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From its title onward, “Without Reservation” is a book that invites debate about the past, present and future of Native Americans.

The book's author, Sean Flynn, aimed for more than a biography of the late Ben Reifel, who is so far the only Native American to represent South Dakota in Congress. Flynn wants the book to start a dialogue about Reifel’s controversial philosophy on Indian affairs.

A main tenet of that philosophy, according to Flynn, was Reifel’s belief that until more Native Americans voluntarily leave reservations and join mainstream society, too many of them will remain trapped by poverty and its attendant social problems.

Flynn depicts Reifel as a man who devoted his life to proving, by his own example, that Native Americans could leave reservations and become successful while retaining their racial and cultural identities.

Reifel was born in 1906 in a log cabin on the Rosebud Indian Reservation to a traditional Lakota mother and a German-American father. Reifel's father admonished him to “be on time, work hard, and save money,” and Reifel adhered to that mantra while serving in World War II, earning a doctoral degree from Harvard, climbing the leadership ladder in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and winning election to Congress as a Republican. He died in 1990.

Flynn, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe like Reifel, is a history professor at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell and was previously an educator at St. Labre Indian School on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.

Following are excerpts from an interview with Flynn about his new book and the issues it raises. The book is published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press.

How did you become interested in Ben Reifel?

About 2012, I was approached to consider writing an essay on Native Americans in politics for a book on political culture (that book is “The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture,” Volume 2). And I thought, well, there had been no serious research that had been done on Reifel in about 25 years.

Once I realized there was a book-length story here that was controversial — because he was controversial in his lifetime — and a story that would provide an alternative to some of the tone and theme of a lot of Native American history that was being written in the last 40 or 50 years, in which the focus was on Native Americans as victims instead of agents of history, and Native Americans as activists instead of administrators and public servants, I thought this would be a good counterweight to some of that historiography, which, to me, was getting tired.

Having Native American ancestry yourself, did you relate to Reifel personally?

I felt most connected to Ben as I was writing this book when he would share with audiences his views on Indian education. And the reason that was personal to me is because I worked for nine years on an Indian reservation in Montana as an educator.

I saw so much talent and hope and dreams among the students I worked with, and too often that talent was not allowed to thrive, and the hopes were dashed and the dreams were crushed, because these young people chose to stay on the reservation, or felt compelled to return to the reservation after they went to college, or felt compelled not even to leave the reservation — they felt that in leaving the reservation, they were denying their heritage or renouncing their heritage in some way.

Your book includes frequent uses of words such as acculturation, integration and segregation, and those can all be loaded words in discussions of Indian affairs. Are you worried that you might be putting a target on your back?

Yes. I knew when I was writing a book that was going to express Ben’s philosophy of Indian affairs that I was going to be associated with that philosophy and with that vision. And to a certain degree, I do associate with it, based on my experiences working in Indian Country, and based on my own belief that integration is not a bad thing, that acculturation is not a bad thing.

All Americans, regardless of who they are, whatever their racial legacy or heritage, have to acculturate and assimilate to mainstream American institutions and values. That doesn’t mean you renounce your ethnic identity. 

What Ben called the “Indian personality” can survive the acculturation/integration process. He retained his Indian personality. He remained bilingual. He remained well-versed in the history and culture of the Lakota people. His pride in his race was not reduced by his acquisition of those tools that one needs to succeed in white society.

Do you think some Native Americans might consider you an example of somebody who has lost connections to your Native American heritage? In other words, are you an example of what some Native Americans fear will happen if they move way from reservations?

I suppose I can see them saying that, but let me tell you what Ben would say. Ben would say you can move away from the reservation and move out of the reservation culture — and reservation culture is not the same as tribal culture. Reservation culture is a hybrid culture. It’s an effort to retain traditions, but doing so in an urban ghetto environment, where you have all the social and economic problems you would have in an urban ghetto. You have them on reservations, and American Indians know that. The failure of educational institutions, the failure of health institutions on reservations, law enforcement institutions, political institutions, are part of our way of life in South Dakota in this day and age.

To those who say that in order to retain Indian culture you must live on the reservation, I would say there are forces at work on the reservation that are destroying that culture.

Does our current system of reservations, Indian hospitals and Indian schools amount to segregation?

In Reifel’s opinion, American Indians’ deliberate decision to continue segregating themselves on reservations as a means of rekindling or preserving traditional Indian culture was fraught with failure. He referred to reservations as psychologically confining political institutions. Reservation borders acted like Berlin walls, and they trapped their residents in this 19th century frame of mind that was conserving practices and traditions that were not compatible with modern society.

So, if one voluntarily chooses to stay in that environment, Ben said that’s fine. The age of forcibly removing American Indians is over, and Ben was a fierce defender of the Indian land base. In his positions with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he never advocated the forcible removal or relocation of any American Indian, but he warned American Indians that if you choose to voluntarily segregate yourself, the result will be poor schools, poor hospitals, ineffective courts, crime, alcohol abuse, high teenage pregnancy rates, all of these things.

Why did you choose “Without Reservation” as the title of the book? (The full title is “Without Reservation: Benjamin Reifel & American Indian Acculturation.”)

I chose that title because it captures that idea of a world without reservations, or at least the poverty-oppressed reservations that we characterize as reservations. Additionally, the title describes Ben’s resolve and his strength of character, because to say “without reservation” also means without regret. And he had no regrets for the controversial positions he took on a range of issues regarding Indian Country.

There was a large segment of the American Indian population that did not like Ben. He was a Republican, he dressed like a white man, he talked like a white man, he chose the white man’s path, he married a white woman, he had integrated and acculturated into American society. But in labeling all those things and labeling him an “apple Indian” (“red” on the outside, “white” on the inside), they were overlooking the fact that he was bilingual, versed in his culture, versed in his history, and convinced that American Indians could retain their personality, their values, their traditions, and do it off the reservation.

Wouldn't some Native Americans say that Reifel's faith in integration ignored the reality of racism among whites?

I don’t know. I’m a native South Dakotan, and I think South Dakotans are a tolerant people. I think we respect hard work, we respect conservative rural values, we’re patriotic people, and anybody who fulfills the general expectations we have for being a good South Dakota citizen is embraced by all South Dakotans. How else could Ben Reifel have been elected to office in a district (located in East River at the time) where there were only 4,000 American Indians?

Why don't any politicians espouse Ben Reifel’s views anymore?

In close elections in South Dakota — and we may be in for a razor-thin election for governor — who wants to alienate the Indian vote? John Thune lost in 2002 in a very close election because of the vote in Indian Country. So I think the thoughts of a lot of South Dakota politicians when it comes to Indian affairs are guarded. They choose their language carefully. They may not want to be candid about what they feel are necessary lifestyle reforms that must occur if standards of living are going to improve on reservations.

Why hasn’t there been another Ben Reifel?

I think the generation of Native Americans that is in college as we speak will produce another Ben Reifel. In the course of writing this book, I’ve met some really bright, young Native American students who seem to have all the skills necessary for success in whatever field they go into, and we’re at a moment in the political history of this country where we are hungry for genuine, sincere political leadership. I believe there’s some young Ben Reifel out there on the horizon — whoever he or she is — and I would love before I die to be able to say that my governor is an American Indian.

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills." Receiving encrypted news tips through Peerio with the user name seth_tupper.