Lionel Bordeaux sits in a office decorated with the memorabilia of a lifetime of service to education, including a portrait of the Brule Lakota leader, Spotted Tail.
Bordeaux says the first thinking about education, among the tribal leaders associated with Spotted Tail, was already occurring 150 years ago, in the 1860s. They knew back then that the key to survival in a time and place dominated by white government and culture would be education.
“They said evidently, if this is the future of civilization as it’s going to pertain to us we need education. So they began to push education way back then,” said Lionel Bordeaux, Sinte Gleske University President.
But educational institutions require money and large investments as well in training and preparation. The money, in particular was hard to come by. So the dreams of the tribal leaders were long in being realized.
A century later, in the early 1970s, the goal of starting a place of higher education on the Rosebud Reservation was accomplished. It was called Sinte Gleska College, named after Spotted Tail.
The college needed academic accreditation in order for its graduates to offer something that was
recognized in the outside world.
“They went to Notre Dame, they went to USD, and eventually Black Hills State University said we’ll accept you as a satellite center and your courses will be our courses, we’ll oversee them, and your diplomas will be our diploma,” said Bordeaux.
The college also needed a leader to guide its course. A bright young 32-year-old named Lionel Bordeaux had gotten the attention of tribal leaders.
“I was recruited by medicine men. I wasn’t recruited by a particular type of a committee of educated people. Tribal medicine men; spiritual leaders held ceremonies. And they really addressed the spiritual world,” said Bordeaux.
Bordeaux answered the call in 1972. What the tribal leaders had in mind would be a large challenge that Bordeaux has spent the rest of his life meeting. They wanted an educational institution that would provide life enhancements in a wide variety of areas.
“That would encompass every aspect of the tribal way of life and improving that quality of life. Whether it was in culture. Whether it was in education. Whether it was in economic development and business.
Whether it was in health, judicial, energy, housing, transportation, even tribal government,” he said.
Since then, Sinte Gleska College has become Sinte Gleska University. The campus has expanded to several locations in and around Mission, including it’s primary location on the picturesque shore of Antelope Lake.
Last year, Black Hills State University named one of its new residence halls in honor of Lionel Bordeaux.
Looking back, Bordeaux says he still has great confidence in Sinte Gleska’s emphasis on the spiritual aspects of tribal life.
And in all the years he has been at the helm of the university, he has never lost his faith in the ability of education to transform lives and communities. Bordeaux says he doesn’t believe a long-term human problem exists that cannot be solved by education.