Embracing Cultural Heritage in Higher Education Institutions

Nake Nula Waun—I am ready for whatever comes…(Lakota Idiom)

Cultural heritage in Middle America can take on a variety of different guises that complicate the nationalist embracing of simply being an American. Cultural identity and heritage, outside of the dominant culture, are often considered subsets to en vogue terms like multiculturalism or diversity in higher education institutions. Avoiding the conundrum of the multitude of debates concerning the term diversity and authentic cultural differences, cultural heritage is inextricably intertwined to the identities of Native people. It is not, merely, a phase of identity development during adolescence, or college, for those hailing from tribal communities. Arguably, it is the key distinction between minorities and others who embrace the term American in a more egocentric sense; as opposed to the tribally enrolled Native people who, for good or bad, uphold more sociocentric responsibilities to their identities.

On Whose Heritage Do We Stand?

The Coughlin Campanile on the SDSU campus in Brookings, South Dakota. Photo courtesy Jake DeGroot
The Coughlin Campanile on the SDSU campus in Brookings, South Dakota. Photo courtesy Jake DeGroot

South Dakota State University (SDSU) began as a college in 1881. In 1889, when South Dakota achieved statehood, Congress, acting under the Morrill Act of 1862, granted 160,000 acres of land for the “agricultural college.” By accepting this land allocation, the State designated the agricultural college as a land-grant college. The history of the school does not address the larger context of what was occurring between settler and indigenous populations in the area. Perhaps, the most profound event omitted being the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.

To acknowledge the glaring catastrophic cultural collisions of native and non-native history is an issue the country at large does not explicitly address. Nake Nula Waun is one orthographic way to express an idiom that served as a historical battle call, roughly translating to “I am ready for whatever comes.” The expression is exemplary of how the operation of the American Indian Education and Cultural Center (AIECC) is endeavoring to create a space that integrates cultural underpinnings hybridized to empower students as they pass through an institution of higher education—specifically, SDSU. Through creative programming and cultural concepts, along with on-going cultural activities, the AIECC is committed to maintaining and cultivating invaluable cultural heritage to help students who predominantly hail from the tribes that were known in popular American vernacular as “the Great Sioux Nation.” The Oceti Sakowin—Seven Council Fires—is now the common terminology that tribes prefer to use as a self-referential concept-metaphor for their respective Lakota/Dakota/Nakota cultures.

The AIECC comprises an interactive community that includes the American Indian Student Services (AISS) and American Indian Studies programs (AIS), and was brought into being at South Dakota State University (SDSU) to serve as a “home away from home” for American Indian students. As an extension of those founding efforts, the Community Creed encourages individuals who choose to enter the AIECC to uphold the organizing principle to Oceti Sakowin cultures—Tiyospaye. The Tiyospaye concept-metaphor helps to promote a mutually positive experience for all students, staff, faculty and visitors to SDSU.

Tiyospaye is a borrowed Lakota/Dakota/Nakota term that derives from two morphemes—1) Ti = s/he lives someplace; 2) ospaye = a piece of the whole. Once combined, these words roughly mean a small piece of the whole, or a smaller group out of the entire people that lives together. It was, and is still a strong organizing unit for the tribal people and communities who call South Dakota home. Once a person is a part of a Tiyospaye, s/he has responsibilities to that respective community. The intentions of the programs housed at the AIECC are to support the truest cultural semantic intention of the term Tiyospaye to allow the students to fulfill the expression, Nake Nula Waun—I am always prepared. This concept and marriage of cultural terms is done with the fullest respect for the strong cultural backgrounds that the students bring to the SDSU community. In order for Native students to navigate successfully through the foreign cultural grounds of higher education institutions in America, the AIECC is intended to bridge the transitions in a mutually beneficial way that allows respect and equality to take primacy. Within a higher education context, the path to becoming a member in this Tiyospaye, and the obligations associated with this ontology, is inherently a part of the cultural basis to the communities that exist within the state’s nine federally recognized tribes: Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe; Crow Creek Sioux Tribe; Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe; Lower Brule Sioux Tribe; Oglala Sioux Tribe; Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate; Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; Yankton Sioux Tribe.

According to the (SDSU Facts 2013–14), the chart below shows American Indian/Alaska Native enrollment at SDSU:


12, 554



10, 840



1, 283








5, 937





6, 617


American Indian/Alaska Native




10, 897



1, 528


*Other Indicates: (Hispanic/Latino, Asian, African American or Black, Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Two or More races, and Unknown).

In a state where there are nine federally recognized tribes, it would be far more desirable to have a higher representation of Native students. Regardless, the AIECC and the programs within it are extremely important to helping address this demographic deficit.

Outreach and community dialogues are ongoing processes as the AIECC moves forward in building its presence within the campus and the State’s Board of Regents [of] Higher Education Institutions. From collaborative initiatives targeting tribal colleges, to working with tribal and public high schools that maintain high levels of Native students, through respecting tribal sovereignty, SDSU is supporting the AIECC in its role of bridging cultural understanding and communication within the state.

Tokala Ki Lehanl Wounspe Kuwapi (The Youth Are Pursuing Knowledge)

Albert White Hat Sr, the late Lakota linguist from Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation, provided the above concept to us at SDSU. Unfortunately, he passed prior to furthering a discussion on integrating the meaning and cultural underpinnings to the term. Roughly, the phrase equates to the youth are pursuing knowledge. The intended desire of working with a well-respected community member here at the AIECC was to nurture a real collaborative connection to the tribes within the state. To try and readdress and reconfigure some of the negative connotations that lingers in the minds of many Native people concerning Academe and research at large.

The overarching indicators for data in Indian Country point to a ratio of two women for every male matriculating into higher education institutions. This larger pattern holds true here at SDSU as well. Where do males go? What are the avenues and pressures placed upon males coming from Native communities? How can the frames of this discussion begin to be addressed in a culturally appropriate manner? The discrepancy in the high frequency of Native males in the military is a phenomenon that has been tracked and acknowledged by various sources. Some arguments state that the military is able to co-opt the warrior societies that existed in Native cultures, and attract them in a new guise as reasons for joining the armed forces today.

The conversation we were beginning with White Hat was to try to re-instill a cultural sense of purpose, and pull upon traditional societies that organized the culture prior to dominant culture institutions intrusions. We were looking to establish a new “warrior” society to validate and attract males into college as another option in lieu of the United States military. Although the specific relationship with White Hat is no longer occurring, we are still following through with community outreach to establish programmatic ideas and culturally shaped activities.

One such activity is the Living Learning Community (LLC) that is called the Oyate Yuwitaya Tipi. Coming up with this term was the result of meeting with Sisseton Oyate tribal members who are a part of the Dakotah Language Institute. The term roughly means the tribes/peoples live together. The LLC is a way that the SDSU groups students together by specific focus, similar interests, or identity, and/or academic major. This LLC, in tandem with the AIECC and greater tribal input, is one way to help nurture and foster a sense of meaningful community for Native students. A community that generates peer-to-peer relationships that acknowledges and grounds cultural identity with the intention of then allowing exploration to the other identities and cultural possibilities here at SDSU.

Nake Nula Waun, I am ready for whatever comes! To have Native students embody this idiom and progressively navigate higher education is a goal in utilizing cultural heritage at SDSU. It is a critical and ongoing process for Native students in higher education institutions to ground their respective cultures’ notions of ontology and personhood as modernity and hybridity congeal with the continuity of traditions. As it emerges and develops at SDSU and the AIECC, working with the nine federally recognized tribes within the state of South Dakota is a processual activity. Operating with the cultural blend of traditional idioms that reflect cultural ontologies, SDSU’s AIECC is attempting to utilize traditional cultural notions of organization to re-instill ways of providing culturally grounded community based space for students to succeed.

To this end, the fundamental principles of the community creeds embodied by the concept-metaphors of Nake Nula Waun, Tiyospaye, Oyate Yuwitaya Tipi are helping us focus on fostering personal commitment by showing positive regard for one another, having compassion for all people, and the importance of being open to the ideas and beliefs of others—for these basic tenets have served our ancestors well as Native well.

Richard Meyers (Oglala Sioux Tribe) is the director of South Dakota State University Tribal Relations and program coordinator of American Indian Studies.
Charlotte E Davidson (Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) is the director of South Dakota State University’s American Indian Education and Cultural Center (AIECC).
April Eastman (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) is the assistant director of the AIECC.

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The efforts of the American Indian Education and Cultural Center at South Dakota State University sound like a recipe for success that should be followed to the letter by Native Studies programs throughout the country. The culturally based curriculum, community development efforts, and commitment to engaging with Native communities to foster and nurture reciprocal relationships are exemplary. I’ll be very interested to hear more about the future successes of the AIECC at SDSU and wish you the best of luck. Well done!

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