergraduate degree from Kansas and his Master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon.
He has a way of turning an issue from a negative to a positive, such as when asked about Haskell’s long history of excessive roster turnover on the school’s athletic rosters.
“I don’t look at it as it’s unique to Haskell,” Snyder said. “Socially, there’s a trend.”
Snyder stays on top of research on Native American education and speaks frankly about it.
“The latest statistic I read is that 6 percent of Indian males go to four-year institutions out of high school, 46 percent go to unemployment, 30-something percent go to unemployment,” Snyder said. “We have the 6 percent, and they’re at a high risk of making it, even the better kids. Whenever we do turn that trend around here on campus, we’re doing something ground-breaking.”
To reverse the negative trend, Snyder said, one must first understand the source of negative classroom vibes.
“This is as told by Jim Snyder, not the way all Indian people feel,” he said. “Historically, the traditional form of education has been forced upon Native people, starting with boarding schools and there is going to be a backlash. Education gets a bad rap.”
Forced education? Tell us more, Jimmy Snyder.
“The treaties made by the United States government, by the mid-1800s to late 1800s, the political dynamics had shifted,” he said. “They didn’t need the cooperation of tribes. They outnumbered tribes socially, politically and militarily. They had the upper-hand. They had stopped negotiating treaties. In the 1870s, now you had Indians on a reservation and you have their young people. Now what do you do with them? They’re going to resist being farmers or capitalists, or whatever you want them to do.”
So what happened?
“The federal government came up with the idea, ‘Let’s take their young and teach them. Let’s take their young from them and send them to a boarding school and make them whatever we want to make them,’ ” Snyder said. “Most of that was non-negotiable. It wasn’t, ‘Hey, will you send your daughter to us?’ They just came in and took them. Haskell was established in 1884, 20 students or so, all children. You start with cutting their hair, forbidding their own language, forbidding any cultural regalia or clothes and put them in clothes you want them in. You had to teach them very stringently for 50 years or so.”
As a result?
“Completely cut off from cultural ties, but never fully brought into the mainstream because when you teach young kids like this, you’re making them machines,” Snyder said. “You’re not making them Americans, even though they’re learning English, they’re learning how to read and write and they’re learning a trade, a skill, you had (50 years of) confused, pissed-off Indian people from a very young age. I’m taking from personal experience. My grandfather went to Haskell in the 1920s and 30s.”
That was a much different Haskell.
“Haskell, it’s remarkable where we’re at today,” Snyder said. “It’s amazing when you look at the history.”
Haskell’s lucky to have a guy like Snyder, a man who understands history and knows how to connect it to the present in a way that makes learning enjoyable.