President Dunn receives supportive messages from Sioux Falls Native American students

IAN LACK Reporter

After Barry Dunn was announced as president of SDSU, he received thousands of letters, emails, text messages and phone calls congratulating him and sending warmest regards.

However, Dunn said one collection of letters sent to his home was different from the other congratulatory messages.

A simple brown envelope arrived at President Dunn’s home on May 7, almost two weeks after Dunn was announced president of South Dakota State University. Inside the package were more than 30 hand-written letters from students in two Native American studies classes at Washington High School in Sioux Falls.

Many of these students come from Indian reservations across the country.

Dunn said these were not just messages of congratulations, but messages of support, solidarity and encouragement.

“They just brought tears to my eyes because these were from teenage high school students who have been challenged with a lot of things that I haven’t been,” Dunn said. “They didn’t know me, but knew my mother’s story and they cared enough to tell me that I have their support.”

Dunn’s mother was born on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and later left to earn a degree at Iowa State University before returning to South Dakota. 

After marrying, Dunn himself returned to the Rosebud Indian Reservation with his family and lived there for 17 years.

The letters were sent to Dunn by Washington High School’s Native American studies teacher, Bruce Rekstad, who has been teaching at the school for about 15 years.

Rekstad said he proposed the idea of writing letters to Barry Dunn to his students after learning about Dunn’s Lakota heritage in the Argus Leader. His students from both Native American studies classes agreed with him in reaching out to the new president of the university.

Barry Dunn later reached out to Washington High School and Bruce Rekstad to arrange a meeting with the students from the two classes a few weeks later at Washington High School. Dunn brought “Barry Berry” ice cream, SDSU shirts for the students and voiced his appreciation to the students for their letters.

The president of SDSU also invited Rekstad and his students to his inauguration ceremony at SDSU’s campus on Sept. 29.

Resktad and a group of his students arrived for the inauguration at the Coolidge Sylvan Theatre and watched as Dunn was officially installed as president of SDSU.

“I’m here to educate students, but I’m also here to try to inspire them. This, in itself, is an inspiration to my students and shows them that great things can be done by one of them,” Rekstad said. “Now they’ve seen that, a Native American man elevated to president of the largest college in the state.”

Rekstad and the students presented the new president with an orange and black star quilt during the reception at the Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. The quilt was created by a close friend of Rekstad.

Emma Brands, a 17-year-old senior at Washington High, was among those who presented the quilt to Dunn. Brands is from the Standing Rock and Crow Creek Indian Reservations.

“I think that he [Dunn] can really represent us by representing Native Americans at the college and be a strong voice for us,” Brands said. “I feel really happy that he’s putting out a better perspective of Native Americans than what people usually see.”

Brands said she plans on graduating from Washington High School next year and traveling before she begins college next fall to study photography, film and psychology.

“Personally, I think Barry Dunn was outstanding for inviting us to meet with him again, and I hope that we get to see him more often,” Brands said.