In October 2017, South Dakota State University President Barry H. Dunn announced a $4.1 million commitment to the Wokini Initiative, a program to support Indian education and Indian students. Photo: SDSU
Education | Opinion

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn: Questioning a new 'Indian education' effort

Looking askance at new Indian education program at SDSU

By Professor Elizabeth Cook Lynn
Native Sun News Today Columnist

South Dakota State University at Brookings has announced a new initiative in Indian education meant to provide opportunities for this underserved population.

This is probably nothing new because there is a huge history at this university founded in 1881 but this latest outreach, we are being told, has to do with its land grant monies being made available finally in innovative ways.

While it is a good idea to try to look positively at this opportunity, most educators who have been around a while know that the big problem in Indian education is that we start over again and again, and we seem to do it without learning much about Indian studies, history, politics, ourselves or academic success which too often means impotence, further caricature for both students and faculty and we go on until there is reassessment and then another new beginning. And then another.

The cause for this phenomenon is probably the same cause that brings instability in law in Indian Country, which means that the powers that be cannot make up their minds if Indians should be Indians or whether they should be White people. And what the role of education should be in that question.

Example: one minute the Congress passes the Indian Reorganization Act to strengthen tribal governments (1934) and then it passes the termination acts (1950) to get rid of them. One day the Indian Rights Association is on cloud nine and the next, the ideology of removal comes about which allows state governments to seize more treaty land. One minute our colleges are FOR affirmative action, the next they are FOR diversity. Is it the same thing?

In the case of the education of Sioux Indians in this part of the country, we are beginning again to find ways to understand this phenomenon and methods of educating our young because we are all aware that change is the way of the modern world.

Hardly have we recovered from the failure of the awful, misguided and corrupt Gear Up project sponsored by South Dakota educational centers and other unnamed places on the basis that our youth had to be told in the new century how to apply for educational grants and their parents had to be informed of their grand possibilities in academia. Now we are now entering another new initiative called Wokini.

In a brief and casual visit with the new President of SDSU, Dr. Barry H. Dunn, I was told that the university is very energized by this new Indian Education and Diversity plan being called The Wokini Initiative: “A Strategic Investment to Better Serve the Dakota and Lakota Residents of South Dakota.”

The white paper made available on this plan states: “SDSU will offer programming and support to those citizens of the nine tribal nations in SD interested in gaining access to educational and advancement opportunities at SDSU, enhanced research and outreach collaborations and programs with tribes, tribal colleges and other tribal organizations.”

Land-grant monies and other foundational sources will fund this initiative. The project will have both on campus and off campus programs. Perhaps it is not surprising that I look askance at this initiative since I am a 1950’s alumnae of SDSU and surely “over the hill”, some might even call my comments “sour grapes”; but the truth is I have seen many, many new initiatives come and go at South Dakota educational institutions in the name of Indians.

One of the most hopeful initiatives, in my view, and least recognized by many of the citizens of our state (and certainly not funded by Land Grant monies) is the reservation based community college system for which the state has often had trouble celebrating in appropriate ways.

Recognizing that separate and autonomous universities have their own agendas, it is none the less useful in the context of Indian Education to look at overall scenarios with even my skeptical and probable historical perspective.


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A long time ago, I was a seventeen-year-old Indian enrolled in an English-Journalism program at SDSU starting on my own unknown journey. In August, I had applied at my tribal agency for a scholarship ($300), was given a battery of tests and was told by the Oklahoma educational officer whose name was Walking Stick: “You are not college material." I was in tears, but at the same time, sure he was right in his assessment.

My father, an old rodeo rider and a cattleman with a 6th grade education was even more skeptical than I, believing that education was “just another relocation program”. But, he wanted to help me. We drove home from the agency, and in the next week my father who had a vast cattle herd of 15 cows and heifers, sold some of them so I could go. His land, located on the banks of the Missouri River was being flooded by the Oahe Rural Electric Power Project and he had few choices.

On the day I left for college, I walked with him to his mailbox in water up to our knees. We said nothing.

Watching me wade through the water, my father knew that if the federal government could flood 550 square miles of treaty protected land even over his objection and the objection of many tribes, it had claimed the right to extinguish Indian title to everything in his own small world.

It is not the point of this brief remembrance of history to minimize this profoundly depressing state of affairs as our little family tried to look to the future in those days. But what we must know is that there are those with many years of experience like my father who have had little use for “new initiatives.” Thus, we must at this time ask the question of how to start again and what might be different this time.

The white paper prepared by the university does not tell us much of the real history of Indian Education, but assures us by saying this: “SDSU faculty staff and students have strived to serve the Lakota and Dakota people while acting in the areas of educational outreach and support.”

The following paragraph taken from the white paper tells its own story:
“Dakota Agricultural College (today known as SDSU) was founded in 1881 with a small gift of land from the City of Brookings in the Dakota Territory. When SD was granted statehood in 1889 the college was granteland-grant status under the Morrill Act of 1862. As outlined in the Enabling Act of 1889, the financial support provided to the state by the federal government came in the form of land: the first, to support the college’s academic mission, was 120,000 acres; the second, to support formation of the SD Agricultural Experiment Station (SDAES) mission under the Hatch Act of 1887, consisted of 40,000 acres. These lands were located across South Dakota, but primarily in the western part of the state. Those same lands had been previously guaranteed by the U. S. government to the Lakota and Dakota tribes, primarily through the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which designated them as part of the Great Sioux Nation. Under the Dawes Act of 1887, the federal government claimed much of the land in western South Dakota to use it for a variety of purposes, including committing the afore-mentioned 160,000 acres to the state of SD to support its new land-grant college and SDAES.

Today, SD still holds title to much of the land-grant property. The annual income from renting the land is used by SDSU and the SDAES

For basic funding purposes. When any of the land-grant designated property was sold over the years, the proceeds were placed in trust by the state. The annualized return on those investments continues to flow to both SDSU and SDAES. While variable, the total annual income is estimated to be $600,000.”

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Photo: Labriola National American Indian Data Center / Arizona State University

As I read the materials and listened to the enthusiasm of college officials, I was told about the Trio program, a student athlete program, Upward Bound and a dissertation fellows program given as evidence of success in Indian education. A thriving nursing program and the promise of a new, stand-alone American Indian Student Center central to campus (providing access to computer labs, study areas and recreational space to be recognized by the SD Legislature), is said to be further evidence of commitment.

As a long-time professor of American Indian Studies at three western Universities (EWU, UC/Davis, ASU), I was not informed about the one reality that I am interested in and the one reason that I became an academic so many years ago. What seemed to be missing from the newest plan was this: evidence that the major thrust of Wokini is a robust curricular development of the discipline of Native studies that provides the defensive and regulatory and transformative strategies that will empower the notion of Sioux Tribal Nationhood.

An answer to the question -- What is the function of Indian education for Indians? -- was missing. And if that element is missing, perhaps we know the cause for the seeming instability in our educational plans. And why we start over and over and over.

We all know that the function of any educational system must meet the needs of its citizens. Are we interested in giving our young people the options that they deserve if they want to continue as representatives and leaders of their tribal nations? How do we do what we need to do for full dual-citizenship for the youth of our nations? Or are we preparing them for relocation? Can we answer those questions in the Wokini plan???

In that plan, I see only a vague reference to the notion that the student body spoken of here is made up of students who possess a dual citizenship status: We know and they know they are citizens of Indian nations as well as U. S. citizens. To fail to defend that focus is clearly a racist omission, and, frankly, it may be a major obstacle for state universities in our area to claim success and stability. Is it just another “relocation set-up” as my father feared?

In Wokini there is no reference to the lack of departmental status for Indian studies at the university level at SDSU. There is no reference to the failure and corruption of the departmental status at state offices in Pierre. This means that Indians in educational fields and the one or two faculty members at the university are on their own or at the mercy of Departments and organizations with different agendas.

The establishment of a Sioux Tribal-Nation Board of Directors for the university seems vital to this plan, the hiring of at least four native professors with knowledge of the discipline of Indian studies is crucial. Tenured faculty members who can achieve success, do research and write books for further development is a necessity. The core curriculum of the discipline of Indian studies has been established in state academies for 30 years. Success of Wokini depends on teaching those requirements even for undergraduates.

This discussion is not meant as a criticism of the university nor is it a rejection of its new hopeful initiative. But, it gives substance to the reasons for a history of instability in Indian education: the lack of what Indian tribal nations all across the country saw as the need in education which began in the 1970’s, that period, perhaps, which some believe was the original “rebirth ” period , is worrisome; We do not have to start over and over again because in those early years the agenda was set. We are in defense of Native nationhood.

It was the time of the flourishing of the reservation-based community college system which has meant that educational institutions must be pro-active in meeting the needs of its citizens, and they must be constructed in communication with its own cities, towns, villages and prairies, so that the growth of the local homelands and economies can thrive as the population of learned people who live here thrive.

We do not want further instability in Indian education.

Elizabeth Cook Lynn is professor emerita, EWU. One of her latest books is New Indians, Old Wars. Her memoir entitled In Defense of Loose Translations, a story of how a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe became a writer and an academic, will be available late summer from the University of Nebraska Press.

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