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College president brings her rich background to the job

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. - The journey through life guides people through a maze of experiences that oftentimes lead to where a person was destined to be all along.

Cynthia Lindquist, Dakota, is president of the Cankdeska Cikana Community College on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. She picked up not just a valuable education along her journey: she collected life experiences and a definitive cultural identity along the way.

When Lindquist arrived on the campus of Cankdeska Cikana (Little Hoop), the campus was in distress academically, philosophically and physically. Today, it's a vibrant college campus.

She had no idea when she was working in the health field on her reservation and elsewhere, or in the political arena, that she would ever be a college president, but opportunities came to her one after another.

''The grandfather puts us where we are supposed to be. When I got a Ph.D., I didn't know I was going to be a president,'' Lindquist said.

Little Hoop College was 18 months away from losing accreditation, students were dropping out, and the facilities were ill-equipped for learning. Today, students, staff and faculty operate with a more positive attitude and the college received a 10-year accreditation.

Lindquist answered the call to serve her community, more than once, after years of working in the health field and with state and tribal governments. She served North Dakota as the commissioner of Indian Affairs during the Gov. Ed Schafer administration in the 1990s; a stint with the IHS under Dr. Michael Trujillo took her to Washington, D.C.; and before that she worked in the IHS area office and also worked with the University of North Dakota School of Medicine to develop an American Indian program, something she admits was not successful.

Lindquist is a prime example of a person who took advantage of opportunities for education and filled essential positions while always staying connected to her roots.

She grew up on the Spirit Lake Reservation and was raised partly by her grandparents, from whom she learned the old ways. Her grandmother taught her to prepare buffalo; also, ''we dried corn and did gardening. It was a hard life, but I was imprinted with a work ethic,'' she said.

''We didn't have much. We grew up in a two-room house and my grandma taught us to keep it clean. One of the most profound things for me is taking pride in our possessions.''

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Lindquist said she is a true and native North Dakotan. Her father is Scandinavian, her mother Dakota, but she says she leans more toward the Dakota side.

''I can make lutefisk and lefse and wojopi and frybread, and I know both cultures,'' she said. ''I identify as Dakota, but I can't dismiss this other part of my life.''

Her father, who was a police officer on the reservation, took her with him to live off the reservation after he and her mother divorced. The move offered Lindquist the chance to live in two worlds.

''I have survived many things by growing up in both worlds; racism and bigotry were in both worlds. I experience domestic violence and alcohol abuse. We must keep aspiring to do our best; help when we can help and keep going forward, that's so important in Indian country.

''For some reason, the Creator has given me the gifts relative to surviving; life is still wonderful,'' she said.

When Lindquist returned home to become president of Little Hoop College, she said it was depressing. She had returned home more than once. During those times, she taught a couple of health classes at the college. She also worked for the tribe and at the tribally owned manufacturing company after she earned a bachelor's degree in Indian studies and English.

She worked in the health arena for the tribe and eventually spent most of her professional career in health-related jobs. She earned a master's degree from the University of South Dakota in political science and finished her doctorate in education leadership in 2006 at the University of North Dakota.

When Lindquist walks into Little Hoop College, she smudges wherever she goes and asks the namesake of the college to guide her, as part of the cultural ways she learned while growing up.

Protecting the culture, the language and a way of life is part of the mission of tribal colleges and especially for Lindquist.

''There is a dramatic change. I get lots of students coming to classes, they like being here, they are engaged and they talk about liking it here. I still see the flicker that sparkles about having dreams. They are still viable and it's okay to have dreams and this institution is going to help them,'' she said.