Courtesy Sean Cridland
Sandra One Feather laughs with her father, Gerald, during ceremonies last year at the University of Colorado—Boulder at which he received an honorary doctorate in recognition of his years supporting tribal education.

Oglala Lakota College Mourns Loss of Founder Gerald One Feather

Oglala Lakota College
8/28/14

The Oglala Lakota College Board of Trustees, administration, and students wish to express the sorrow that is felt by all in the passing of its founder and great advocate for higher education.

When Gerald One Feather became president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in 1970, he was alarmed by the high failure rate of reservation high school graduates who attended off reservation colleges. He was aware that only two of the 20 Indian students in the 1965 freshman class at the University of South Dakota earned a degree.

Gerald knew that Native students did not lack the intellectual abilities to get a college degree, but also knew that attending an off reservation college required major social and cultural adjustments and the high failure rate came from the difficulties of making these social and cultural adjustments.

His solution was to create a college on the Pine Ridge Reservation to educate people for jobs that existed on the reservation. He presented his idea for a tribal college to the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council passed the charter that created what is now known as Oglala Lakota College on March 4, 1971.

RELATED: Gerald One Feather, Oglala Sioux Leader and Education Advocate, Walks On

From its humble beginnings, OLC has become a very successful college. Two of the college’s 11 degrees exemplify this success. The most significant accomplishment of the degree programs is evident in the number of registered nurses and elementary teachers that the college has produced since 1971.

In order to understand the success of OLC and other tribal colleges, you have to understand the mentality of most Americans when Native people were placed on reservations. The mentality that existed stereotyped Native people as not being smart enough to be professional people, and that the only solution to the “Indian situation” was to educate young Natives only up to the eighth grade and then send them to a trade school rather than to achieve a degree.

The most famous among trade schools in Native history was Carlisle Indian School, where the young men learned trades to become carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, farm and ranch workers, and Native women learned domestic trades such as cooks, seamstresses, and other domestic jobs. The most famous graduate was Jim Thorpe who went on to be a great Olympian. He was also a professional baseball and football player. The practice of sending Indian students to trade schools lasted into the 1960s. Many of the young Native men and women also went to Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas to learn a trade.

However, the 1950-1965 era sparked a new generation of Native students who desired a college education. Gerald One Feather and Calvin Jumping Bull were among these pioneers. Gerald One Feather attended Dakota Wesleyan University and University of South Dakota. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in government through USD and through his visionary leadership and lifelong work in education was awarded an honorary master’s degree in Lakota Leadership and Management from Oglala Lakota College and a doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Colorado—Boulder.

Due to these historical circumstances and the mentality that most Americans had toward Native people, it was not surprising that there were very few Native registered nurses and elementary teachers between the 1950s and the 1970s.

OLC has graduated 119 teachers in the past 10 years almost all of whom work in the Pine Ridge Reservation schools. We also have graduated 178 education associate’s degrees which helped the schools meet the No Child Left Behind requirements for paraprofessionals to have associate’s degrees and take steps toward becoming endorsed teachers. Of the 70 registered nurses who work for the Indian Health Service hospital and clinics, 80 percent of these nurses are Indian—of that 80 percent, 80 percent are graduates of Oglala Lakota College.

Currently, OLC has over 1,500 students, 90 percent of whom are Native American. The college has graduates more than 150 students each year for the last 10 years. OLC has grown to include other academic departments such as Lakota Studies, Humanities and Social Sciences, Business Administration, Social Work, Math, Science and Technology, Foundational Studies, Vocational Education Programs, and Graduate Studies.

OLC offers degrees ranging from a master’s in Lakota Leadership and Management, which produces program managers and certified school principals, and Bachelor’s in Education, Social Work, Natural Science and Lakota Studies to Associate’s in Nursing, Pre-engineering, Construction Trades and Office Technology.

In 2002, OLC began a master’s in Lakota Leadership and Management: Education Administration that produces state endorsed principals. Since then we have graduated 45 principals and 90 percent are employed in schools with a majority of Indian students on North and South Dakota reservations.

Gerald was a member of the OLC Board of Trustees and Council of Elders who developed and approved the current vision “Rebuilding the Lakota Nation Through Education” and mission statements “The mission of OLC is to educate students for professional and vocational employment opportunities in Lakota country. The college will graduate well-rounded students grounded in Wolakolkiciyapi—learning Lakota ways of life in the community-by teaching Lakota culture and language as part of preparing students to participate in a multicultural world.”

Gerald’s belief in the districts and tiyospaye’s (communities) is the main reason for OLC’s dispersed learning model where faculty travel to nine college centers throughout the reservation to teach classes.

Gerald also knew the importance of the language, culture and spirituality in education. During the spring of 2014, he was the guest speaker for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and encouraged AIHEC leaders to incorporate the use of the Canunpa (the pipe) to guide their decisions for the people. Gerald’s passion for the preservation of the language and culture was evident in the implementation of Lakota immersion within the Porcupine Head Start that eventually evolved into the Lakota Woglaka Wounspe (Lakota Speaking Academy) for K-5 students in 2009.

The most lasting legacy in Gerald One Feather’s life was the founding of Oglala Lakota College, as it will be the pathway for future generations of Oglala Lakota’s who can improve their lives through higher education.

Gerald’s good friend and classmate at USD, Tom Brokaw, former NBC News anchor, stated Gerald’s legacy well at the 2001 graduation: “Let the Oglala tribe be known 50 years from now as not only ancestors of the greatest warriors and hunters, but also as contemporaries of the best educated. Make college and a college degree a symbol of your success for a proud people, wiping out symbols of despair and surrender. One-hundred fifty years ago the Oglala’s were masters of the Great Plains as warriors and hunters; proud, accomplished and determined in their mastery of horses, bison and their enemies, for that was necessary for survival. Now it is a new world and there are new requirements.”

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