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American Indian Studies at Black Hills State University Features the Voices of Indigenous Elders

Urla Marcus has hoped for a long time to preserve the voices of area elders in a carefully crafted, artistic format. Now Marcus, director of the Center for American Indian Studies at Black Hills State University, will help to shape a documentary to do just that.

Staff members at the Center for American Indian Studies at Black Hills State University are preparing to work on a documentary – and to bolster many of the Center’s services – by drawing from a $242,769 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that took effect earlier this school year. The grant was made possible by the American Rescue Plan.

The university announced earlier this month that it had been awarded the grant “to restore and expand BHSU Center for American Indian Studies (CAIS) public programming.”

Marcus, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, said the grant facilitated the hiring of Tiarra Little as program manager of the Center for American Indian Studies. Little, a member of the Oglala Lakota Oyate who grew up in the Pine Ridge and Oglala areas, began her position on Nov. 1 and will play a key role in shaping the documentary, the Rapid City Journal reported.

Little earned her master’s degree in Education Policy and Management from Harvard University, and she’s slated to work for a year in the Center for American Indian Studies as she prepares for Ph.D. studies.

“She’s going to be spearheading the documentary, and she’s going to be looking at our American Indian Studies program, specifically at our assessment,” Marcus said.

The position was added, Marcus said, after the Center’s assistant director’s post was frozen in March.

The grant will also be used to sustain and grow CAIS programs such as the annual Wacipi, or Powwow; American Indian Awareness Week; a speaker series and various course work, according to an announcement from the university.

Little, in addition to her master’s degree from Harvard, brings a bachelor of arts from Stanford University in comparative studies in race and ethnicity, with an emphasis on education, access, and equity.

“I was heavily involved in the Native communities at Stanford and Harvard during my time at school,” she said. “I think it’s a strength to be able to tap into those experiences as I contribute to student support at BHSU.”

At Stanford, during her sophomore year, she co-taught an alternative spring break course – part of a service learning program – designed to help students make contributions to various communities during spring break. The course focused on Native American and rural education, and she traveled to Pine Ridge during spring break, with the students and the other co-teacher, to perform service.

“We visited with organizations to hear first-hand about Indigenous education,” she said. “That was the very first time that I saw the behind-the-scenes part of my home community. It was stepping into the professional side of Indigenous education for the first time.”

Little has worked on a sprawling array of other service projects, as well, including those in several countries around the world. Much of her experience working with people, though, hits close to home.

“I come from a big family, a blended family, and so just being able to mentor and give advice to my younger relatives has been a constant,” she said.

She said her work at the Center for American Indian Studies will encompass a wide swath of tasks.

“So far it’s been giving pep talks,” she said. “Sometimes it’s giving people a ride back home – people who need a ride home during the break.”

She said she also wants to help people stay connected to “what’s happening in our communities back home” and to consider “how that connects with what’s happening here at school.”

She noted the importance of working with Lakota Omniciye, a student organization on campus, along with other activities.

For the documentary, Marcus said the Center has tapped three consultants: Jace DeCory, professor emeritus at BHSU, along with filmmakers Kenn and John Little – not related to Tiarra Little. The two brothers created the film “More Than a Word,” a project described at

Both are members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that straddles the South Dakota and North Dakota border.

DeCory is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

“She’s an elder herself,” Marcus said of DeCory. “She’s very well-known, not only in our state but in our region.”

Marcus lauded DeCory’s expertise and said DeCory will be conducting much of the interviewing in the documentary, Marcus explained.

Marcus said people from the Center for American Indian Studies have recorded the voices of speakers before, including at BHSU’s celebration of American Indian Awareness Week. But the documentary moves a step further.

“We’ve always wanted the opportunity to capture what these speakers are saying – and what our elders, more specifically, are saying – in a professional way,” she said. She added that “we can use (the documentary) in our classes and make it more widely distributed so the public can use it as well.”

Marcus said plans are in the works to visit with five elders.

“We’re going to travel to their home and do (the interviews) in their home communities,” she said.

Marcus noted that this has been a trying, and in some cases a devastating, time for elders in the community.

“We lost so many of our elders due to the pandemic, and we didn’t have the opportunity to get their information and hear their stories,” she said. “We always listened to them, but we never really had the opportunity to record them.”

This will be the first time the Center for American Indian Studies has produced a documentary, Marcus said.

“This is brand new,” she said. “That’s why it’s important for us to work closely with John and Kenn. They have done documentaries, and we’re relying heavily on them to guide us.”

In January, she said, the Littles, who both live outside of the area, will come to campus and help train interns and to establish groundwork for the film. Later, they’ll work with the material that’s been recorded.

“We’re going to be sending them all the footage, and Kenn specifically will be piecing it together working with his equipment,” Marcus said.

Marcus mentioned plans to conduct interviews in February and March and then assemble the film during the summer. She said the film will likely be available online, and she noted the possibility of a public showing.

“We would like to have a release,” she said.

The grant is also sponsoring five interns to work in the Center for American Indian Studies, and they will also be contributing to the documentary.

Marcus reflected on some of the other activities that the NEH grant will help to sustain and develop, as well. She said two interns will be working this spring on the annual Wacipi, or Powwow, doing planning, fundraising and organization. The Wacipi has been canceled the past two years due to the pandemic, she added.

“It’s a large cultural event, and a lot of our community participates,” she said.

And Marcus said a key function of the grant would be its funding of Tiarra Little’s position as program manager.

“It’s really important for us to have our assistant back in the Center to work with the students,” she said. “She’s from Pine Ridge, and so she shares a lot of the background with the students. She’s a recent (university) graduate herself, so she knows the challenges our students are facing, and she also knows how to celebrate their successes.”

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