Elmo’s School: Dr. Helen Redbird-Smith’s Journey through Education
A love of learning is in her bones, said Helen Redbird-Smith ’51, member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a professor emerita of Western Oregon University. “Cherokees are notorious for education. We are driven by wanting to know,” said Redbird-Smith. Though she is long retired, Redbird-Smith still finds joy in learning and education, taking classes in film, science, Japanese, and philosophy.
As a child, Redbird-Smith always knew she would go to college, but an unexpected turn of events landed her at what was then Southern Oregon College. Shortly after World War II, the Redbird family moved to Southern Oregon from Oklahoma when her father declared to the family that they were moving to west.
Redbird-Smith had her sights set on attending the University of Kansas, but her father had different plans to accommodate an important health issue his daughter faced. “He said, ‘We’re moving up the road to Elmo’s School,’” she remembered. Her father was referring to Elmo Stevenson, the school’s president at that time. “So that’s where I went, fighting and kicking until the day I had to register,” she recalled.
Although Redbird-Smith was resistant at first, the kind staff, faculty, and students soon made her feel at home. “It was so welcoming, and I felt that the teachers and staff always put the students ahead of anything else. That’s something you don’t always see in colleges,” she said.
Her professors at the time were some of SOC’s superstars, including biologist Larry Butler and Angus Bowmer, creator of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “They were wonderful, learned people. All my professors were phenomenal,” noted Redbird-Smith.
In her classmates, Redbird-Smith found interesting stories and people very different from herself. “I was just a kid, maybe 16 or 17. The other population of students were WWII veterans. They were all so sophisticated,” she said. “Somehow it all worked out. They treated us well and we respected them. It was an interesting combination of students.”
Redbird-Smith graduated from SOC in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in education. She earned master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology from the University of Colorado and taught at Western Oregon University for 30 years.
The Redbird family’s move from Oklahoma to Oregon was pivotal for the entire family, as all four children ultimately attended Elmo’s School. Emma Louise Redbird graduated in 1953 with a degree in education, obtained graduate degrees from Columbia University, and had a successful career in child psychology. Wakon Iron Redbird attended SOC for two years before transferring to Oregon State University to pursue engineering. And youngest sibling Ethel May Redbird graduated in 1964 with a degree in education.
“My father said a degree in education would offer a door to almost anything,” said Redbird-Smith. “If you’re a teacher you get skills in dealing with people and you can cross over into other subjects. My degree was a door opener, because it let me study other topics like geology and paleontology.”
During Redbird-Smith’s career, she devoted substantial time and energy to teaching and working to enhance education for migrant and Native children, striving to improve access to educational resources and being of service to others. Among the highlights of her career was serving on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education. Redbird-Smith was appointed in 1980 by U.S. President Jimmy Carter to serve alongside four others to provide advice and counsel on issues impacting Native American students. “I can trace so much back to my education at SOC,” she said. “My experiences there made it all possible,” she said.
Now in her ninth decade, Redbird-Smith is keeper of the family’s rich history, both in Oklahoma and in Oregon. In honor of her long-time connection to SOU, Redbird-Smith has donated many of her research papers and materials including monographs, ephemera, and documents related to Native American Tribes to Hannon Library. Among the items housed in the library’s Special Collections are irreplaceable documents, original research materials, and sound recordings made during trips taken with her first husband, an ethnomusicologist, to the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and Yakama Tribe of Washington.
Reflecting on both her time in Southern Oregon and her life today, Redbird-Smith said she carries with her the pleasure of learning that was so richly nourished at SOU. “Education enhances life, and lets you cross all kinds of lines: cultures, beliefs systems, stratifications. It teaches you how to be with all kinds of people and how to help make the world a better place.”