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Teaching, Learning and Serving on the Pine Ridge Reservation

February 6, 2018

Dr Trimble ClassroomLooking back on his experience seven years ago as a Fulbright Scholar teaching in Lithuania, Dr. John Trimble, Professor of Biology at Saint Francis University, knew he wanted to travel and immerse himself in a different culture again. For his sabbatical in the fall of 2017, Dr. Trimble researched and discovered a domestic nation that captured his interest. He chose to teach and learn at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. 

Oglala Lakota College places a strong emphasis on  trying to maintain their language and their culture for future generations, all while preparing students for a multicultural world. At the college, Dr. Trimble taught Human Biology. It’s the same class offered at Saint Francis, and it’s a course taken by social work majors at both institutions. The education went both ways, as Dr. Trimble also took classes at the college in Historical Geology and Lakota Culture.

Oglala Lakota College LogoSimilar to the Franciscan Goals of Higher Education, the Lakota Values guide all activities at Oglala Lakota College. They include:

  • Respect (Wowacintanka) for one another starts with listening. In order for an oral tradition to work, the people need to listen to their elders  sharing their knowledge. As Dr. Trimble learned “When the elders speak, you listen.”

  • Bravery (Woohitika) - The Lakota have one of the highest military enlistment rates of any minority. When Dr. Trimble asked why this is they said “We’re a warrior culture. We don’t want to miss a fight.”

  • Generosity (Wacantognaka) - It is common tradition for hundreds of people to line up to join in meals together. A shared meal may consist of a soup, fry bread and wojapi, a fruit pudding. Nothing is asked of anyone.

  • Fortitude (Wacintaka) - Life is really tough on the reservation. Life expectancy for men is 49 and for women it’s 51. This is the lowest in the western hemisphere.  Fortitude is a virtue for a people who have faced genocide. They said “We’re still here.”  

  • Wisdom (Woksape) - The elders are the ones that maintain the memories. Their words  for library, ‘Woksape tipi” translates to “wisdom house”.

Star QuiltPine Ridge Indian reservation is an extremely poor area, but they don’t like to be characterized by poverty. Status is not measured by what you own, but by what you give away. 

Almost every day, Dr. Trimble and his wife went for a peaceful walk on the prairie. He recalls, “It’s a very different environment from Pennsylvania.” The local national park was the Badlands National Park. The rocks contain iconic layers of volcanic material. These are the richest fossil beds for studying mammalian evolution in the world. They also spent time exploring some of the seven sacred sites of the Lakota.

On his last day at Oglala Lakota College, the President, faculty and staff presented Dr. Trimble with a handmade star quilt, in a traditional Lakota design. Four men sang a Lakota honoring song and every person in the school came forward to shake Dr. Trimble’s hand and give a touching goodbye.