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Rapid City's first Indigenous-led school opens

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Rapid City's first Indigenous-led, community-based school opened Tuesday with a grand ceremony at Camp Mni Luzahan, welcoming 35 kindergarten students to the program after several years of planning.

Oceti Sakowin Community Academy will temporarily hold classes at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church until a permanent structure can be built. Classes officially begin Wednesday. The Lakota-based school begins with one class of kindergarten students, with plans to building a new grade level each year.

The school has been in the works for two years, OSCA Board Chair Bino Garcia said, with hopes that the South Dakota Legislature would allow for funding. That hasn't happened.

South Dakota law does not allow for public charter schools, despite three attempts by state lawmakers to bring legislation forward to fund Indigenous Oceti Sakowin schools.

Instead, private funding from NDN Collective and affiliating with the Native American Community Academy (NACA) in Albuquerque as well as the NACA Inspired Schools Network (NISN) have brought the Oceti Sakowin Community Academy to realization, through the work of Mary Bowman, lead designer for the school and a member of NISN.

"Today is a true blessing, and it was a long, hard fellowship for Mary, the NDN Collective team and NISN," Garcia said. "We created this school from the ground up — from facilities, to the funding, to the curriculum, to operations."

Bowman said the development of the school has been a labor of love and respect for Lakota traditions.

Mary Bowman

Mary Bowman, lead designer of the Oceti Sakowin Community Academy and a member of NACA Inspired Schools Network, speaks Tuesday during the opening ceremony for the new school at Camp Mni Luzahan near Rapid City.

"We've been planning for two years," Bowman said. "It seems like a long time, but we know that our ancestors and many before us — that is what they have wanted for a long time... The day is here and we're here to celebrate it, to celebrate our children that are attending the school, the families and also to offer gratitude for all of those that have helped in some way along the way."

South Dakota’s Indigenous students have disproportionately lower rates of graduation, achievement and social mobility, as well as being disproportionately and more harshly disciplined in schools than non-Indigenous students. For years these issues have largely gone unrecognized and unaddressed without sustainable solutions, organizers said.

Although the school's main function is to build educational equity for Indigenous students, Oceti Sakowin will be open to children of all races. The community school’s curriculum combines the necessary statewide content standards with Indigenous culture, language, ancestral knowledge, history and traditional lifestyles.

The main difference from a regular school is the incorporation of the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings, which are recognized content standards by the state that encompass Lakota history, culture, language and land.

State Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, spearheaded the mission to try and get state funding for Oceti Sakowin schools. He was successful in the state Senate, but the legislation was blocked for the third time in 2022 by the state House of Representatives Education Committee.

Troy Heinert

State Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, provided words of encouragement Tuesday during the opening ceremony of Oceti Sakowin Community Academy.

"The toughest days I had in the Legislature was when our bill would go down," a visually emotional Heinert said Tuesday. "We worked very, very hard and I cannot thank you all enough... For years, they've always tried to keep us down, but we are a resilient people. And despite their lack of effort, we did it anyway."

Sarah White, executive director of the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition, said the opening of Oceti Sakowin Community Academy is a historic day for Lakota culture and education.

Sarah White

Sarah White, executive director of the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition, speaks Tuesday during the opening of Oceti Sakowin Community Academy.

"Today is a really powerful day because once upon a time in history, our grandmas and grandpas were told they couldn't go to a school like this. They were told that the only thing they can learn about themselves has to be from someone from (a different) culture. That was really hard," White said.

"Today's the day that we reject that and we get to sit in the strength and courage of those first grandmas and grandpas who were told this wasn't important. And we get to reclaim and heal our whole entire family, starting with ourselves."

Nick Tilsen, president/CEO of NDN Collective and a board member for Oceti Sakowin Community Academy, said his organization is in full support of the school and the educational footprint it will provide for future Indigenous leaders.

NIck Tilsen

NDN Collective President/CEO Nick Tilsen speaks at the opening ceremony of Oceti Sakowin Community Academy on Tuesday. NDN Collective is the prime sponsor of the Indigenous-led school.

"It's important to understand that this is not just an opening of a school," Tilsen said. "That this very act itself is an act of reestablishing that spiritual connection to our ancestors and to pass those teachings on to our children.

"Education was used as a weapon — it was used as a weapon to attack our people. They ripped our kids from our families in the evening. They took our land from us and no matter what they did to try and destroy our spirits as a people, they couldn't do it. So today is a historic day. Many years from now, we'll look back to this day, and many of these young people in this room will be the next leaders of our people."

For more information on Oceti Sakowin Community Academy, visit

Contact Nathan Thompson at

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