Lionel Bordeaux on Indigenous Peoples’ History

Volume 28, No. 3 - Spring 2017
Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterPrint this page


Interview by Bradley Shreve

Indigenous peoples’ history is vital to the curriculum at all tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). But how such history courses are taught remains a topic of discussion and debate, not just at TCUs but at other institutions of higher education as well. There certainly is no shortage of opinions and perspectives on the matter. In an effort to bring greater wisdom to this dialogue, TCJ caught up with one of the towering figures of the tribal college movement.

Lionel Bordeaux (Sicangu Lakota), president of Sinte Gleska University (SGU) on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, is the longest serving college president in the United States. Raised by his grandfather, Alex Bordeaux Jr.—the son of Alex Bordeaux Sr. and the grandson of Great Plains trader James Bordeaux—and his grandmother, Mary Jordan Bordeaux—the daughter of Colonel T.P. Jordan, also a Great Plains trader—President Bordeaux attended the Horse Creek Day School, St. Mary’s school in Winner, South Dakota, as well as a public school in White River, South Dakota. He later attended public schools in Lincoln, Nebraska, returning to the Rosebud reservation where he graduated from St. Francis Indian Mission, a Roman Catholic boarding school. He went on to enroll at Black Hills State Teacher’s College where he earned a B.A. in composite history and social science, with a minor in psychology. Bordeaux later took classes at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado, and George Washington University in Washington, DC. He eventually transferred to the University of South Dakota and completed a master’s degree in guidance and counseling.

Bordeaux continued his graduate studies at the University of Minnesota where he completed his doctorate coursework in educational administration. But before completing his dissertation, Stanley Redbird Sr., founder of Sinte Gleska College, approached Bordeaux and told him he was looking for an individual who had academic credentials, but, more importantly, who knew the tribal language and history of the Sicangu Lakota. Redbird explained that medicine men had held spiritual ceremonies and directed him to seek out Bordeaux, who was to withdraw from his doctoral studies and return to the Rosebud reservation where he would serve as president of Sinte Gleska College. Bordeaux consulted with his wife Barbara who told him that if it was their calling that was what they should do. Shortly thereafter, Bordeaux and his family returned home. On February 3, 1973, Lionel Bordeaux was inaugurated as president of the college, a position he has held ever since.


Can you tell us about your inauguration as president of SGU and the vision of the college’s founders?


I was inaugurated by 12 medicine men, who told [me] of the need to strengthen the Sicangu Sioux Nation through a tribal system of higher education, with mandates of strengthening the culture through preservation, by education of our youth in the communities. That’s where the language was important because the institution needed to secure the will and support of the people to stand behind the mandates, which also included the need to have educational ownership in redesigning and restructuring education, complete with owning our own accreditation through tribal spirituality and laws, as well as the need to bring education and economic development into a closer working relationship. They also addressed the need to develop an alternative tribal governance model to empower the people and communities through the authority of the treaties and the kinship system of tribal families. Every aspect of life that affected the quality of our life was to be addressed with a plan of action we developed by all stakeholders to do a critical review and analysis of the tribal and federal relationship.

These are continued discussions being sponsored by Sinte Gleska University, not only by academic delivery, but by forums . . . to develop plans of action for students, both college and high school. Communities, community leaders, and tribal program leaders can all come together with written plans and surveys to develop a complete master plan to strengthen tribal self-determination and sovereignty for the future.

Culturally responsive curricula is a hallmark of a tribal college education. Do you think this is even more important when it comes to teaching history classes?

The two go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. The history of Indigenous nations needs to be the cultural foundation of who we are as a tribal people. Our ancestry and everything that has transpired since and before needs to be known by our people. Medicine men can play a crucial role in the preservation of cultural information not always known to researchers or the authors of history books. Place and time dictate who we are. It validates the essence and psyche of ourselves as individuals and families, and largely as tribal nations.

In the early days of the TCU movement, did you and your colleagues have conversations about how history should be taught?

It was our prayers and hope that [tribal history] would be the basis of our academic teaching. Unfortunately, the requirements of the academic world, such as teaching credentials and other accreditation requirements, initially were required. Someone knowledgeable about history through experience or through prayer and ceremony in communication through the ancestral world was not always accepted in Western educational norms. This showed early the need for individuals’ ownership of education through our own accreditation system and to be clothed in our own spirituality, laws, values, objectives, standards, and evaluation techniques.

What sorts of changes have you witnessed over the years?

Certainly, the need for our own ownership of education, as well as oral history and how this all played into the validation of who we are as we strive to bring truth into our history and its delivery. Some changes are extremely slow. Colonialist lifestyles and measures too often impede that which we know and do, but it is slowly changing. A big change is that our model of tribal colleges and universities is slowly gaining acceptance in this country. We stand ready to advance this another notch through partnerships.

At SGU, which department teaches history?

Each academic department has its own history to tell via tribal studies, education, the arts, or as in our various other academic degrees.

Is it important who teaches history courses?

It is if you want the innate essence of understanding what and why you’re teaching. The flipside is to accept what you have. We are appreciative of the historical knowledge our instructors have [who] are able to utilize resources such as ledgers, historical trips to sacred sites, as well as the use of spiritual leaders in our classrooms.

Is course content at SGU developed by the individual instructor, the department, or the college?

All three play a role in some fashion, but it is the department, through discussion, that strengthens course content—although an instructor can do a great job by themselves developing historical information. Of course this also depends on their experience and their initiative on how well they want to do.

The history of the United States and American Indians is punctuated with so many atrocities and injustices. How do we reconcile this past?

Through prayer and patience with a systematic approach to teaching truth and all it represents. Then approach it holistically, as everything is related and connected in a historical fashion.

What advice would you give educators, especially non-Natives, who teach history courses at tribal colleges?

Extend appreciation and gratitude for the instructor’s willingness to commit to a difficult teaching assignment. We need these educators to get us off the ground as we deal with the accreditation requirements of the non-tribal world. Our instructors help is needed and it will lead to respect, not only as an instructor, but as a person.

2017 AIHEC Student Poetry Slam


On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. View the video

Life of a Tribal College Mom


I Am an Ancestor’s Dream

Change, especially institutional change, takes time-and instead of just throwing our hands up in the air we should take it slow, each of us has our own roles to play.

. Read more →