Starting a conversation around the assimilation of Native Americans into white society is the purpose of Sean Flynn's new book.
The Dakota Wesleyan University history professor has devoted seven years to writing "Without Reservation: Benjamin Reifel and American Indian Acculturation" - which is a biography about the first Native American to serve in U.S. Congress, who happens to be a member of the same South Dakota tribe as Flynn.
"He believed that one could leave the reservation, integrate fully into the fabric of American society, and yet still retain his or her Indian personality," Flynn said, while sitting in his office inside the McGovern Library.
As a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the fellow Lakotan Flynn found himself connecting with Reifel in a multitude of ways throughout writing the book, which was published in September. Through telling the unique story of Benjamin Reifel's professional journey, Flynn examines the complex process of Native Americans assimilating into American culture and the challenges that lie within the process.
"Ben is a controversial figure, and what struck me is how controversial he was within the Indian community," Flynn said. "Ben was calling for integration into American society, whereas a lot of Indian activists in the 1950s, '60s and '70s were calling for a separation of Indians from white culture."
Growing up in poverty on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, Reifel's journey to success began at age 19, when he left the reservation for the first time to further his education at South Dakota State University in 1928.
"His life was transformed by his experience at SDSU, and he earned scholarships in chemistry and dairy science, along with becoming his class president," Flynn said. "It was where he would launch his successful journey."
Flynn identifies Reifel as an integrationist, who proved to fellow Indians they had equal access to succeeding and fulfilling the American Dream. He led by example, becoming the first Lakota Sioux Congressman in U.S. history, serving from 1961 to 1971.
"What he learned was you can still retain your Indian personality and love for heritage while following the basic fundamental rules of white society," Flynn said of Reifel. "You can conquer white society, and there was no mystery to doing it."
Upon graduating, Flynn highlighted the rapid promotion Reifel experienced with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), as he was appointed field agent in Pierre at the BIA's regional headquarters. Flynn said a pinnacle moment in Reifel's career came in 1976, when President Gerald Ford appointed the Lakotan as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
"He made a name for himself in the BIA, because he could explain complicated political concepts to American Indians in their own tongue," Flynn said, while noting American Indians were beginning to adopt Constitutions during Reifel's time with the BIA in the 1930s, giving more importance of his ability to speak Lakota language.
In the middle of his stint with the BIA, Reifel continued furthering his education at Harvard University in 1952, where he went on to receive a Ph.D. in history and public administration.
"He preached the value of education his entire life," Flynn said of Reifel. "He wanted Indian students learning they could be just as competitive and could achieve just as much as their white peers."
To honor the instrumental American Indian, the Sioux Falls School District recently announced they are naming its new middle school after Reifel, and Flynn couldn't imagine a more fitting way for the state to honor an inspirational figure for fellow South Dakotans, especially Native Americans.
Flynn lived on a reservation in Montana with his wife, Deb, before becoming a professor at DWU in the late 1990s. There, Flynn said he saw education as being the ticket out of reservation life and the ongoing struggles that are plaguing many of them today.
Tracing the ancestral roots of the first Lakota Congressman led Flynn to meet Reifel's daughter, Loyce Anderson, a woman he felt a deep connection with while writing the book.
Flynn, who grew up in Gregory, said it was Anderson's dream to hold a hard copy of the book that told the story of her father, but she died on Sept. 20, 2018, the day it was published.
"She was an amazing soul, and she wanted to be able to see that book more than anything, before she passed away," an emotional Flynn said.
Though Flynn points to Reifel as a central figure for Native Americans succeeding in white society while maintaining their cultural heritage and pride, the 20-year DWU history professor and Ph.D. holder has provided an example through his own journey.
"I just hope this book can start a conversation about Native Americans' unique process of assimilation into American society and that their dreams are possible," Flynn said.