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New Collegiate Program Is Science-Based & Founded on Lakota Philosophy

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Sierra Sattler
Sierra Sattler 
Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation

A new program launched by South Dakota State University in partnership with the Indian University of North America focuses on ecosystem sustainability from a Lakota perspective.

For the 10 percent of South Dakotans who are tribal members, the Black Hills are much more than an outdoor recreation hotspot. The Black Hills are where their origin story begins.

 “Wizipan…That’s the Lakota name and it translates into “the heart of everything that is.” And that’s why the course is where it is at. Because to the Lakota people, to the Northern Cheyenne, the Black Hills is where the center of the earth, the center of the universe, hence the origin story coming out of Wind Cave,” says Barry Dunn.

The course Barry Dunn, President of South Dakota State University references is the Wizipan Leadership and Sustainability Program. 

“Teaching is still grounded in science, grounded in thoughtful examination of things, usually in a scientific method, but respectful of their ideas and their cultural belief systems,” Dunn says.

A partnership between SDSU and the Indian University of North America of the Crazy Horse Memorial, the Wizipan program provides a semester-long immersive academic experience focused on ecosystem sustainability, grounded in Native American philosophy, and located just north of Custer within view of the Crazy Horse monument. 

“Pre-Colonization, the Black Hills took care of us and it provided everything we needed to live and that was something that I really liked that and I think we can learn from and draw from, not just for school but for life,” Jaycherie Little says. 

Jaycherie Little is one of 10 students to graduate from the first Wizipan class held fall semester 2020 on the campus of Indian University of North America. A member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, Little explains that as students engaged in courses focused on global food systems, leadership and American Indian studies, Tribal elders were invited to share their knowledge on Lakota culture and practices. 

“A lot of our teachings have been lost or they just don’t get passed on, so the people that know the most are really privileged in a way and it was really nice to learn about things that I didn’t know before,” Little says.

In addition to attending classes together, Little and the other Wizipan program students also lived in a dormitory and enjoyed meals together. Little says the supportive community this program provided was exactly what she needed to move forward in her academic career. Twice before enrolling in the Wizipan program, she attended university, but did not have the support she needed to complete her education. This time, she is determined to see her education plans through.

“It set me up toward finishing up my undergraduate degree. And it also has gotten me more interested in the sustainability of the medical field and also bringing indigenous practices back,” Little says.

Setting students up for success is an intentional outcome for the 15-credit program, explains Joshua Rudnik, Director of The Indian University of North America. 

“The program allows for students to be involved in an academic community that they don’t necessarily see at any other higher education institution…students are able to learn and live in a smaller community and build relationships that go beyond the program itself and the connections that will help them through their education and career,” Rudnik says. 

Students from seven native nations participated in the first Wizipan class. But the program is also open to students who are not tribal members - students interested in learning more about sustainability founded on Lakota tradition. This would describe Sierra Sattler, an SDSU sophomore studying ecology and environmental sciences with minors in sustainability and botany. 

Growing up in a rural community near the Standing Rock Reservation, Sattler says she was not exposed to Lakota culture until she took a Native American Studies class as a freshman at SDSU. So, she appreciated the opportunity to learn firsthand from her classmates and elders during Wizipan.

“It has really made me take a step back and realize that these people have a vibrant culture that we tried to erase. I think the real answer to some problems that we have, are reaching across to the other person and realizing that their thoughts have validity as well as your own and then finding a way to blend the two of them so both groups can be appreciated and represented,” Sattler says.

When Sattler started the program, she was a bit undecided about her career path. Today, because of the program, she is clear about the direction she wants her career to take. 

“An elder came in by the name of Linda Black Elk. She is an ethno botanist and so she studies how people use plants and how culturally, people use plants, so she came to our facility and taught us about different uses for different plants. I thought it was super fascinating. And I was like, man, if I can go in my life and do something similar, I think I would be super happy,” Sattler says.

Once her undergrad degree is complete, Sattler plans to pursue a master’s degree and perhaps a doctorate, so she can teach others. 

The application deadline for the second Wizipan Leadership and Sustainability Program is May 2nd.