Dr. Harriett Skye
Lakota, Standing Rock
Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Harriett Skye Follows Education Full-Circle
Dr. Harriett Skye (Lakota, Standing Rock) achieved a lot in her lifetime before retiring from United Tribes Technical College. In addition to her many accomplishments, she earned a Ph.D. in ethnic studies (emphasis on Native American Studies) and directed a documentary film, “The Right to Be,” an autobiographical story about her journey as an American Indian woman on the pathway of self-awareness and higher education. The film was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994.
Reflecting back, Skye is filled with gratitude for those who helped her on her educational path. She credits her success to more than just hard work and lucky breaks and believes everyone she needed in life was put in front of her for a reason.
Harriett Skye started her educational journey on the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota. With only a high school diploma, she went to work for Josephine Kelly, the tribe’s chairperson. Later, she became a tribal community coordinator and editor of the tribal newspaper, Standing Rock Star. In 1974 she moved to Bismarck, North Dakota because her son wanted to be an engineer and needed to study trigonometry and calculus, but his school at Standing Rock did not offer the courses.
There Skye took a job at United Tribes Technical College, where she directed the Office of Public Information. She served as editor of United Tribes News, the college’s monthly newspaper, and hosted radio and television shows. Her program “Indian Country Today” aired from 1973 to1984 on the local NBC affiliate, KFYR-TV. The bi-weekly, half-hour interview program placed prominent Indians before the public to talk about issues from a tribal point of view, earning her a loyal following among tribal and non-tribal viewers. Among the accolades she cherishes is one from a fellow broadcaster who said, “Skye is bringing Native people into the homes of an audience that wouldn’t allow an Indian into their living room.”
Talking and writing about issues led to involvement in civil rights. Skye served on the North Dakota advisory board to the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights and worked to further Indian Education Act legislation. In Denver and Washington, D.C., she participated in hearings on employment discrimination that led to studies of the issue. Her involvement brought death threats, which she accepted as coming “with the territory.”
In 1984, Skye entered a new era in her life. “Motherhood as I knew it was over. As a graduation gift I took my daughter to Washington, D.C. I introduced her to a lot of people, including the former Commissioner of Indian Affairs. On the plane home she said, ‘I have a job in Washington.’ I fought it and refused to let her go, but in the end I realized I couldn’t stop her. But I was hanging onto her leg at the airport!” she laughs. “The consolation was she went to live with her brother and his family.”
After her daughter left, Skye said, “It seemed all I could do in North Dakota was done. Reaganomics impacted funding for programs I worked on and they ended. So I was out of a job and didn’t have an education. I was so glad when my high school burned down because their records burned with them,” she chuckled.
“That summer I drove to Quebec City and presented a paper along with other Native women at a university. My daughter called and said ‘You’re just a little way from Washington. Why don’t you come and see me?’” Skye says. It was not a short distance, but she went anyway.
She decided to move to Washington and found a job. Later she was fired from the position and went into a tailspin. “I had never been fired in my life. I went on unemployment and was sitting at my kitchen table crying and praying. I was 55, too young to retire, and too old to train. I couldn’t find a job. I picked up the phone book and called Northern Virginia Community College,” she says.
After speaking with the school's director of counseling and inquiring whether they had programs for people over 50, she told him, “Don’t ask me any questions because I don’t have any answers.”
She was surprised to learn the school was only two blocks away. She made an appointment to visit and learned that her work experience would give her a semester’s worth of credits, so she filled out an application.
Skye says the counselor was instrumental in her life. “‘If you could be anything in your life and didn’t have to worry about being paid, what would you do?’ he asked me. He also told me that an education is an investment in myself, and no one will ever be able to take an education away from you. I told him I’d be the oldest Indian woman in the U.S. paying back student loans,” she laughs, adding, “I paid it all back, too.”
Skye went on to New York University (NYU) to finish her bachelor’s degree. Education was always a spiritual need for her, Skye explains, and she had a hunger for what she was learning. “I couldn’t quit. I don’t know how else to explain it. I had to go to class. One spring day I wanted to sit and let the sun warm me and enjoy every minute of it. I lay on the bench in the park. Then I started thinking about the cost per credit hour. I couldn’t stay there and got up and went to class. After class, I passed the park where I had been and saw the police had cordoned off the area by the bench with yellow police tape. Four students had been killed there. A woman’s accelerator had stuck. The accident happened five minutes after I left.”
Skye says she loved her time in New York. It was there she met other Native filmmakers and produced and directed her film with the help of Stefano Saraceni, a filmmaker and friend. “The students at NYU were upset when they thought they had the most incredible education but knew nothing about Native Americans. A kid from New Jersey said to me, ‘I thought we killed all of you a long time ago.’ In the evening they would come into my room and ask me questions, and I would teach an informal class, sometimes for an hour or two, sometimes three. I was like the resident grandmother.”
In 1997, Skye was accepted at the University of California-Berkeley as a graduate student in Ethnic Studies. But in December of that year she received the telephone call that every mother dreads. Her eldest son had colon cancer and only had a few months to live. She quit writing and delayed her studies to be with him. After his passing, she says American Indian colleagues who worked with her on a spiritual basis encouraged her to return to Berkeley.
There she received help on her dissertation from Professor Ronald Takaki. Part of her film touched on the loss of 55,000 acres of land at Standing Rock due to construction of a dam on the Missouri River. “He told me to go home and write five pages about that. I went home and wrote 20 and cried and cried. I didn’t realize the emotional impact that event had on me. The food, the animals that lived on the river bottom, everything was gone. I told him the next time I saw him that I was an emotional mess. He told me to write about it because there was great passion there,” she says, noting that’s how she found her dissertation topic.
Skye’s 2003 dissertation offered what she calls the “Iktomi Paradigm.” Iktomi is the trickster, a spider that can take on different identities in Lakota myth and legend. Examining the loss of land at Standing Rock to the Oahe Reservoir, her work describes how government agencies and bureaucracies from Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have dispossessed tribes of their land and natural resources. That the trickster has not been able to make Indians vanish entirely is because of their language, customs, and humor, she asserts.
Skye next returned to United Tribes at the invitation of Dr. David M. Gipp, the college president. As vice president of Intertribal Programs she supervised six programs and served on the college’s administrative council helping to guide policy and make key organizational decisions.
Now retired, when looking back at the path she took, Dr. Skye says, “It is spiritual. Everything and everyone that I needed was put right in front of me.” She credits many people and organizations along the way for helping her to stay on track and achieve her goals. “I was a Mellon Fellow through the American Indian College Fund, and without it I would never have been able to finish my education. I was at a standstill, out of money. I always will be grateful because that pushed me over the top. And they didn’t care how old I was, either,” she laughs.