After the 30 documented boarding schools that operated in South Dakota until the 1970s stripped the state’s Indigenous Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people of their culture, language, history and human rights, Indigenous students have floundered in the state’s public school system.
With high school graduation rates for Native American students hovering around 50%, some communities have sought to right educational wrongs through charter schools. But their proposals have repeatedly been stalled: A bill proposed by Native American legislators and communities to create state-funded charter schools focused on teaching Lakota language, culture and history failed for the third time last year.
Rather than continue to wait and try again in a state where Gov. Kristi Noem issued an executive order banning “divisive concepts” tied to race from being taught in public schools, members of Rapid City’s Indigenous community took matters into their own hands.
With funding from NDN Collective — an Indigenous-led organization taking a multi-pronged approach that spans organizing, activism, and philanthropy to building Indigenous power — one local educator founded the Oceti Sakowin Community Academy, the first Indigenous-led school in the Mni Luzahan (Rapid City) area.
“We know that when students graduate high school, they do better. They’re encouraged to go onto higher education and just do better overall,” says Mary Bowman, a longtime Rapid City Area School District educator who previously opened several similar schools throughout the southwest before returning to her home state.
Oceti Sakowin, which means “Seven Council Fires” and refers to the collective name of the tribes which colonizers branded as Sioux, opened in September 2022 with 28 students in one kindergarten class. This year they’ve added first grade to the mix, bringing the total students to 41. The following year second grade will be added and so on until the school is complete through 12th grade.
“Education, beginning with boarding schools, has been violent and traumatic for our people,” Bowman says. “The main thing boarding schools try to do is take away the culture and the language that is the center of who we are.”
Instead, at Oceti Sakowin, cultural identity is at the heart of everything students learn. Kindergarten students work, for example, towards the same statewide literacy standards of being able to retell a story with a beginning, middle and end. But the stories they learn are sacred Lakota stories.
Each day begins and ends with social and emotional learning in the form of praying, singing and giving gratitude in Lakota, shaking hands with and acknowledging each other in relative terms, and sharing how they’re feeling that day.
Using relative terms — students referring to each other as cousins, for example — “has two reasons behind it,” Bowman explains. “First, we’re acknowledging that we’re related to each other and that we’re going to be compassionate and have empathy for each other.” The second is to help them learn the different Lakota terms that vary based on gender.
While the school is currently renting out space in a local church, the NDN Collective recently purchased 66 acres of land for just shy of $1 million that Bowman plans to outfit with a permanent school within the next five years. “There’s a capital campaign going on right now to build our school. In the meantime we’ll have a temporary modular building on the land,” she says.
The school has been, since its inception, anchored in exactly what the Indigenous community wanted to see from education.
“We asked what, in your wildest dreams, would you like to see in your child’s education?” Bowman recalls of the Google surveys they sent out during COVID times. “It wasn’t, ‘I want my kid to get straight A’s’. It was that they wanted them to have a strong cultural identity.”
An unflinching dedication to self-determination is core to the work that NDN Collective supports.
“The three core strategies of NDN is to defend, develop and decolonize,” explains Gaby Strong, the managing director of NDN Foundation, the collective’s grantmaking and rematriation arm. “We’re not a service organization. We’re here to support the self-determination of the people themselves and their self-determined priorities.”
Strong notes that NDN’s approach stands out in contrast to other nonprofit organizations, many of which have been around much longer than the six-year-old collective. “Our approach has been the full reclamation and return of Indigenous assets that were built off our lands and the full return to Indigenous people under Indigenous control. Anything less than that is kind of incremental to us,” she says. NDN’s approach to grantmaking reflects that.
Whereas many other foundations and institutions ask and expect that grantees align with their foci and strategies, NDN aligns itself with the community and their priorities and awards funding accordingly. In that vein, NDN has so far given the Oceti Sakowin Community Academy more than $2 million over a three-year period.
The impact of NDN’s investment has, as intended, rippled out beyond the halls of the school itself. Parents have told Bowman and other academy leaders that having a single child attend their school is “healing” for the entire family.
“When our students go home, they teach the younger siblings, the older siblings, and the parents the things they’re learning at school,” Bowman says.
“There’s a fear in our community that we’re going to lose our language and our culture. But [these kids] give me hope, the way that they’re learning and taking it home and teaching it and spreading it. I have such hope.”
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.