New science building for Sitting Bull College: National fundraising campaign supports dreams

Published in Indian Country Today magazine’s September 2005 Education issue. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Fort Yates, N.D. — “There are many sources of funds for tribal colleges, and we’re tapping all of them in building our new campus,” said Ron His Horse Is Thunder, Lakota, president of Sitting Bull College and, at press time, a candidate for chairman of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The first major building planned for the college is handsome $6 million science center designed by Jirin Architects & Planners of Bismarck, North Dakota, to sit at the base of a bluff south of Fort Yates.

            Construction crews are currently finishing up the 23,000-square-foot building, which will welcome students in October to its physics, chemistry, biology and nursing labs, classrooms, computer lab, auditorium, interactive video linking laboratories to those in other North Dakota colleges, and greenhouse.

            “The new facility at Sitting Bull College is more than just a building. It represents the progress being made in training the next generation for meaningful jobs in Indian country,” said Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Dorgan is also a member of the college’s honorary national campaign committee, which raised funds for the project.

            The expansion means the college can handle more students, and that means higher expenditures for teaching materials and equipment—funds that will be provided by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

            Science and agribusiness faculty member Gary Halvorson is particularly pleased with an analytical chemistry lab with state-of-the-art equipment, including an atomic absorption spectrophotometer and a high-precision liquid chromatograph. “The tribe spends $200,000 a year on environmental sampling,” said Halvorson, as he led a tour of the building. “Our dream is to develop a service lab that takes on that work and provides employment in the community. Our ultimate dream is a commercial testing lab dealing with the general public, and we’ll work with the college’s business students to make that big leap a reality.”

            Another aim, according to academic dean Koreen Ressler, is four-year accreditation for the school’s environmental sciences program, now a two-year course.

            It has taken years of work by a national committee headed by former U.S. Senator Tom Daschle to make ambitions like these possible. “Our final goal is $40 million, and we’ve raised $16 million so far,” His Horse Is Thunder said. “The first and biggest gift was $4 million from the tribe. We told them that if you want a new campus, it’ll make it a lot easier for us if you provide a base.”

            With that as the starting point, the college received several million from the USDA. “There are set asides for tribal colleges and tribes and rural communities, and we’ve tapped all three,” said His Horse Is Thunder, noting that the funded project does not have to be tied to agriculture. Additional funds came from the U.S. Department of Education, the American Indian College Fund, and federal monies set aside by both North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan and South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson.

            The next buildings to be constructed are a $3 million teacher-education facility for students in the associate and bachelor’s programs; an approximately $7 million business center that will house business courses, the Tribal Business Information Center and a business incubator with several storefronts; and a maintenance and bus garage for the reservation-wide transportation system run by the college. Several smaller projects have already been completed, including 18 housing units for married and single students. Housing is a critical need, according to His Horse Is Thunder. “I could double enrollment if I had dormitories,” he said.

            Holistic choices have been a priority in planning the new campus. Buildings will have passive solar heating and will be surrounded by a native-plants landscape developed by ethnobotany faculty member Linda Jones, Catawba, and herbalist Monica Skye, a resident of the reservation’s Porcupine district who has Chippewa ancestry. “It will be a teaching resource for students and something we can feature on visitors’ walking tours,” said His Horse Is Thunder.

            The college is facing the future with confidence, according to His Horse Is Thunder: “We must have graduates who are ready to face any and all academic challenges and solve the many issues faced by the Standing Rock Nation and the wider culture. This initial academic facility for the new campus [the science and technology building] is intended to do precisely that.”

Text and photo c. Stephanie Woodard.

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