GRAND FORKS, N.D. - That a mother of four working on a Master of Business Administration degree and running the United Tribes Technical College's research program could complete a doctoral program in communications in record time seems unlikely, if not impossible - until you talk to the woman who did it.
Cheryl Long Feather, Standing Rock Sioux, is indeed a gifted and skilled communicator. She is the first American Indian graduate of the University of North Dakota's School of Communications' doctoral program.
Long Feather explained that she was ''incredibly shy'' as a child, so she expressed herself through writing. Because she had developed her writing skills, advisors suggested that she study communications in college. After getting a master's in business (not to be confused with the M.B.A. she earned later), she wanted to go on to get a doctorate in educational leadership, but ran into financial difficulties. When UND offered a Ph.D. in communications, she ''figured it was a sign.''
She completed her coursework in four semesters, working full-time because she had not been able to find a fellowship. She scheduled her classes for one or two days a week and then made the eight-hour round-trip trek between Bismarck and Grand Forks, leaving her home at 5 a.m. and not getting back until after midnight. ''I have four children, and I didn't want to be away for too long. My husband thought I was nuts,'' she added.
Long Feather found that her communication skills are highly useful in her job at UTTC.
''Ultimately, all jobs are communications jobs,'' she aid. ''Research deals with hard science, but it is not helpful to us in Indian country unless we know about it and can use it to change policy and practice.''
Long Feather said her future plans are to eventually take on more leadership responsibility in her community, but she said she tends not to plan too far ahead. ''The Creator takes us where we need to go and prepares us to do what we need to do,'' she said. The one thing that she is sure about is that she wants to use her talents and skills in Indian country.
Her dissertation, which she hopes will become a book or a supplement to a textbook on communication, explores the Lakota/Dakota model of oratory. ''We have a circular way of talking,'' she explained. ''We talk around the topic, which is unlike the transmissive, linear mode of communication where there is a speaker, a message and a receiver.''
The difficulty, she said, is that the circular form of oratory is mislabeled as careless, inconsiderate or confusing.
But the purpose of oral communication is very different for Indian speakers.
''We are creating relationships,'' she said. ''We have a consensus-building, harmonious model of kinship and clanship. We tell stories instead of refuting facts. We are sharing our experiences with others and asking others to share with us.
''The cause-effect model of communication is based on a mechanical model. It's not what communication is about for Native Americans. The listener is not just a passive receiver. It's about how the speaker and receiver make meaning together,'' she said.
In terms of making these ideas comprehensible, Long Feather said, ''The challenge for me in writing my dissertation was to put myself in non-Native shoes and to try to explain these things that we just know.''
Having graduated from UND, Long Feather now serves on the UND Native Media Center's advisory board. Center Director Monique Vondall-Rieke described Long Feather as ''an awesome lady.''
The center, open since 1990, is the only Native media center tied to a major university.
''Previously, we were focused on getting youth interested
in communications majors,'' Vondall-Rieke explained. ''Our new strategic plan focuses on surrounding Native American communities and helping them to
develop public relations departments. We're working with White Earth Indian Reservation and we're negotiating with another tribe to set up a distance-
learning degree in cooperation with a tribal college.''
Vondall-Rieke, a member of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in Belcourt, said she wants ''to encourage Native Americans to be their own storytellers. There are plenty of Anglo-Saxon journalists, but few Native American journalists,'' she said. ''We want students to know that the field of communications is vast and that it's important to Native American communities.''
She has been out recruiting and hopes to have five new Native students in the communications program next year.
For information about the Native Media Center, visit www.und.nodak.edu/dept/native media. Information about the UND's doctoral program in communications is available at www.und.edu/dept/scomm.