The Lakota Leadership and Management Program at Oglala Lakota College (OLC) was created with ceremony and is based on OLC’s philosophy of Wolakolkiciyapi: learning Lakota ways of life in the community and rebuilding the nation through education. The Lakota ounye (way of life) is rooted in the tradition of waunsila yuha mani (looking out for the most pitiful of people), which often includes children and the elderly. For the past two decades, the OLC Lakota Leadership and Management Program has operated with the mission of engaging and educating local residents to be agents of cultural and social change on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The program aims to teach members of the Lakota Nation to embrace the personal traditional values of being wao’holoa (respectful), wowachinye (responsible), wasagye (confident), watakuku’ka (good relatives), owo’than’la (honest), Itanyan (proud), and, most importantly, chanku luta akan mani (spiritual).
On a professional level, the program was created to teach the learned skills of being yat’insya woglake (articulate), lakhotiyapi na wasicuiyapi (bilingual), lakhol wichoun wasolye (culturally competent), wounspe wayuphike (academically proficient), wounspe omnaye wayuphike (technologically literate), katinya woiyukcan (critical thinkers), iyo’tan iya’chin’yan (role models), and thokatakiya ithanchan (future leaders). Embodying these personal and professional characteristics is essential for enabling individuals to be effective agents of social change within their communities. It is also essential for the survival and prosperity of the Lakota people.
Pine Ridge is a historically significant place, but it is also ground zero for poverty and numerous other social issues. The wise elders and scholars agreed that visionary, traditional leadership was needed to lead the people out of these desperate conditions. The Lakota Leadership and Management Program, along with its sister program, the Lakota Leadership Education Administration Emphasis Program, has matriculated 105 graduates since its inception. In the tribal college system the OLC Lakota Leadership and Management Program is one of only two that offers a master’s degree.
A Lakota leader lives, takes action, and works for the people, rather than above them.
The roots of the program go back to 1991, when OLC applied for and received a five-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to create the Manager as Warrior Program, the predecessor of the Lakota Leadership and Management Program. A group of Lakota scholars and elders spent four years developing the program. In a report to the Kellogg Foundation, the program’s first director, Eileen H. Iron Cloud, noted that this group of scholars and elders conducted research on leadership and Lakota values, enabling them to develop seminars, curriculum, and syllabi for the program.
The researchers concluded that according to Lakota tradition, a leader lives, takes action, and works for the people, rather than above them. The founders stated that a “Lakota leader stands in front of anything bad that is coming to the people” (Begay, et al., 1995). Therefore it is the mission of OLC and the program to produce graduates able to provide services according to the traditional leadership values of the Lakota. This leadership style is not driven by personal gain, but rather relies on making decisions based on their impact on future generations, which is the essence of survival for the Lakota and all Native people.
In 2000, the college’s Department of Graduate Studies began offering the Lakota Leadership and Management Education Administration Emphasis Program (LMEA), which has conferred 47 master’s degrees since its inception. Of these graduates, current ly one is a school superintendent, 12 are licensed principals, five are licensed teachers, and 15 are education department directors. On June 21, 2016, three more master’s degrees in LMEA were awarded, bringing the total to 53 graduates. Demographically, 75% of the students in the program are female and the average age is 45. Roughly 70% are first-generation college graduates and many have aspirations to stay and help their communities. Graduates are humble and hardworking, always looking for ways to help people.
Despite efforts to assimilate the Lakota, the people have exhibited fortitude in maintaining their traditional ways of leadership. Prior to the LMEA program, Lakota culture and language was virtually nonexistent in Pine Ridge reservation schools. Now, the change in leadership in the school system is evident in unexpected ways. In the morning, one can smell sage and sweet grass in the hallways and one can hear Lakota prayer songs in the schools throughout the day. During basketball season, when arch rivals Pine Ridge High School and Little Wound High School competed, the Little Wound girls’ team gathered in a circle before the game and began singing a prayer song for their Pine Ridge rivals who had recently lost a student to suicide.
Prosocial behavior is altruism, which is looking out for others’ needs rather than one’s own. Such behavior is salient in the Lakota ounye. Tony Ten Fingers, from Oglala, South Dakota, says: “We need to think of others and of ensuing generations. We need to redefine real leadership. We have been trained to not think of others and this is the raging sea that surrounds us” (personal communication, 2016).
Historically, the Lakota were not driven by material wealth and are known to give freely to others. It is a primary tradition of the Lakota to show humility and generosity. In their paper, “Healers and Helpers, Unifying the People,” Gambrell and Fritz (2012) show that the characteristics of humility and generosity are among the Lakota’s greatest leadership virtues. Through participation and interaction with their tiospaye (extended family) and ospaye (community), many of the OLC graduates have developed a social network of trust, bonding, and belonging. Through a process of giving and helping people in everyday life, they have developed social capital. Mata and Pendakur (2014) state that this is important to ensure collective action and bridging with other tiospayes. This process of giving and the formation of social capital is reciprocated on an individual and collective basis. A Lakota leader has a vision for the future, knows traditional ways, shares and develops leadership, serves and protects the tribal community, develops trust, and shows respect for all tribal people. Mata and Pendakur further state that Native communities are centered on culture, spirituality, language, and stories. They are not centered on financial profit, politics, or religion. These elements of culture are important for explaining the practice of Lakota leadership.
The leadership that is developed through study in the master’s programs at OLC is currently being felt in tribal programs, tribal government, and reservation schools. The knowledge and skills provided are affecting all inhabitants of the Pine Ridge reservation. With the experience that OLC has received in providing these degrees, we now look forward to the development of leadership programs in new fields. Such programs are an example of the retention of cultural values in the contemporary world.
Richard Iron Cloud (Lakota) is chair of the Department of Graduate Studies at Oglala Lakota College.
Begay, M., Iron Cloud, E.H., One Feather, G., Randell, M., Robertson, P., Star, E., Thurner, J., White Elk, C., White Plume, A., White Plume, D., & Whirlwind Horse, L. (1995). He Holds the People in His Heart: AStudy of Lakota Values and Leadership. An original research project conducted on the Pine Ridge reservation with the Oglala Lakota people.
Gambrell, K.M., & Fritz, S.M. (2012). Healers and Helpers, Unifying the People: A Qualitative Study of Lakota Leadership. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 19(3), 315–325.
Mata, F., & Pendakur, R. (2014). Social Capital, Diversity and Giving or Receiving Help among Neighbors. Social Indicators Research, 118(1), 329–347.