Some of Vernon Ashley’s kids inherited his height.
Others got his natural athletic abilities.
But all seven of the Ashley children got something else that their 96-year-old father holds dear: a belief in the value of education.
Each of Vernon and Rose Marie Ashley’s offspring earned college degrees — and most of them got post-graduate degrees — at a time when few Native American students were even enrolling at universities. Higher education is a family tradition that the elder Ashley traces to his father, Wallace Ashley — who was born Tasunke Hinto -- His Gray Horses -- on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in 1872.
“My dad told me, ‘Son, get as much education as you can because you’re going to be living among the white man,'” said Ashley last week at his home north of Pierre.
Excelling in that world means getting a good education, Ashley would tell his own children a generation later. They listened.
• John “Tommy” Ashley, 64, is a top official with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Albuquerque.
• Jan Ashley, 63, Pierre, was a registered nurse before earning a master’s degree in administrative social work and retiring from a career in urban Indian health care.
• Wallace Ashley, 58, is an Albuquerque architect and the first Native American student to graduate in four years from the University of Nebraska.
• Mary Ashley, the artist of the family, has a degree in interior design from UNL.
• The late Bob Ashley was a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps who graduated from South Dakota State University with an engineering degree.
• Jim Ashley is a policeman with the Lincoln, Neb., Police Department.
• The baby of the family, Joe Ashley, 50, earned a sociology degree at South Dakota State University, where he also starred on the Jackrabbit basketball team. He lives in Pierre and works as an Indian Child Welfare Act specialist for the South Dakota Department of Social Services.
Jan Ashley called her dad’s message about the importance of a college education, combined with his lessons on a strong work ethic, “just this side of the fear of God, I would say. It was, ‘You’re going to have to make it on your own, because nobody’s going to do it for you.’”
Wallace Ashley recalls his father’s educational philosophy as a little more subtle, but “Clearly, there was a very clear message that college was the answer,” he said. “He taught us to follow your dream and just encouraged us to go out there and do the right thing.”
Vernon Ashley took his own advice when he enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University in 1951, at the age of 35. By then, he had served four years in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and been elected chairman of the Crow Creek Tribe, an office he held for eight years from 1946 to 1954. Despite those accomplishments, going to college made him nervous.
“It had been 15 years since I’d been in a classroom,” he said.
He graduated with a degree in business administration in three years by taking summer classes and continued as tribal chairman during his entire college career.
When it comes to great fatherhood role models, her dad is hard to beat, said Jan Ashley.
“My siblings and I often ask each other, 'How did they do this with seven children?'” Jan said. “He taught us that you can become what you want, if you work hard enough for it. Dad showed us what to do. He was a role model. How many people have a role model like that?”
Wallace Ashley remembers being encouraged to think bigger.
As a junior high student, he loved building elaborate structures out of toothpicks. When his father asked him what he wanted to do with his life, he told him he thought he’d be a carpenter. “He said, 'Why not be an architect?' He basically put the bug in my ear,” he said.
When he graduated from UNL in 1976, Wallace was the first Native student to finish a four-year degree on campus.
“There were definitely lonely times … but the only way I could get home was a 14-hour bus ride one way,” he said.
Failure wasn’t an option that his parents made possible.
“He always told us that anything you do wrong is going to be blamed on your race … and you can’t let that happen,” Wallace recalled.
Named for his paternal grandfather, Wallace owns a small architectural firm in Albuquerque, Sinkpe Architecture. The name translates to “muskrat” and was suggested by Vernon Ashley since muskrats are amazing lodge builders and because the name belonged to Wallace’s great-grandfather, Sinkpe.
Sinkpe and his brother were among the small band of Sioux Indians who were forcibly resettled near Fort Thompson by the U.S. government after the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 in Minnesota.
Sinkpe’s son, and Vernon's father, took the surname of one of the first Episcopalian missionaries to the Dakotas, Dr. Edward Ashley, when he was sent to Hampton, Va., to an Indian boarding school.
“Dad only spent not quite three years at school, but he came back with some progressive ideas,” Vernon Ashley said. His father was one of the first Native American ranchers on Crow Creek.
Chief among those ideas was that the reservation system would hold little opportunity for his descendants.
“My grandfather wanted his children to move off the reservation,” Wallace said. “He told my dad, your children have got to leave this place.”
Vernon Ashley has always been “an anomaly” of sorts among his ethnic group, his son Wallace said.
“He’s always been conservative. I wouldn’t necessarily say a staunch Republican … but he’s someone who believes that government isn’t necessarily the answer. He’s the reason we got off the reservation.”
Vernon Ashley is adamant that education, coupled with a culture of self-reliance, will be the salvation of Native American communities.
“All fathers should encourage their children to go on to higher education, and particularly Native American fathers should,” he said.
“What’s ruined our tribes is welfare. It’ll ruin any race, because you get paid for doing nothing and it kills personal initiative,” he said. “That I can’t see, staying on the reservation without anything to do. I’ve got a lot to tell about the jobs I had after I left the reservation.”
Ashley spent 10 years working on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation for the Bureau of Indian Affairs before the family moved to Pierre in 1965, when Ashley was hired by Gov. Nils Boe. He also worked in the administrations of Govs. Frank Farrar and Richard Kneip, a Democrat who soon took the Republican-affiliated Ashley off his staff.
In 1972, Ashley went to work as the two-state director of ACTION, a federal volunteer agency, just days before the 1972 Black Hills flood. “My first job there was the Rapid City flood. Man, talk about getting your feet wet,” he said.
Even at 96, the 6-foot-3 Ashley still cuts an imposing figure, with his full head of white hair and prominent Lakota features. He is also one of the last living fluent speakers of the traditional Dakota dialect, which he reads and writes. The dialect is no longer spoken even on the reservations. None of his children are fluent in Lakota, despite their father’s dinner-table attempts to teach them the language, Jan Ashley said.
“If you couldn’t say, ‘pass the salt’ in Sioux, you didn’t get the salt,” she said. “But my parents raised us to be strong individuals, too, so instead of learning the language, I figured out another way to get the salt.”
Their father passed on his Lakota heritage in other ways, including naming ceremonies for many of his children and grandchildren. Wallace, who stands 6-foot-7, has a Lakota name that translates to Knocks a Hole in the Sky.
“Dad named me in the car one day. He thought I was going to be the tallest one in the family, but my little brother Joe proved him wrong.”
At 6-foot-11, Joe Ashley played center on the 1979 state championship team at Pierre’s Riggs High School. He also claims the title as the tallest Ashley, but Jan said all of her brothers and sisters knew who was really in charge.
“My family nickname was Sarge. We grew up knowing I was the shortest, but I carried the big stick,” she said.
Grandpa Vernon also has bestowed Lakota names on Wallace’s children, Malia, 20, and Aidan, 18. And he gets credit for their lifelong love of Scouting.
“Dad brought Boy Scouting to Standing Rock,” he said. “He just single-handed said, I’m going to do this and he did. He recruited Scout leaders on the reservation, like the police chief.”
Wallace and both his children are still active in scouting – Aidan becomes an Eagle Scout right before his 18th birthday this month and Wallace works at the national level on outreach to Native Scouts. “So really, I’m carrying on Dad’s legacy with Scouts.”
Today, Ashley lives by himself on 10 acres of land he owns on Grey Goose Road a few miles north of Pierre.
His wife — who the family calls the “power behind the throne” — died in 2000. “Mom was the support structure that made it all work. She was the servant leader in our family,” Wallace said.
His daughter, Mary, lives nearby and he drives himself into Pierre for breakfast every morning at the Country Kitchen. He also keeps close tabs on the college and career plans of his grandchildren, including Aaron Ashley. Aaron was 2 years old when his father, Bob, died of an aggressive cancer that the family attributes to his Marine Corps service in Desert Storm. Aaron begins college at Massachusetts Institute of Technology later this summer.
“My children are all college-educated, and my grandkids, too,” Vernon Ashley said.
Today, he’ll call his sons to wish them a Happy’s Father’s Day. “I call them, because they’re the fathers now. I’m just an old grandfather.”