Sherry Red Owl, Stands at Dawn Woman

Volume 25, No. 4 - Summer 2014
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GREETINGS. Sherry Red Owl (left) with Regina One Star. Photo by Mary Henson

Anpo Inajin Win—Stands at Dawn Woman—is a fitting name for Sherry Red Owl. She greets each day as a new opportunity and has spent her life working at new things. Red Owl worked at Sinte Gleska University (SGU) during its founding years, taught at an elementary school when few Native teachers were employed in the school systems, and led the development of the first tribal education code in the country. She now heads the Scott Bordeaux Leadership Institute at SGU, the first leadership institute among the Northern Plains tribal colleges. In her 43 years of educational leadership, Stands at Dawn Woman recalls a time when there were practically no Indian teachers or professionals on the Rosebud reservation. Nation building has changed that.

Red Owl has been on a journey through Indian education her entire life. Inspired by what she saw as her teachers’ failure to recognize the value of her Lakota family life, Red Owl developed a commitment to achievement at a very early age. She excelled in school and laughingly characterized herself as a “naughty” student, as she always questioned what was being taught, comparing her school lessons to the cultural values and life that she experienced at home.

Invisible children led Red Owl to education, but she refused to be invisible. Instead she has been outspoken and active against the social injustice that stems from inequity in education. She earned her education degree from the University of South Dakota and taught for several years in the Todd County School District. Having experienced various types of educational institutions growing up— including public and consolidated public schools, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school, and Roman Catholic mission school—Red Owl understands the many ways that such institutions impact children. She wanted to be the best teacher possible, which led her to earn a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Black Hills State University in 1981.

Working with the founders of SGU, one of the first tribal colleges or universities (TCUs), meant that Red Owl was an integral part of what we now call nation building. Like other TCUs, SGU sought to help students complete degrees so they could hold the jobs held by non-Indians on reservations, including positions as teachers, school administrators, and administrators in federal agencies such as the Indian Health Service and the BIA.

Red Owl also worked to incorporate Lakota culture into curriculum. When she was young, there were no Lakota studies courses and little regarding tribal nations was included in school curriculum. Even South Dakota history courses didn’t recognize the role that Indian residents played in the state’s development. Lakota people were taught to be ashamed of themselves and their language. Red Owl’s work in education put her at the forefront of the resurgence in tribal nationalism in the 1970s, helping shape TCU’s focus on cultural teachings, Native language, and tribal sovereignty.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has demonstrated significant leadership in education not only with the founding of SGU, but also with the conversion of St. Francis Mission from a Jesuit-run K–12 system into a school governed by a tribally chartered parent organization. In 1992, the Sicangu Lakota became the first tribe to formally develop and legislate a tribal education code. Serving as the tribal education director, Red Owl initiated a partnership with the Native American Rights Fund, working closely with staff attorney Melody McCoy. The two facilitated community input, researched legal conditions and education rights, and created the Tribal Education Code, which the Rosebud Tribal Council adopted and the Tribal Education Department enforced. During this time, Red Owl obtained a second master’s degree in educational leadership, broadening her knowledge about leading educational change in our school systems.

Her efforts earned the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Education Department and the Tribal Education Code an Honoring Nations Award for advancing tribal sovereignty in education from the Kennedy School of Government’s Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. This was a highlight of her career and an accomplishment she is “particularly proud of,” she shares. “Lakota language instruction was not taking place in all schools when we started the tribal education department, but when I left, language instruction was taking place in all Todd County schools and at St. Francis. We also established an early childhood developmental delays and disabilities program to provide early intervention for infants and toddlers that is a model for tribal support of children with disabilities,” she says.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Red Owl to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education (NACIE), where she served as chair from 1995 to 2000. During that time, NACIE worked with other federal departments and the White House to develop the Presidential Executive Order on Indian Education. This was the first executive order of its kind and it served as the basis for the continuation of executive orders pertaining to Indian education, the most current of which is Executive Order 13592—“Improving American Indian and Alaska Native Educational Opportunities and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities.”

At the invitation of President Lionel Bordeaux, Red Owl returned to SGU to establish the Scott Bordeaux Leadership Institute. She is proud of the Institute on Land Management and Education and the university’s buffalo herd, believing that nation building means looking at all the things that make the Sicangu Lakota a unique nation—the land and the buffalo, the language, and the people’s ancestral form of governance. A long time ago, it was a shared government with shared decision-making. The people were consulted and leaders acted with compassion. Being compassionate meant the ability to listen to people, to be generous, to stand up for what the people believe, and to make decisions in a timely manner.

Red Owl says her goal is to build a nation where the people know where every child is and how every child is doing. Social interaction at community gatherings, school events, and in other settings inspires her and helps keep her focused on the well-being of children. Stands at Dawn Woman believes that our nations will not disappear if we work for the well-being of our children. A renowned bead and textile artist, a mother and grandmother, she values most highly that she has been able to live and work on the Rosebud reservation her entire life—giving herself to the people and receiving much love and support in return.

Cheryl Crazy Bull is president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund.

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