South Dakota’s history of Indigenous erasure in education
This article was produced in cooperation with the Pulitzer Center, where Jordan Rusche is a 2022 reporting fellow.
When someone mentions the name South Dakota, most people are immediately drawn to a few things: Mount Rushmore, farming, and Native Americans.
Native Americans are the largest racial minority group in South Dakota, making up 8.5 percent of the population. The state also has nine recognized tribes: the Cheyenne River Sioux, Crow Creek Sioux, Flandreau Santee Sioux, Lower Brule Sioux, Oglala Lakota, Rosebud Sioux, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Standing Rock Sioux, and Yankton/Ihanktonwan Sioux tribes.
The influence of the Oceti Sakowin or “Seven Council Fires,” the collective name for the tribes, on the state is obvious in the town names, culture, and history of the state.
But despite the influence of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples in South Dakota, the state’s history of forced assimilation, failed legislation efforts, and a lack of teacher confidence have greatly limited the presence of Indigenous culture and values in its education systems.
The Boarding Schools
The erasure of the Oceti Sakowin’s history and culture in education can be traced back to the government boarding schools or residential schools established during the late 19th century.
Government institutions and religious groups created boarding schools to educate and assimilate Indigenous children into white culture. Oftentimes, the children were punished for speaking their native languages, wearing traditional clothing, and engaging with their heritage. Richard Pratt, the founder of the first off-reservation boarding school, said the institutions were designed to “kill the Indian, save the man.”
Federal reports documented 30 boarding or day schools operated in South Dakota from as early as 1873 to as late as the 1970s. Ten of these schools are technically still in use as either public schools, Bureau of Indian Education-controlled schools, or as an Indian Health Service clinic.
Beverly Warne is an Oglala Lakota elder and mentor for the Native American Nursing Education Center (NANEC) for South Dakota State University. She has first-hand knowledge of what these institutions were like: both she and her mother went to boarding schools as girls.
“[Warne’s mother] didn’t necessarily talk about it, but when I asked her, she said, ‘Well, it was a quiet place, because we were not allowed to speak Lakota, we didn’t know English, so we didn’t talk,” Warne said of her mother’s experiences at Pine Ridge Boarding School.
Her mother also said students were punished if they forgot to or didn’t speak English. In some schools, their wrists were struck with the metal edge of a ruler, often until they bled.
This led many children to communicate with each other in secret. At night, they would whisper to each other in Lakota. During the day, some students would distract teachers at recess while others would go to the far end of the yard to talk in their native language.
By the time Warne attended Pine Ridge Boarding School, first as a 6-year-old and then as a 12-year-old, the school authorities had switched from physical punishments to shaming as a means of forcing assimilation.
“I think words hurt more than a slap, and that’s what was used,” she said. “So, it wasn’t a good experience, and the education was not adequate, and that too was, to me, still a form a genocide.”
These experiences clashed with the education that Warne, now in her 80s, received as a young child before boarding school, having spent her early childhood on the Pine Ridge Reservation near the White River.
Warne lived with her maternal grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins and other extended family. There, her grandfather would teach her and the other children the seven values of Oceti Sakowin — fortitude, wisdom, courage, generosity, honor, respect, and humility — using prayers, storytelling, and drumming.
“It’s teaching you critical thinking, inductive and deductive reasoning, it’s teaching you how to problem solve, it’s teaching you how to make your decisions, how to behave with all those seven values, and all the songs and all the stories,” she said.
Struggles with Legislation
More modern roadblocks have been recent failed efforts to pass new legislation. Several legislators have introduced bills addressing Indigenous representation in education over the last three years, though few have actually passed.
One bill introduced during the 2022 Legislative Session was House Bill 1170, which would have required public schools in the state to use the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards in their social studies curriculums.
The OSEUs are a series of concepts designed to help teachers integrate Oceti Sakowin values, traditions and culture into mainstream education. These concepts include Indigenous relationships with the land and environment, beliefs about kinship and harmony, oral tradition and storytelling, tribal sovereignty and treaties, and more.
“They were initially created for basically two reasons,” said Fred Osborn, director of the state Office of Indian Education in South Dakota. “The first reason was to give Native students the opportunity to understand their culture, their history, and the second part of that was to teach non-Native children about Native culture and history and to try to bridge those stereotypes that seem to exist many times within communities.”
The OSEUs include ideas for lesson plans that teachers can incorporate into their classes. Though most legislators are trying to standardize the OSEUs for social studies, Osborn said they can apply to several disciplines, including science, art, music, and math.
HB 1170, introduced by Rep. Peri Pourier (D-Pine Ridge), was defeated in February. Opponents said the OSEUs are already supported by the Department of Education, and teachers are already free to teach using these standards.
A survey done by the education department last year of 718 educators and administrators found only 45 percent were teaching OSEU lessons at their schools.
Another bill designed to give Native American students more representation in schools in 2022 was Senate Bill 139, which would create community-based schools where students would be taught using OSEUs.
Community-based schools would allow South Dakota tribes more agency over teaching their children and ensure they learned using their own cultural values. These schools would be sponsored by their local school districts.
Sen. Troy Heinert (D-Mission) has sponsored bills promoting community-based schools each session since 2020. They have also failed each session, with the most recent opponents saying the bill would create charter schools, which the state does not allow.
The Department of Education’s Social Studies Content Standards Commission also faced backlash last year after removing references to Native American history from K-12 standards in its draft revisions. A new work group has since been formed.
Teacher Confidence and Knowledge
Even with lingering historical traumas and failed legislation, one of the biggest reasons for the lack of Indigenous representation in schools is teachers’ hesitation to try and incorporate it. Most teachers in South Dakota are non-Native.
“Their number one concern is they don’t have proficiency, or the experience or the knowledge to teach Native American culture,” Osborn said.
The Department of Education’s survey also showed only 37 percent of respondents felt confident teaching using these standards.
Michael Vasilie, a music teacher, was one of these underprepared teachers when he was approached in 2020 about incorporating more Indigenous music, like flag songs and drum circles, into his lessons at Georgia Morse Middle School in Pierre.
“Being the local music guy, it was like, ‘OK well, I don’t have a clue where I’m going to start (with) this, but I’ll do my best,’” Vasilie, who is non-Native, said. “I got connected with local Indigenous guys in the community.”
Since then, he and others have taught the students several powwow songs and honoring songs.
Despite these challenges, many others in the state are also working toward better Indigenous representation in education.
Warne said those efforts are necessary to overcome the kind of racism she encountered as a girl, such as when she saw a “No Indians Allowed” sign while walking through Rapid City with her father.
“I just pointed at it, and I said, ‘Why?’” she said. “And his answer was … ‘Because they don’t know us.’ And that was 75 years ago, and they still don’t know us.”