PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION -- They whisked the smoke from a burning sage bush into their faces and over their bodies with open hands and feathers.

"This is a ceremony passed on from our ancestors," Lakota studies teachers Roger White Eyes said, "to acknowledge the presence of the spirit."

Hundreds took part in the traditional Lakota smudging rite, part of the celebration Friday morning for the newly remodeled Red Cloud High School at Red Cloud Indian School.

Students prayed over the building at the beginning of the school year, and then spent part of Friday celebrating with a ribbon-cutting ceremony alongside donors, community members and out-of-town guests. In the crisp October air, the voices of elementary school students rose out over the school grounds as the crowd stood for the flag song, and the punctuated thuds of the high school's Mahpiya Luta Drum Group held a steady tempo during the smudging ceremony.

The $2.5 million addition and renovation marks a milestone in a five-year vision of growth for the school that includes increased graduation standards and an eventual overhaul and expansion of the Lakota language curriculum.

Norma Tibbitts, the chairwoman of the board of directors for the school, was honored to "witness the purification of this building and reflect on the journey that brought us here today."

Inside the entrance of the addition, visitors entered what high school principal Nick Dressel dubbed "the centerpiece" of the changes: a spacious student commons area named the Cuny Commons, in honor of Charles Cuny, a former teacher, coach and principal at the school.

"He was a man of outstanding integrity," said the Rev. Peter Klink, president of the school.

The focal point of the commons is an oversized stained-glass artwork by Angela Babby called "The Return of the White Buffalo Calf Woman." The artwork was commissioned for the commons and celebrates White Buffalo Calf Woman, who the Lakota say brought them the sacred pipe and taught them many of their traditional ways.

The rest of the 8,100-square-foot addition is dedicated to science and Lakota language classrooms and new offices for faculty and staff.

As students cross from one section of the building into another, they walk under the painted words "Woyuonihan" -- the Lakota phrase for "finding God in all things." Less permanent reminders of the school's Catholic and Lakota foundation show up in laminated neon sheets of paper translating common English words -- the exit sign, bathrooms, doors -- into the Lakota language to help students learn.

The building is eco-friendly, and the science laboratories are state-of-the-art, school officials said.

Better yet, the rooms are big, junior Kashmir Bettelyoun said.

"When they say spacious, they mean spacious," she said, after Friday's ceremony.

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Bettelyoun and several of her friends stopped in the commons to grab an apple from a fruit stand. Besides the extra space, the building has better lighting and air conditioning now, according to sophomores Marisa Snider and Kiaunna Big Crow.

Downstairs, new classrooms have been marked at the door with a dedication to a specific family or community member. Kelleigh Huff's science classroom has been named "The McLaughlin Classroom" for the lives of John and Chris McLaughlin and their children, and the family's commitment to education and social justice.

Down the hallway, one of the new laboratories bore the signs of students -- black aprons hung in the entrance, equipment was inside new cabinets lining the walls, and a large beaker sat half-full of a green liquid.

During the ceremony, Dressel thanked the students for their work.

"Because of your dedication to learning -- that is why Red Cloud exists."

Tibbitts urged them to continue their education.

"What an inspiration you are to me and my family and the thousands of people across the Black Hills and nation who hear the stories of success coming out of this school," she said. "Do not take education for granted."

Contact Kayla Gahagan at 394-8410 or kayla.gahagan@rapidcityjournal.com

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