In the spring of 1976, 32 years ago, I had an actor named Will Sampson as my guest on the weekly television show I hosted, The First Americans, which aired each Sunday morning on KEVN- TV in Rapid City, SD.
Last Thursday I was the commencement speaker at the South Dakota State University/Flandreau Indian School Success Academy. The Success Academy involves students from freshmen to seniors from Flandreau Indian School in a unique and unprecedented educational adventure, in collusion with many staff and faculty members of SDSU that has been building its success every year for eight years.
I asked the audience comprised of faculty and students if they knew of or remembered a Creek Indian man named Will Sampson. Not a single hand went up. I reminded them that Sampson was a man who starred in a movie with Jack Nicholson called “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Sampson was eventually nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor.
In the movie Sampson played an Indian that was incarcerated with Nicholson in a state mental institution. Sampson because he was an Indian man fighting assimilation and Nicholson because he was a rowdy guy with little respect for anything normal. In different times both would have lived normally in the world outside of the institution. And now, because they were different, they were judged to be insane.
I brought Will Sampson into my commencement address because of what he said when he was my television show guest. We were talking about the Indian youth of today (1976) and he said, “Indian kids today have no heroes. All of their heroes like Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are dead.”
I told him that what he said is only partially true. The children can still admire and emulate these great chiefs as a part of their history, but there are still many modern day Indians they can hold up as role models. I mentioned Indians like N. Scott Momaday, Vine Deloria, Jr., the longtime president of the Red Lake Ojibwe, Roger Jourdain, and the activist president of the Mescalero Apache, Wendell Chino.
I made this a part of my address to the students of the Success Academy to encourage them to find modern day role models and to follow in their footsteps. Women have such stalwart role models as Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation and Ada Deere, the former chairwoman of the of the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin and the former Assistant Secretary of the Interior.
The boys have military Medal of Honor winners like Woodrow Wilson Keeble who was finally awarded the Medal of Honor this year for his gallantry in Korea. They have Mitchell Red Cloud, Winnebago, who was killed in action while saving the lives of his platoon in Korea in 1951. They have great athletes like Billy Mills, Lakota, who won the Gold Medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the 10,000 meter race and of course they have the man named the best athlete of the 20th Century, Jim Thorpe.
And the list goes on and on. I told them I would never have become a journalist if it was not for the admiration, support and friendship of the great Cahuilla Indian publisher and journalist named Rupert Costo. He built the largest independent monthly Indian owned newspaper in America in the 1970s, a paper he called Wassaja after his hero, and mine, a man named Carlos Montezuma, a Fort McDowell Apache physician who turned to publishing a newspaper after returning to his Arizona home and observing the poverty and injustice faced by his own people.
Another hero of mine is a lady named MaryJo Lee. She is the Coordinator for the SDSU/FIS Success Academy based on the campus of South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD. More than 20 years ago I’m afraid I lectured her and her husband, Richard Lee, the retired former head of the School of Journalism as SDSU, about the lack of support and recognition of Indian issues at SDSU.
The Lee’s did not take my comments as an insult, as have so many newspaper publishers and professors in South Dakota. Instead they took it as a challenge to do better and over the years they have advanced the cause of Indian students at SDSU in what might be described as a “Pilgrimage.”
According to MaryJo Lee approximately 1,000 Flandreau Indian School students have been served by the Success Academy since its inception and more than 250 faculty and staff at SDSU have been involved. Lee said, “The program has been good for the Flandreau students, but it has been just as beneficial for SDSU.”
Success in Indian country can be measured one small step at a time and when MaryJo Lee asked me to be the commencement speaker for the Success Academy I felt it a special honor to do so. I hope the students do as I have requested and find themselves an Indian role model to help guide and encourage them along the paths they have chosen.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing him at P.O. Box 818, Rapid City, SD 57709.
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