PINE RIDGE RESERVATION, S.D.- South Dakota is a frontier state-complete with extreme weather and open skies, Native Americans and legendary gambling cowboys, carved mountains and the naturally stunning rock formations of the Badlands. But at Oglala Lakota College, a four-year institution with 12 campuses spread over the sprawling Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota, instructors and administrators push their students toward a different frontier - higher education.
Oglala Lakota College, or OLC, has a unique mission: to supplement a traditional school curriculum by teaching the Native American traditions of culture and stewardship. The Lakota-Sioux tribe sanctions and controls the college. The tribe views education as more than just a means of enriching students' lives. Graduates of the college are also prepared to enrich life on the reservation - to use their mastery of medicine, modern technology and education to help preserve and enhance their spiritual beliefs. The curriculum combines Wolakolkiciyapi, or "Learning Lakota ways of life in the community," with a standard academic program.
That integration can be difficult. Instructors face Native American students who are sometimes resistant to Western ideas and who often lack the kinds of educated role models that might draw them into a particular field. Jim Taulman, a conservation biology instructor with a southern drawl who came here two years ago from Alabama, says there are few jobs, few Native Americans with advanced degrees and a general malaise among many of the students. "You'll hear the talk out on the reservation, just standing around kicking dirt and complaining. Everyone is saying the same thing: There are no jobs."
The "campus" of the college, which is spread out over the 2-million acre Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, doesn't immediately lead a visitor to different conclusions. After traveling through stark, subtly scenic hills outside of the nearest large airport, a small green sign announces: "Entering Pine Ridge Indian Reservation." On a two-lane road that looks like a highway heading out into the middle of nowhere, kids skateboard, taking up the road without regard for the nonexistent traffic. A little farther down the main road into Pine Ridge, a man stands next to his pickup truck in the middle of a field covered with trash and metal scraps. There are a few ranch houses in the distance. On the local radio station, teenage DJs play hip-hop - Outkast or 50 Cent - dedicating each one to a friend or "anyone out there who is listening, who likes this song."
In an effort to encourage Native Americans into science and math, fields that seem far out of the scope of life on the reservation, the National Science Foundation partnered with the college in 1994 to launch the Model Institutions for Excellence program. Its goal was "to basically increase the capacity of minority-serving institutions to award bachelor's degrees in science, technology and math," said Stacy Phelps, a writer of the grant. At the college, a major part of this effort included integrating science and technology into everyday life on the reservation. Instructors attempted to mesh those daunting subjects with native spirituality and beliefs.
At a café a few blocks away, Jim Taulman explained that although that kind of artistic representation hardly seems scientific, the native beliefs are in tune with basic biology. The Lakota believe "everything is made up of the same stuff," he said. So Taulman begins classes by explaining that every living and inanimate thing has the same basic structure - atoms made up of electrons, neutrons and protons. "Everything on Earth is made of the same elements, including us and everything else around us, and so we're tied to everything," he said.
Taulman also teaches evolutionary biology and comparative anatomy by emphasizing the relationships between everything on Earth. He has found that students at OLC are more receptive to the scientific ideas than non-Native Americans he taught in the past. "[Other people] have been brought up to think we're really apart from the rest of the world, from the natural world, and that's a comfortable position - that we're different and the rest of the world is just here for us to use." By stressing the confluence of science and native beliefs, Taulman has been able to make science less foreign to his students.
Kim Winkelman, vice president for instruction and academic affairs, said that these attempts at integrating education are "not just for the sake of science and technology, but integrating them into many areas of life." Classes use Geographical Information System databases in the bison project, in which they monitor erosion, biomass content and population densities of the prairie. Bison are spiritually and practically a significant part of Lakota culture and history; databases can be used to preserve and monitor the animals while educating students about their cultural significance.
OLC tries to teach that Lakota life can be fruitfully connected with Western ideas and technology. Science and technology have a broad scope. "It goes from production of teachers, agricultural, animal habitat science all the way to environmental impact, demographics back to the people who also inhabit this area," Winkelman said.
All these efforts start in class. Giving students mastery over concepts and technologies they might usually associate with foreign Western culture is, according to Taulman, "a big goal out on the reservation, getting back more control over their own lives." In his environmental biology class, Taulman brings students on field trips to recycling and compost centers. He educates students about renewable energy projects on the reservation and encourages them to incorporate what they learn in their communities. "We can clean up the reservation. Maybe we can't clean up a Superfund site," he said, referring to toxic waste dumps the government has promised to eventually remove. "We can't do anything about that. But we can go out and clean up a dump site on the reservation." Change, he teaches, starts at the smallest level - often, one student at a time.
Last semester in Taulman's human biology class, a student wrote a note on her final. "She said she was so impressed by our discussions in class that got her thinking that she decided to change her major," he said, clearly excited. "She wants to start an environmental learning center in her community where she could teach young people about these kind of sustainable living ideas and techniques, and she wants to power it with wind and solar. It warmed my heart. She changed her major. How much better does it get than that?"