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Oglala Lakota youth rich with culture and knowledge

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“What is papa and how do you cook tinpsila?” Middle and high school students from the Lakota Native Science Field Center recently shared the answers to these questions with people from two other Native communities in the Paradise Valley of Montana.

In August, 21 students, six staff members and three elders from the Pine Ridge community joined more than 75 other students, staff and community elders from the Blackfeet and Wind River Native Science Field Centers for the 2009 Native Science Field Center Summer Gathering. Though their communities are known as some of the poorest in the country, this summer the LNSFC students learned that their communities are some of the richest in the world when it comes to culture and knowledge.

LNSFC was started three years ago on the Pine Ridge Reservation and is currently directed by Elvin Returns From Scout with the help of six Oglala Lakota College student interns and counselors; Helene Quiver-Gaddie, Dylan Brave, Oceola Blue Horse, Anthony Valella, Curtis Belile, Joy Romero, and Delaine Has No Horse, who drove the students to locations in the field.

The Bush Foundation, National Science Foundation, Oglala Lakota College and Hopa Mountain, a nonprofit organization in Montana that works to support rural and Native community organizations, provide support for the field center. LNSFC’s main objective is to engage youth in academics through a cultural lens by integrating Western science and Lakota culture and history thus encouraging science, technology, engineering, and mathematics career paths.

“We have the best of both worlds,” said Dylan Brave, OLC intern. “We have the Western science and we also have the traditional science, which is just as good. I think it’s awesome that we are starting to incorporate both of them because they both bring good things to the plate. It’s great that these kids get to go through this program because we didn’t have this kind of program growing up.” The existing field centers will act as a model towards expanding the number of NSFCs in order to serve youth and adults in more communities through training, mentoring and resource sharing.


Dr. Hannan E. LaGarry, a conservation biology instructor/researcher in the Oglala Lakota College Center for Science and Technology shared geological and environmental information about the Badlands National Park with Lakota Native Science Field Center students.

One important way the students learn at LNSFC is by listening to community elders who have local knowledge of native plants and animals and know the cultural and historical significance of local places. Community members who are interested in sharing their knowledge with Pine Ridge youth travel with the LNSFC to local places teaching them the Lakota language and the cultural history of these places while relating it to the ecology and geology of the area. In this way, LNSFC encourages local traditional knowledge to be passed down to Lakota youth while students learn the ecology of their environment at the same time. In addition, studies have shown that incorporating tribal knowledge, principles and language into education increases Native student success.

Community members such as Wilmer Mesteth and Warren “Gus” Yellow Hair have been lead advisors for the LNSFC in traditional science and culture. Mesteth spent more than a week with the students this summer. He showed the group native plants, shared his knowledge of their Lakota names and medicinal qualities and talked about the contents of a soil called wase by the Lakota, used as a paint-like covering for ceremony. He also took the students to locations that are important to the Lakota people such as Hunbleca Paha, a butte that was a vision quest site.

One high school student who has participated with the field center for two years liked visiting Wind Cave the best. She learned about the origin of the Lakota peoples as well as how the cave was formed by water, how pressure differences create wind through the cave and that it is the fourth longest cave in the world.

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An OLC intern, Curtis Belile, who helps with LNSFC said one of the benefits offered by the center is, “just getting kids attention – they get to travel, run around, and climb around on the buttes while they learn the culture and the history of the Lakota people.”

Helene Quiver-Gaddie, also an OLC intern said, “We want to teach our students science with a cultural influence and hope that they will tell their friends and families what they learn in the program. Like a tree branches out with its leaves, we hope they will disperse information throughout the community.” Other excursions LNSFC went on this summer include LaCreek Wildlife Refuge, Mammoth Site, Buffalo Pasture, Slim Buttes, and Badlands Overlook.

The 2009 Summer Gathering opened with a sweet pine smudge, and the youth were invited to stand up to introduce themselves and to “say what you have to say with strength and confidence, and let people know who you are and where you come from.” This year at the gathering, students learned some Lakota, Blackfeet and Shoshone words, played traditional games like Double Ball, and shared cultural stories and foods with the group.

With the help of Lakota community elder Patricia May, some of the students cooked a traditional dinner of tinpsila and papa soup, chokecherry wojapi, frybread, and buffalo ribs.

Additional Summer Gathering activities included a plant identification walk with Pauline and Calvin Weatherwax, Blackfeet elders who pointed out traditional native plants that have medicinal qualities. Natural antibiotics, fluoride, and even plants for lactose intolerance were identified and students learned the importance of respecting these plants and the sun for the medicines they provide, by remembering and saying their Native names in Shoshone, led by Reba Teran from Wind River.

Yellow Hair emphasized the importance of these teachings to the students from Blackfeet, Wind River and Pine Ridge by saying, “You young people here today will carry on these teachings. Whatever you take from here today, you will walk with it and take it on your life journey. So try to keep in mind all of what you are learning today. You are learning two cultures, and you are going to walk with those. And our people are going to be strong again. We are not going to be strangers in our own country. We are going to get our rightful place back, and we are going to work with our white brothers and sisters and teach them what we know.”

This year, Little Wound School in Kyle, S.D. and Bennett County High School in Martin, S.D. have cut their school week to only four days. LNSFC hopes to provide extra academic activities for juniors and seniors in these schools by holding all-day science Fridays with the occasional afterschool and Saturday field activity for the students. High school science, math and Lakota language instructors will assist with the LNSFC activities which will run through December.

Field experiences include visits to educational centers such as the South Dakota Discovery Center & Aquarium, and post secondary schools in the area including the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, Chadron State College in Nebraska and Black Hills State University. These visits will give the students an introduction to the educational opportunities that await them in areas that are not far from their homes.

LNSFC is always looking for community members to participate and share invaluable knowledge with the Lakota youth. The Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring Institutes run throughout the year. To participate at any time during the school year or for more information, contact Elvin Returns From Scout at Oglala Lakota College at (605) 455-6004.

Elvin Returns From Scout is a graduate of the Oglala Lakota College Center for Science and Technology in Environmental Science and is the director/coordinator of Lakota Native Science Field Center. Rose E. Honey is a graduate researcher.