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Native Sun News: Tribal college helps fuel cultural renaissance

Filed Under: Education | National
More on: native sun news, oglala sioux, south dakota, tribal colleges

The following story was written and reported by Christina Rose, Native Sun News Staff Reporter. All content © Native Sun News.

Edwina Fills The Pipe, Jacob Ferguson, and Tada Vargas, students in the Math and Science program at the Oglala Lakota College, talk about the way culture binds them to their studies.

Passion for the culture drives student success at OLC
By Christina Rose
Native Sun News
Staff Reporter

This is the second of a three part series on how students at the Oglala Lakota College are weaving culture and values into modern sciences. The first in the series, “OLC teacher maps out Lakota culture, past, present, and future,” appeared in the February 6-12 issue of Native Sun News.

PINE RIDGE — There is a common thread that runs through the Oglala Lakota College and it binds together everything that happens in the college. Wilmer Mesteth, tribal historian for the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Lakota Studies instructor, said that no matter what course of study a student at OLC may pursue, it is the culture courses that have the greatest impact.

Because most students will continue to live and work on the reservation after graduation, having a deep understanding of the culture and history is important. According to Mesteth, there is a cultural renaissance underway and connecting to culture builds up a student’s identity.

While Native students who attend mainstream schools must adapt to Western methods of education, Mesteth said that at OLC, the non-native faculty is required to make the adjustments and get involved in the culture. He said, “They need to understand us and respect the different fields we are teaching, and become accustomed to that type of education. We have to give our students the opportunity to express themselves as Lakota people.”

Students at OLC not only have the opportunity to learn according to their own culture and learning styles, but the classes they take can have a direct impact on the people of the reservation.

One of the programs Mesteth devised and continues to develop is the herbs course. He teaches about traditional plants and their chemical make-ups, and wants to begin to bring those herbs back into the community as homeopathic medicine. He would also like to see people get back to the traditional foods, even preserving foods by drying. “Look at how our people were hunters and gathers and what their diet was 300 years ago. What changed it? And how did cancer and diabetes enter our culture?”

One student, Tada Vargas, 31, is wondering the same thing. With two associates degrees from OLC in in Science, Engineering and Math, she has returned to get her Bachelors in Life Sciences. Vargas said, “A couple of years ago, when I came back for a semester, Dr. Sandoval was doing research on diabetes and that was one of the diseases I wanted to work with.”

Dr. Deit Sandoval is a chemist by training, and has taught all over the country for 30 years. He said that the reservations in South Dakota are a story about diabetes. Having taught at OLC for the last eight years, he attributed the students’ passion to the development of programs and relevance to the community. He said, “We are also this year going into the field of natural antibiotics, and looking at substances with antibiotic properties that come from plants.”

Vargas tied her studies into those who are working in environmental sciences. “You are what you eat, and (those in the environmental sciences) study the organisms in the streams to kind of see what they are composed of. Later down the road, you can go up through the food chain and it just ties all together.”

Jacob Ferguson, 25, is studying earth sciences. He said, “We follow stabilized isotopes through the food chain. Isotopes are markers, stable molecules that you can follow through an entire food bed and see where certain material goes, who eats it and how far it goes physically, throughout the system.”

Ferguson works on OLC teacher Jason Tinant’s team. “Jason basic deals with rivers and streams on the reservation, the watershed, and that's the project I am a part of.” Ferguson hopes to get even more involved in testing. He has been impressed with the resources that OLC has been able to provide. “Apparently we have all the toys. I didn’t know that when I first signed on. Like the LIDAR is the laser scanner and the laboratory we have in the back. We are pretty spoiled, we have everything that we need for all the research we need to do.”

Ferguson said that besides all the resources, learning the traditional Lakota values and history have had a big impact on him. “It's easy to forget the history,

Some of the courses might seem overwhelming to students who had difficulty in high school. Tada Vargas started out with an interest in sports but at 9 years old she was diagnosed with arthritis, and could no longer participate. She explained, “I kind of got thrown into scholastics and I had an interest in science and math.”

For Ferguson, high school was a chore, something to get through. Now at OLC, he said, he most appreciates the atmosphere and the openness, “and just how the information is the most important thing.”

“In high school, it was politics and there is the in-crowd. College is grownup, it's all about the knowledge, the information, getting the grade and the work done.” Laughing, Ferguson admitted, “It's my choice, but sometimes I have to remind myself about that.”

Back at OLC since 2010, he said “it’s slow going” because he has to work while taking four classes at a time. It’s worth it, he said, because he sees exciting possibilities for his life work ahead. Studying Earth Sciences and going for his bachelor’s degree, he is looking forward to an exciting career. “There are some really sweet jobs in remote locations. There's ongoing research, and that's what I would really like to do. I want to go someplace thats close to rocks. Even if I don’t have to leave the Black Hills, I’ll be satisfied.”

The classes at OLC have impacted Ferguson in more than just his core studies. Learning the history from the Lakota perspective reminded him of where his people have come from. “And it can be easy to forget, about the cultural assimilation that the US government sweeps under the rug. OLC reminds us about those things, about ideas of freedom.”

Ferguson also enjoys the integration of the cultural aspect, especially the value side. “The values are universal,” he said. “They transfer to any nation, and even if martians stopped by and they had values, they are universal. The integration of values is really important.”

For Ferguson and Vargas, culture and core classes enhance the research projects both are involved in. But for Edwina Fills The Pipe, 34, her passion comes from being able to combine modern medicine with more spiritual based, traditional healing practices. “I have never felt so passionate about anything. This has changed my learning experience tremendously. For me to actually find my niche, where I get to utilize my math and scientific side and still be true to who I am as a Lakota woman, to have those two merge is powerful, very powerful.”

Edwina had a strong academic background and received a lot of encouragement from her family. However, she said that being in high school was difficult. “I was not a traditional student. I wasn’t sure where I fit. I just went to school because I knew I should be in school.”

It took several years before Edwina really knew what she wanted to do. As a massage therapist, her work with students with disabilities taught her that she wanted to go into medicine, but because of modern medicine's lack of a spiritual focus, her dreams were not fulfilled until now. Over the last few years, Fills The Pipe has seen a difference in western medicine’s receptivity to alternative healing approaches. “It wasn’t as widely accepted as it is now. To me, it was such a mold you had to fit in, and so much more science. It wasn't open to the spiritual.”

Fills the Pipe said that more and more, modern medicine welcomes people with that knowledge. “It's called integrative knowledge, and western medicine is now more open.”

Fills The Pipe’s goal is to go into gynecology and obstetrics. “I really honor that part of our life cycle. I am not a mother yet, but I can’t wait.”

While most OLC students stay on the reservation, some do leave and make their way into other areas of the country. “Some of our students are working in New Mexico, Arizona, New York. Having the culture courses give the students that identity in the work place, and it impresses the people, other tribes they work with, that we still have our culture and language. That was our intent with the college, to preserve our language, history and culture,” Mesteth said, and added that the college has impacted the community in every way; academically, culturally and economically.

“And there is more that we can do,” Mesteth said. “We are rising from the ashes. The reservations were concentration camps, and now our people are starting to be self sufficient, to stand up as a tribal people. And that is our job as staff, to make sure those things go hand in hand with these courses, and that is why they are required.”

(Contact Christina Rose at

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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