Native American Club Launches for Students at BHSU-Rapid City


Valeriah Big Eagle

Members of He’Sapa Oyate take a break from their weekly meeting held at Black Hills State University – Rapid City on March 3.

Since coming aboard six months ago, the student success advisor and disability liaison for the BHSU-Rapid City campus Valeriah Big Eagle has made large strides. The Native American Club on campus, which serves students from the tri-umbrella of SDSU, USD, and BHSU, is her latest venture.

As a first-generation college student, Big Eagle asked herself what she could do to help Native American students feel welcome, and become more involved on campus. Big Eagle knew the Native American population residing in Rapid City was high, so she began looking at the center’s student numbers.

By dissecting BHSU Spearfish’s student attendance serve list Big Eagle was able to ascertain that 65 Native American students currently attend the Rapid City campus, but that doesn’t include the other two schools housed under its roof.

“It’s important to feel comfortable and have other people that can relate to you,” she said, “As Native Americans, we are at high-risk of dropping out.”

Having other students who relate to your background, history and culture is important to retention and inclusion.

Cathy Payne, program advisor for Veterans Upward Bound housed on the BHSU-Rapid City campus agrees that the Native American Club is a big plus.

“Similar to what I’ve witnessed within student veteran groups on campus, the Native American Club that Valeriah has launched will have a positive impact on her students’ retention and academic success,” Payne said.

While working full-time at the BHSU-Rapid City campus, Big Eagle is currently pursuing a master’s degree in counseling and human resource development with a specialization in student affairs from SDSU. She is also the mother of three children ages eight and six years old and 14 months.

“It’s about pride. We survived this cultural and historical genocide. It’s a support group for other Native students,” she said.

Though having no actual dedicated room for the Native club, they have been meeting in classrooms. They had their first meeting Jan. 20 and five students were present.

Big Eagle is serving as advisor to the group, letting them set their own agenda.

“I gave them the reins, it is whatever you want it to be.” she said.

Using that very first meeting as an icebreaker, she made helpful suggestions to the students- “Do you have notes I can use in this class, what advice do you have for this professor, what study tips do you have?a��

She encourages them to take on more responsibility as a professional student organization by having officer positions.

She said, “We will have a president, vice-president, a secretary.”

She also encouraged them to think big, getting involved in community events, such as the Lakota Nation Invitational or the downtown Native American Parade during the Black Hills Powwow.

Oglala Lakota business administration and accounting major, Nicole Big Crow, is excited about the new club and plans to attend the upcoming social.

“This club helps us,” Big Crow said.

“It will give us encouragement to keep going because it’s tough.” The mother of seven and a grandmother is two years in to her four-year bachelor’s degree.

Big Eagle told the attending students, “If you just want it to be a place we go and eat, hang out and offer each other support, that’s fine too.”

She also supports the club if they want to focus on fundraising to attend conferences, but her vision is broader. They are unique in representing Native students under one umbrella from three schools:

“I already see having star quilts made in the three school colors for the walls of our space,” Big Eagle said.

She wants to give students hope.

“If I can do it, you can do it,” Big Eagle told them. “I came from the reservation and grew up in poverty, and I also went to college while raising children. Perhaps if they see that, they’ll know they can do it too.”

With a modest sign-in sheet at the first meeting, Big Eagle hopes for growing support. Her passion has always been with Native students in both middle school and higher education.

“Eventually the more people that come to the meetings on Friday at 1 p.m., the more the director here, [Gene Bilodeau, executive director-BHSU-Rapid City] will see the importance for The Native American Club to have their own space,” she said.

“Whatever they want to do I will support them 100 percent,” said Big Eagle, “a��I want to inspire students — to give them hope.”

The Native American Club meets on the BHSU-Rapid City campus on Fridays @ 1 p.m. (Room 108). For more information contact Valeria Big Eagle at [email protected] or call (605) 718-4197