Felix, the Lakota Eyapaha (Master of Ceremonies) for the 39th Annual
Graduation ceremonies of Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation,
stood at the podium and after glancing behind him at the seated dignitaries
in attendance said, "There is a big hurricane about to hit Washington
D. C. so all of them fled the Capitol and ended up here on the Rosebud
Butch was right. There sat Arne Duncan,
U. S. Secretary of Education, Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary
of the Interior, Kristi Noem, South Dakota's lone member of Congress,
and William Mendoza, Acting Director, White House Initiative on
Tribal Colleges and Universities. All of them looked a little worse
for wear having traveled to different Indian reservations spreading
the word of President Barack Obama.
But the star of the show by far was the
guy born and reared on the Rosebud Reservation and now President
of Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail) University, Lionel Bordeaux. Lionel's
old friends, and they are many, have a saying that goes, "When Lionel
calls we come running."
I was there with another old friend, Gerald
One Feather, to be blessed with honorary degrees. And I am sure
this honor came straight from the heart of Lionel Bordeaux.
Bordeaux was, and is still, a visionary.
When Stanley Red Bird conceived the idea of a college on the reservation,
he called upon Lionel to help him fulfill this dream. Lionel took
the challenge and for more than 30 years has dedicated every waking
hour of his life to the cause. From a two-year community college
in the beginning, Sinte Gleska is now a University. On this wonderful
day 103 students sat quietly in the audience waiting to get their
Instead of caps and gowns they wore silk
scarves of different colors draped about their necks. And there
was an unmistakable bounce of joy as they took the steps to the
podium to get their degrees. Yes, they had done it. They had overcome
the hardships and oftentimes the desperation that so many reservation
students face just making it through high school where the dropout
rate is far above the national average. But to get a college degree
right here on their homelands meant something special to all of
President Bordeaux is a powerful opponent
of cultural genocide and cultural superiority. He tangled regularly
with the North American Accreditation Association bureaucrats who
professed that "one size fits all."
As long as he had a breath left in his
body he was not about to see the culture and spirituality of his
students downplayed, ignored, and dampened by an association that
did not have an inkling about the traditional and cultural history
of the Lakota. He would fight every step of the way even when facing
the possibility of not receiving accreditation for the college.
With that sword hanging over his head,
Lionel pushed forward bringing curriculum to the University that
best suited and conveyed the culture and traditions of the Lakota.
In a country where uniformity is the norm, Bordeaux proved that
a college can pursue the differences of its Lakota students while
still promoting their educational goals.
The speeches of Duncan, Echo Hawk and
Noem all had substance, but the eloquence of Bordeaux, a man who
spoke to the very things the students had faced while pursuing their
degrees, who spoke through the experiences of his own past, clearly
resonated with the students.
Many years ago I wrote that the more than
30 Indian colleges scattered from Arizona to North Dakota, were
America's best kept secret. These colleges located on the many Indian
reservations of the West are providing college educations to thousands
of Native Americans who, for the first time, do not have to leave
home to get a degree.
And above all, they are staffed with faculties
made up of tribal members, and overseen by administrators made up
of mostly tribal members who are fluent in the language and culture
of the tribes where the colleges are located.
Lionel gave me a firm hug as he handed
me my honorary degree and I could feel his courage and determination
in that brief hug. I could also see the continued success of the
tribal colleges because of leaders like Lionel Bordeaux.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President
of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the
Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in
1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today,
Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net
Gleska University Mission Statement
Sinte Gleska University provides a model for Indian-controlled education.
It is an institution governed by people rooted to the reservation
and culture, concerned about the future, and willing to work to
see the institution grow. It provides each Lakota person the opportunity
to pursue an education and does so in a way that is relevant to
career and personal needs. Sinte Gleska University graduates will
help determine the future development and direction of the Tribe
and its institutions. The mission of Sinte Gleska University is
to plan, design, implement and assess post-secondary programs and
other educational resources uniquely appropriate to the Lakota people
in order to facilitate individual development and tribal autonomy.