The Lakota Way: Preserving Culture through Education at Sinte Gleska University

Feb 6th, 2014 | By | Category: Features, Online features, Web Exclusive
By Jurgita Antoine

In Lakota culture, elders and medicine men are the source of all traditional knowledge, teachings, and wisdom. They played an important role in establishing Sinte Gleska University (SGU) as a means of passing their knowledge to another generation. Today they continue to participate in the university’s efforts to preserve language and culture.

Stanley Red Bird Sr. was one such elder. Experiencing firsthand the poverty and discrimination that plagued his people, Red Bird sought change for future generations of Lakota. His oldest daughter, Mary Sue Walking Eagle, remembers her father’s efforts to establish a tribal college. He visited every family in each of the reservation communities and consulted with people about what needed to be done to bring about change. As relatives from other communities and reservations came and camped at their house in Spring Creek on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, the elders and the medicine men would have long discussions about how to improve life for their children and grandchildren. The answer was education. Walking Eagle remembers her father’s words: “We can take that, and use it as a knife or a weapon to defend ourselves. We will put those [weapons] down, and education will be our staff. When we come and stand with a staff, we will stand strong with our education.” In Red Bird’s view, higher education would empower individuals to enact positive change in the community.

Red Bird’s vision came to fruition with the founding of Sinte Gleska College in 1971. As the best instructors were brought in to develop Western education programs such as human services and education, the college also worked with the medicine men and their associates to develop a Lakota Studies department. “The medicine men and associates started a course called Lakota medicine. They started teaching about the dreams, the visions, the ceremonies, and how these work. The reasoning behind this was to teach this course so that the people would not be afraid of our culture and our ceremonies. Throughout history, when the missionaries came, they saw our spirituality as evil and we were looked upon as pagan worshippers. We are trying to reverse that today,” recalled the late Albert White Hat Sr., a language instructor at SGU and author of Reading and Writing the Lakota Language.


The Zintkala Luta Wounspe Tipi – Red Bird Lakota Studies Building, SGU’s original Lakota studies building named after Stanley Red Bird Sr.

Thus the tasks of the Lakota Studies Department were not limited to developing and teaching new curricula for Lakota language and culture. They also faced a challenge to counter internalized oppressive thinking. Lakota ceremonies had been banned for almost a century, and Lakota language had been forbidden by the mainstream education system. The families that retained their cultural practices did so in secret.

Duane Hollow Horn Bear, who teaches courses in Lakota language, history, and culture at SGU, notes that in his classes students learn about the loss Lakota people have experienced—the loss of land, language, and culture. “Knowing our history and culture brings out a lot of emotions,” says Hollow Horn Bear. Sometimes students have to go through a proper grieving process to come to terms with their own identity. “Native peoples understand that everything is in a circle, everything is related. What we do to that circle, we do to ourselves. . .What we want these young people to understand, is that our circle has been damaged, but it has not been broken,” he continues. Willingness to share the understanding and experience of culture with the young people is a key to guiding them in their learning process.

Lakota Studies instructors also struggle with the fact that most written sources present Lakota history, culture, and even language from a non-Native point of view. To this day, Lakota culture and language are mostly oral, and elders are recognized as the ultimate authorities on cultural issues. Moreover, Lakota culture is validated by experience and participation, and creating individual relationships with it. “The world needs to hear about us, but they need to hear that from us,” Hollow Horn Bear says.

New instructional technologies allow delivery of oral teachings through multimedia, enabling local control of knowledge production and cultural instruction. The SGU Media Department, under the dynamic leadership of Jim Cortez, started videotaping some Lakota studies classes, such as Lakota Teachings and Health, and Lakota Thought and Philosophy. The department also set up a YouTube channel, called sintegleskautube, which currently contains 106 videos and has over 700 subscribers. The channel benefits not only local students and community, but also the wider world.


The new Lakota Studies Tipi and Administration Building is located at SGU’s Antelope Lake campus.

Further, SGU houses a vast media archive spanning 40 years. It preserves video recordings of the meetings conducted in the 1970s, where elders shared community histories, cultural philosophies, and gave advice. In 2000, Don Moccasin, a traditionally raised Rosebud educator, started a documentary project in order to capture the teachings and histories of tribal elders on videotape and to preserve their knowledge, as well as the Lakota language, for their families and for future generations. The Lakota Documentaries Project, advised by elders, continues to build on Moccasin’s work by digitizing and translating the oral stories he recorded.

Established to bring the best practices in Western and Native education for the benefit of Native people, tribal colleges and universities today have a unique opportunity to take the lead in the preservation of their cultures and languages by working with and learning from the elders. New technologies create more opportunities for preserving the original people’s voice and knowledge, and for transmitting it to the next generation.

Jurgita Antoine, Ph.D., is a project director at Lakota Documentaries Project at Sinte Gleska University.


Hollow Horn Bear, D. (2013, December 3). Interview . Recording in possession of author.

Sinte Gleska University. Sinte Gleska University website. Available at Accessed December 3, 2013.

Walking Eagle, M.S. (2009). Interview by R. Bone Shirt. Lakota Documentaries Project, Don Moccasin Collection, Sinte Gleska University, Mission, SD.

White Hat, A., Sr. (2008, January). Interview. Transcript in possession of author.

White Hat, A., Sr., with Cunningham, J. (ed.). (2012). Life’s journey-zuya: Oral teachings from Rosebud. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

White Hat, A., Sr., with Kampfe, J. (ed.). (1999). Reading and writing the Lakota language: Lakota iyapi un wowapi nahan yawapi. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

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