Prairie Sage Endowment dawns

Scholarship searching for storytellers in an effort to preserve Native American cultures

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A bison in Badlands, South Dakota. Philosophy, religion and classics professor David O’Hara, founder of the Prairie Sage Endowment, often leads students to the Badlands to study astronomy and Native American history. Photo by David O’Hara.


 Philosophy, religion and classics professor David O’Hara is looking for a few good storytellers.

He broke ground on his search by beginning the Prairie Sage Endowment, a scholarship which provides resources to Native American students with a desire to tell the story of their people.

It is a small but potential start in helping preserve Native American culture, O’Hara said, emphasizing that the intent of the endowment is to offer help without forcing it upon or tokenizing a student.

“If Native American students want it, I want to offer it to them to enable them to serve their community, which I consider to be the community of my neighbors,” he said.

The endowment grew out of him over a long period of time. Growing up in New York state, he studied Native American 

history in middle school. New York State requires students to study the cultures present before Europeans arrived.

He learned about Native American practices, economic structure, wars and traditions, but always through a European lens. He never heard stories from Native Americans themselves.

“This meant we did not learn anything about Native American art or about their place and relationship to the cosmos and nature,” O’Hara said.

He said he kept this sentiment with him when he moved to South Dakota to teach at Augustana. And when the dispute over the Dakota Access Pipeline began on the Standing Rock Reservation, it pushed him “to offer his neighbors help,” he said.

“I thought, ‘Here are a people who are trying to tell a story about themselves and the land that matters to them,’” he said. “Economically and legally they are overpowered, but they are still doing a remarkable job of storytelling—the dancing, the praying, the gathering together and sharing meals and living spaces. It was all pretty remarkable.”

He said he chose to use the resources he has available as an academic to help Native Americans tell their stories and bring the skills they gathered in school back to their families on the reservation.

During his first year at Augustana, he took a group of students to the Pine Ridge Reservation over fall break. There, they spent the weekend living on the reservation and completing service projects. But He learned from the elders that the service projects were not that important, that they did not need people to come serve for them.

“The elders said they wanted people to come listen to them and be with them,” O’Hara said. “They said they did not feel incapable. And from what I saw, I agree—they are capable. They are not waiting for white saviors to come in and build stuff for them.”

“They need Lakota lawyers who work on the reservation full-time and who do not have to worry about how they are going to pay off their law school debt. They need Lakota teachers dedicated to living and teaching the stories of the reservation.”

His family and another family that wishes to remain anonymous donated to help found the endowment.

He said that any Native American student can access the endowment, but he hopes teachers, lawyers, journalists and artists specifically are recipients.

“From my limited knowledge of the world, I understand there are certain disciplines that are geared toward storytelling—journalists, people who study creative writing, historians,” he said. “Attorneys do a certain kind of storytelling focused on the legal world.”

The ultimate goal, he said, is to allow large numbers of Native American students to access higher education, support groups and flexibility at Augustana free of charge.

But it will take years, he said. Right now, the endowment has around $30,000 invested in the stock market, which generates around $2,000 for scholarships. In addition to that, O’Hara said his family and the anonymous family that helped found the endowment will also offer Native American students another $2,000 in direct scholarship as the endowment grows.

 Native Americans are and have been an underrepresented demographic on campus for a number of factors, O’Hara said, one being the strong family bond present in Native American families.

“We have moved Native Americans around then have isolated them on reservations,” he said. “And in many First Nations, proximity to family matters tremendously. The family structure is still a very strong and important thing, and that’s not surprising, given what Native Americans had to endure at the hands of European immigrants.”

Vice President for Enrollment Nancy Davidson added that Augustana’s size is another factor. Because it is a small university, it lacks resources to attract Native American students. More often, the university is overshadowed by University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University, which are larger and have more resources to go around.

“Some schools have done a better job,” Davidson said. “In our experience, Native American students have offers from all over the country free of charge. It’s a challenge but not one we should shy away from.”

O’Hara listed academic and financial disenfranchisement, harsh land rights laws and substance abuse as other factors holding Native Americans back from accessing higher education.

“We want to empower people to be better at telling their stories,” O’Hara said. “There has been so much loss of culture, loss of history, loss of stories. We don’t want to see more of that loss. We’d like to see people prepared to preserve the stories there and tell them well.”


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