The movement for educational equity within Lakota communities in South Dakota is all about self-determination. Students and their families are leading the charge for sovereignty over the education system.
The opportunities in South Dakota appear to be as endless as our state’s enormous sky. U.S. News and World Report ranked South Dakota as the 15th best state to live in, with a top five quality of life ranking. For kids and families living in the nine sovereign nations that lie within the borders of the state of South Dakota, however, the sky looks much smaller, and that distant horizon of possibilities much closer. Many Lakota families on the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Standing Rock Reservations struggle with issues of employment, housing, and healthcare, and the educational landscape is in stark contrast with that of the state's more affluent communities. Fewer than 10 percent of Native adults hold a bachelor's degree, and among students living on reservations, less than one in three reads on grade level. High school graduation rates for Native kids in South Dakota struggles to exceed 50 percent, while 90 percent of their white peers graduate from high school, a virtual guarantee. But statistics and poverty are not destiny—it is within our collective power to move the systems that perpetuate poverty and squander the potential of our state’s First Nations.
The communities in our region have a rich and diverse history. Despite a legacy of attacks on Oceti Sakowin land, language, and traditions, their culture remains a vibrant and powerful force in the state of South Dakota. Resistance against oppressive practices in our communities has been strong—from Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull to the American Indian Movement to present-day initiatives. Tribal officials and community and spiritual leadership have been working against these challenges along with off-reservation political leaders. There is still much work to be done to ensure all Lakota students on South Dakota’s reservations receive the kind of education that will enable them to practice self-determination.