Cheyenne River Sioux/Iroquois
Alumni Spotlight: Stephen Brings Leadership Full-Circle
When Stephen (Cheyenne River Sioux/Iroquois) speaks, he radiates joy. A 2009 Oglala Lakota College graduate and a Coca-Cola First Generation Scholarship recipient with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, he says a college education at Oglala Lakota College is what helped him discover his culture so that he could provide for his family in a way that allows him to walk the path he was meant to walk.
Stephen was born on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to a young mother. His grandparents, both missionaries, raised him. His grandparents, who were raised in boarding schools that attempted to “assimilate” American Indians, were forbidden from practicing their culture when they were students, being told that that their Native culture, language, and traditions were evil. As a result, they were reluctant to share their culture with their grandson.
When Stephen was five, his family moved to Rapid City, South Dakota, where he met very few Native students and had only one Native American teacher when he was a freshman in high school. “She would talk to me about Native culture, but I felt I really didn’t know about who I was as a Lakota and what my identity held,” he says.
After experiencing some problems in school, Stephen's grandparents sent him to a private all-Indian Christian school for the next three years. “I got into both physical and verbal fights, and endured the famous put down, ‘You’re just an apple! You're red on the outside and white on the inside.’” Although he tried to ignore the taunts, he says it hurt because he felt the children were right. “I didn’t know anything about who I was! I was lost! I was confused about my future and really didn’t know what my purpose was. I learned so much about God and Christianity, but I never had a strong relationship with my creator. I starting partying with friends, thinking I could drink my issues of abandonment from my mother and father away. But I learned quickly that alcohol wasn’t the answer,” Stephen says.
He made a goal to finish high school, graduated as class salutatorian, started a family, and got a job at a car wash. There he wondered, “Is this it? Is this my story?”
One day at work after listening to a radio sermon about how people steer away from what the creator has planned for their lives, Stephen says it hit him that he had done just that. “Everything started to come together. I felt a calling to work with youth. A few days later I received a phone call from an organization that was putting together a program to help at-risk Native youth in our predominately Native American-populated schools. It was a sign from the creator. I took a job as a mentor, where I would be providing in-school support for the youth and facilitating a school program. They wanted me to teach culture!” he says.
Stephen felt reading books wasn’t enough to help him to teach his culture and he decided to check out Oglala Lakota College’s offerings. “The atmosphere when I walked into that building was beautiful. Everyone was smiling and the counselor that assisted me was so motivating.” But with a young family and little money, he says he didn’t know how he would pay for school.
“I was steered towards the American Indian College Fund and was told about the assistance I might qualify to receive. I still remember the day when the College Fund called and said, ‘Congratulations! You have received the Coca-Cola Scholarship.’ I was driving on the interstate and I was so excited I had to pull over,” he says.
Stephen credits the scholarship requirements for keeping him on the path to graduation from Oglala Lakota College and his tribal college education for opening his life to new possibilities by introducing him to his culture. “The doors and windows that have been opened for me are endless. I have learned so much about my culture through the teachings at my college. And with me expressing my culture proudly, I have seen my grandparents start to open up. A year after I started traditional dancing, both of my grandparents started to dance and bring those teachings that they kept locked inside for so long back to life. They tell me they feel more alive now than they ever have. I was not only inspiring the youth, but my grandparents as well,” he says.
Thanks to his coursework at Oglala Lakota College, Stephen can now speak Lakota with his grandfather and “I know who I am as a Lakota man. I have been trained as a leader...” Learning his language and culture not only gave Stephen back his sense of self, it gave him the world. “I’ve traveled to Greece, Italy, and Switzerland to share my cultural knowledge of song and dance, all thanks to the teachings at my tribal college,” he says. Today Stephen is a long way from that car wash. A father of three and a teacher, he oversees a million-dollar government grant to teach Native American culture and positive relationship skills for at-risk American Indian youth in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Stephen, who professes to having been lost, has come full-circle to help American Indian youth discover themselves through their heritage to flourish in both the Native and non-Native worlds. He is a role model to his elders and the next generation and has proven that tribal colleges produce leaders.