The Institute of American Indian Studies at the University of South Dakota was the first of its kind in the nation, but decades of funding cuts left it largely inactive.
On Native American Day, the university announced plans to revitalize the institute—including a new director, tribal liaison, and post-doctorate research fellow.
In 1955, state lawmakers founded the institute to support Native students and promote research in tribal histories and cultures. A decade later, the Doris Duke Foundation selected USD to launch an oral history center.
But funding decreased over the decades. Now, USD President Sheila Gestring is renewing the university’s commitment to the institute.
“The revival of the Institute of American Indian Studies is a significant step forward in aligning our promise, our vision—and doing so with meaningful and intentional action,” says Gestring.
The institute’s new director is Dr. Elise Boxer, an assistant professor of history and coordinator of the Native studies program at USD. She says the institute was ahead of its time: the Native studies discipline began after student activism in the 1970s.
“These students demanded that institutions of higher learning create a space and discipline based on Indigenous systems of knowledge, including the centering of oral histories and traditions,” she explains.
Continued collection of oral histories and digitizing existing records is another part of the new mission. USD Provost Kurt Hackemer—also a history professor—recognizes academia has undervalued the practice in the past.
“The Anglo-American historical establishment , which is where I come from, hasn’t always understood the true value of oral histories," he says. "We tend to prefer documents—things that are written down.”
But Hackemer says this university’s collection is much more than a historic record.
“This is about preserving culture and memory and traditions—and it’s about doing it both responsibly and doing it collaboratively.”
Elise Boxer says this announcement on Native American Day expands appreciation for Native people beyond a single day of the year.
“Indigenous peoples—including the Institute of American Indian Studies—are integral to the collective history at USD, South Dakota, the region and nation,” she says.
The university is also offering more than $80,000 in scholarships for Native students.