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Learning on the Reservation

News Feature

News & Events

March 4, 2012

As part of the President's Distinguished Speaker Series, Valentina Merdanian, director of institutional relations at Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota, spoke on campus about her school and issues surrounding Native American reservations, such as poverty.

A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Ms. Merdanian is a lifelong resident of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, an impoverished two million acres of land where her school is located. Average household income on the reservation is estimated at around $6,200, while more than 80 percent remain unemployed.

Yet, despite financial woes, Ms. Merdanian said her school provides children with a quality education. It graduates nearly 100 percent of the student body annually, many of whom go on to earn higher degrees. "We are a small miracle with what we do each day," she told the crowd of campus and community members gathered in the Horace Mann auditorium.

A primary mission of Red Cloud, which hosts more than 600 K-12 students in three schools, is to help the students grow academically and spiritually, said Ms. Merdanian. "We offer not just an education of the mind, but of the heart, as well," she said.

For their part, Ms. Merdanian said the students enjoy attending school, seeing their education as something that will benefit their loved ones in the long run. "They don't just see school as a door of opportunity for themselves, but as a way to help their families, communities and tribes," she said. "It becomes our responsibility to make that dream become possible."

As with Ms. Merdanian, students often return to the reservation after earning higher degrees to offer their services to the community for little or no cost. "It's an honor to come back and work with our people," said Ms. Merdanian.

Ms. Merdanian is a founding director for the Pine Ridge area Chamber of Commerce and lead consultant of marketing and development for Native Discovery, a partnership between South Dakota's three largest reservations -- Cheyenne River, Pine Ridge and Rosebud -- that aims to boost the reservations' economies. In 2010, she was selected as a member of the first cohort of the Bush Foundation's Native Nation Rebuilders, a two-year program recognizing emerging Native-American leaders.

Ms. Merdanian was accompanied to campus by several other representatives from her school: Tashina Banks, Colleen McCarthy, Robert Brave Heart and Father George Winzenburg.

Part of Ms. Merdanian's talk focused on Native American's conflicted history with the U.S. government, such as issues with land ownership, religion and education.

In her emotional concluding remarks, Ms.Merdanian discussed the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, where a U.S. cavalry fired on a group of 350 Lakota camped near a creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Estimated death tolls for the Lakota range from 150 to 300 men, women and children, and 25 U.S. soldiers were also killed.

Ms. Merdanian's great grandfather was a survivor of that massacre and passed on to his descendants the idea of offering forgiveness, something Ms. Merdanian said is valuable in her line of work. "If we can forgive," she said, "then we can educate." (Rob Matheson, '07, University Advancement)

Part of Valentina Merdanian's talk.



Valentina Merdanian explains the meaning of the "medicine wheel" and details the incident at Wounded Knee.

Valentina Merdanian

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