OLC: Partners with the people

Nov 15th, 2001 | By | Category: 13-2: The Power of Partnerships, Features
By Laura M. Dellinger

Janice Richards: "It all begins with the person being able to say they want something different, something better."

“I recall the great vision you sent me. It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds. Hear me, not for myself, but for my people; I am old. Hear me that they may once more go back into the sacred hoop and find the good red road, the shielding tree.”      – prayer by Black Elk from the summit of Harney Peak, SD

The banyan tree of tropical Africa and the Indian peninsula sends down from its branches many shoots into the soil, which then take root and become new trunks. Thus a single tree may spread over a large area. The tree lives through many ages, and although the original trunk may decay, the younger ones remain to support it. The banyan tree has heart-shaped leaves and bears little blossoms which in turn become small, scarlet fruits that feed the birds.  Like a banyan tree, Oglala Lakota College sprang from the soil of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation community in southwestern South Dakota. As it grew, the tribal college put down shoots in the form of college centers in each of the reservation’s nine districts as well as Rapid City.

In the 30 years since OLC was founded on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the college has partnered with a variety of entities to accomplish an array of goals. Its most crucial and enduring partnership, however, is with the people. The ongoing symbiosis between the college and the communities continues to enrich and enhance them both, lending itself to allegorical comparison with that African tree.

“The college is in partnership not only with a district’s government but with the students and the families within the communities,” said Dennis King, the Pejuta Haka district’s representative to the board of trustees. “And the community can also use those centers as a resource.” King tells of community members bringing questions to center staffers, who serve as the community’s encyclopedias. The people ask questions ranging from treaties to how to contact federal elected officials or agency directors. This interaction enhances the people’s sense of being stakeholders in the college. “These college centers are really a big benefit,” he said.

Because a member of each district’s board sits on the college’s board of trustees, the elected district boards are directed by and more sensitive to local community wishes. They have the influence to implement those wishes in their community center. Each of the district centers has a director and its own elected board with delegated authority from the board of trustees to manage the center, make course and personnel recommendations, and approve community and other activities for their respective districts.

Enhancing the cultural fabric

From the college’s beginning, the community and the college’s founders wanted the college to help keep the Lakota language, culture, and perspective alive and vital. That is the bedrock of OLC. Every student is required to take 9 to 15 hours of Lakota Studies courses, and the staff and faculty are expected to have or be working toward fluency in the Lakota language. They wanted to provide tribal program directors and personnel who were well trained and were steeped in their historical culture and traditions. Working toward that goal, the tribal college established a master’s degree in Lakota Leadership and Management. OLC partnered with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to establish this degree program.

Newton Cummings has represented the LaCreek District on the OLC Board of Trustees for 28 years. A spare-figured, gray-haired older man, his Western dress bespeaks his many years as a rancher on the reservation. He also served on the tribal council, as tribal president, and as chair of the LaCreek’s district government. A soft-spoken man, firm in his commitment to the college, he never misses an opportunity to remind OLC’s students that they are the flower of the tribe’s hopes. As he said at this year’s graduation, “I hope that as you get educated you all remember that we need you here on the reservation to do this work for us, to provide a future for our future generations.”

Cummings believes the college enhances the tribe’s cultural fabric. “OLC strengthens the community and makes Indian people really realize who they are through the culture that they teach,” he said. “Many of our students aren’t too familiar with our culture, and when they get into the Lakota Studies classes they begin to understand and appreciate where they came from and who they are.”

Cummings thinks the most valuable thing the reservation community gives to the college is ongoing support, which takes many forms. “They help the college recruit students by encouraging high school students to get good grades to be eligible to attend the college. They’re really involved, and they care,” he said.

At the time OLC was founded, most of the teachers and administrators in K-12 schools were non-Indians. There were few eligible educators from the culture. From the perspective of many, that’s changing.

“A few years ago, all the schools were BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) schools,” said Cummings. “We had teachers from all over the world and every state in the nation. Today it isn’t that way. We have an awful lot of our own Indian people teaching school on the reservation.” Many more serve as principals, business managers, and in other key positions. They’re graduates of Oglala Lakota College. Today only two schools on Pine Ridge are still BIA schools; most of the rest are tribal schools.

The tribal college has provided more qualified people for positions throughout the reservation and elsewhere, Cummings said. “That’s one thing they really give back to the people. I really notice the difference in the school administrators and tribal program people we have now compared with the ones we had before there was college available.”

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