Shortly after earning a law degree Ron His Horse is Thunder, great-great-great grandson of Sitting Bull, quit his job at a Rapid City law firm and returned home to the Standing Rock Reservation, a stretch of land that covers 2.3 million acres of prairie, in south-central North Dakota and north-central South Dakota. His Horse Is Thunder came home with the goal to improve economic conditions on the Standing Rock Reservation by developing culturally relevant learning experiences for youth. Today he is president of the Sitting Bull College.
"We convinced the Sitting Bull College board of trustees that our mission shouldn't be just education, but it should also be assisting the tribe with economic development and developing businesses on the reservation," His Horse is Thunder said. As a child living on the reservation he witnessed the hardships of reservation life.
Unemployment dips to 35 percent during summer months and soars to almost 70 percent as temperatures drop and winds howl across the prairie in the winter. "For them it's normal because they don't know what life is like for others and we want to change what's normal for them," His Horse is Thunder said.
"Now I think it is changing," college resource director Sterling St. John said. Students are beginning to see that once they graduate and find good employment they are able to support their family. "What I constantly tell youth, especially in our community, is that at the Sitting Bull College, we have great cultures, we have great instructors who are willing to help and the possibilities are endless," St. John said. Tribal leaders plan to have an expanding college that will improve learning possibilities and create business opportunities throughout the reservation.
"Economic development is really what it's all about," Clements Group representative Len O'Hara said. "We are providing advice to the college on how to secure the $40 million dollars to build the campus. We went around the country and asked people if they thought it was a worthy cause and if they'd give money to it and virtually everyone said 'yes', they thought it was a worthy cause, and 'yes', they thought they'd give money."
His Horse is Thunder launched the $40 million campaign this summer to build a new campus west of Fort Yates, N.D., within sight of the existing campus. The new campus will include 18 low-income houses, dormitories for men and women, a student center, cafeteria, academic/administration buildings, faculty housing, trades building, a maintenance and sports center.
Main features will be a Tribal Business Information Center with local businesses and entrepreneurial partnerships with culturally-relevant businesses in South Dakota. It means business opportunities for students, revenue for the college and more importantly, a viable reservation economy.
A construction company established five years ago is successfully competing on the open market, providing jobs for students and graduates of the Building Trade Program at Sitting Bull College. "We are building our own student housing out here on the new campus," His Horse is Thunder said. The revenue generated by the business helps in so many ways.
Mainstream colleges across the United States that are similar to Sitting Bull College receive $7,000 per student from the federal government.
This year the college was appropriated only $3,900 per student. "So we need to take a look at how we can fill that gap between the $3,900 that we are actually appropriated and the $7,000 that we should be getting," His Horse is Thunder said. That became the major reason for developing businesses on the campus.
"In order for an economy to work, money earned should revolve around in a community five to seven times and by our contracting with the tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs or ourselves, to provide something or deliver a service, we are making that revenue spin within this community and therefore multiply," His Horse is Thunder said. "That's how all strong communities work." New businesses owned by the college will do just that. Today, all reservation goods and services come from off of the reservation, therefore, all money leaves without first providing growth. College officials intend to change that.
A computer repair business on campus will allow revenue that is now leaving the reservation to stay at home. Also a science lab being completed on the new campus will spawn an Environmental Water Quality Testing Company. "Whether you're a tribe, county, city, state, or the federal government, you have to do environmental assessment," His Horse Is Thunder said. "It's for us to take part of that market and employ students, creating revenue and allowing that money to multiply before it leaves the reservation."
One business opportunity was gifted to the college. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in Lexington, Ky. gifted six thoroughbred horses to Sitting Bull College through an adoption process and others will be given next year. The horses will be used to teach youth about their heritage and income generated from riding lessons will be used to purchase equipment and feed for the horses.
"Those Kentucky horses are a great example of something that is obviously culturally relevant to the Lakota people. The tribe and the college have acquired them and they will eventually build a culturally-relevant business that will benefit the college and youth," O'Hara said.
"That we don't see as an economical tool yet. We see it more as bringing back our culture and making it relevant to our young people," His Horse is Thunder said. Sitting Bull College has sponsored the Bigfoot Memorial Ride since 1988 and the Chief's Ride since 2000. The ride begins at the site of Sitting Bull's campsite on the Standing Rock Reservation. "A lot of children, they want to ride, but they don't have horses," college board member Ron Brown Otter said. He traveled to Kentucky with other college officials to bring the thoroughbreds home primarily for that reason. "Riding those horses again provides youth with a means of becoming in-tune and learning about their culture and liking it," His Horse is Thunder said.