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One of America's Best Kept Secrets

08/28/2011 06:50 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2011

"Butch" Felix, the Lakota Eyapaha (Master of Ceremonies) for the 39th Annual Graduation ceremonies of Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation, stood at the podium and after glancing behind him at the seated dignitaries in attendance said, "There is a big hurricane about to hit Washington D.C. so all of them fled the Capitol and ended up here on the Rosebud Reservation."

Butch was right. There sat Arne Duncan, U. S. Secretary of Education, Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Kristi Noem, South Dakota's lone member of Congress, and William Mendoza, Acting Director, White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities. All of them looked a little worse for wear having traveled to different Indian reservations spreading the word of President Barack Obama.

But the star of the show by far was the guy born and reared on the Rosebud Reservation and now President of Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail) University, Lionel Bordeaux. Lionel's old friends, and they are many, have a saying that goes, "When Lionel calls we come running."

I was there with another old friend, Gerald One Feather, to be blessed with honorary degrees. And I am sure this honor came straight from the heart of Lionel Bordeaux.

Bordeaux was, and is still, a visionary. When Stanley Red Bird conceived the idea of a college on the reservation, he called upon Lionel to help him fulfill this dream. Lionel took the challenge and for more than 30 years has dedicated every waking hour of his life to the cause. From a two-year community college in the beginning, Sinte Gleska is now a University. On this wonderful day 103 students sat quietly in the audience waiting to get their college degrees.

Instead of caps and gowns they wore silk scarves of different colors draped about their necks. And there was an unmistakable bounce of joy as they took the steps to the podium to get their degrees. Yes, they had done it. They had overcome the hardships and oftentimes the desperation that so many reservation students face just making it through high school where the dropout rate is far above the national average. But to get a college degree right here on their homelands meant something special to all of them.

President Bordeaux is a powerful opponent of cultural genocide and cultural superiority. He tangled regularly with the North American Accreditation Association bureaucrats who professed that "one size fits all."

As long as he had a breath left in his body he was not about to see the culture and spirituality of his students downplayed, ignored, and dampened by an association that did not have an inkling about the traditional and cultural history of the Lakota. He would fight every step of the way even when facing the possibility of not receiving accreditation for the college.

With that sword hanging over his head, Lionel pushed forward bringing curriculum to the University that best suited and conveyed the culture and traditions of the Lakota. In a country where uniformity is the norm, Bordeaux proved that a college can pursue the differences of its Lakota students while still promoting their educational goals.

The speeches of Duncan, Echo Hawk and Noem all had substance, but the eloquence of Bordeaux, a man who spoke to the very things the students had faced while pursuing their degrees, who spoke through the experiences of his own past, clearly resonated with the students.

Many years ago I wrote that the more than 30 Indian colleges scattered from Arizona to North Dakota, were America's best kept secret. These colleges located on the many Indian reservations of the West are providing college educations to thousands of Native Americans who, for the first time, do not have to leave home to get a degree.

And above all, they are staffed with faculties made up of tribal members, and overseen by administrators made up of mostly tribal members who are fluent in the language and culture of the tribes where the colleges are located.

Lionel gave me a firm hug as he handed me my honorary degree and I could feel his courage and determination in that brief hug. I could also see the continued success of the tribal colleges because of leaders like Lionel Bordeaux.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net) Notes from Indian Country By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)© 2011 Unity South Dakota