For over 45 years, Phil Baird, a 1997 South Dakota State University distinguished alum, has been working to improve educational outcomes for Native Americans. Since he first stepped onto SDSU’s campus in 1973, he has been actively involved and committed to the betterment of Native Americans—both on and off the reservation. During a memorable undergraduate experience at SDSU, Baird was the first to receive an American Indian studies minor and was honored with the South Dakota Outstanding Indian College Student of the Year award in 1977-78. He later went to receive a master’s degree in agriculture education from Iowa State University.
His professional career in higher education has been equally successful. He has held national leadership positions with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund. He is a past president and board member of the National Indian Education Association.
Since 2016, Baird has been working at Sinte Gleska University in Mission, South Dakota—first as a provost and now as the vice president for tribal nation community development.
A natural storyteller and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Lakota), Baird was generous enough with his time to recall a handful of experiences that have shaped his outlook about education and about life.
Days at State
Baird graduated from Todd County High School in spring 1973 and had aspirations to attend college.
“I came to SDSU with the idea that I wanted to play with the horses because I’m ranch raised and I love horses,” Baird said. “Philip is actually Greek for lover of horses.”
Baird had an issue, however. No one at Todd County told him what coursework he needed to prepare for a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career.
“Once I got (to SDSU) that’s where I realized where the gaps were at,” Baird explained.
Regardless, he was able to make things work and declared his major as animal science/pre-veterinary medicine.
Outside of classes, Baird quickly got involved in clubs and activities on campus, specifically those directly tied to Native Americans. By the second semester of his first year, he was named the president of the Native American Club.
“I think there were about 87 Native American students when I became president of the Indian Club there at SDSU,” Baird said. “I asked them, ‘Well, who’s our relatives here?’ Really, when it boiled down to Indian Club activities, we only had maybe a dozen or so students involved.”
As president of the club, Baird organized Indian Awareness Week, which saw musicians, speakers and pow-wows come to SDSU’s campus. One of the speakers that Baird invited was a little more famous than the rest and was well-noted for his international involvement with activism in the 1970s.
When Russell Means came to campus
The 1970s were a turbulent time for Native Americans. The American Indian Movement was addressing systemic issues of poverty, discrimination and police brutality against Native Americans through widespread activism, including the Occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, which was still fresh in the minds of many South Dakotans.
Russell Means was considered by many to be the leader of AIM and was responsible for organizing many of the influential AIM moments of the 1970s. Baird, who knew Means personally, invited him to SDSU’s campus for Indian Awareness Week in 1974.
“We had an Indian studies awareness program and, in that program, I invited Russell Means,” Baird said. “The short story is he showed up.
“But reflecting back I can imagine that the SDSU leadership was very anxious that we were bringing in someone who you read about almost daily in the paper—in the heart of all the activism that was going on at Wounded Knee and other places,” Baird continued. “And here, Phil Baird naively, you know, invites this activist to be a speaker.”
Means came to Brookings, gave a talk and participated in a pow-wow put on by the Native American Club, Baird explained.
“There’s a lot of things that happened in the 70s that influenced American Indian and nontribal populations,” Baird said. “I’ll never forget that because I’m reflecting back now almost 50 years ago and so much has changed and yet so much hasn’t changed.”
After 1974, Baird stepped down from his position as Native American Club president but still was very active on campus. He served on the SDSU Indian Advisory Council, helping to develop the American Indian studies minor, which was offered by the College of Arts and Science (currently, the American Indian and Indigenous studies minor is offered through the School of American and Global Studies).
During this time, Delwyn Dearborn, then dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, had two Native American foster children. He would invite Baird over for dinner to help his children connect with their heritage. Once during dinner, Dearborn explained to Baird that they had a vacancy in the student senate.
“I said to him, sure I’ll be on the senate,” Baird explained.
At the time, Baird was also president of the South Dakota Indian Education Association and was looking for additional resources for Native American students in the state.
“We saw where other states were using state funds to provide scholarships,” Baird said. “So I brought a resolution proposal to the student senate—and I will not say naively—but I look back on it and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing.”
The result was an hour and half debate filled with covert racism directly aimed at Native Americans, Baird said.
“It wasn’t the kids—it was the kids acting like their parents who were acting like their parents who were acting like their parents,” Baird said. “So, you saw that discrimination, racist attitude being passed on and that was an eye opener for me.”
Despite the racism, Baird was successful in getting the student senate’s support. But how was he able to get the support despite the obvious anti-Native feelings?
“I guess the deal was that I was busting all those negative stereotypes—drunk, lazy, poor, can’t work—during the debate,” Baird explained. “I mean, it was just all the worst things and yet, I was talking about lawyers and doctors who were Native—I was talking about success stories.”
Baird’s ability to create change and break through the “racism wall” did not go unnoticed. In 1977-78, he was named South Dakota’s Outstanding Indian College Student.
As Baird explains, SDSU’s current President—Barry Dunn—has taken Native Americans “to a new level of heightened awareness” in the present day.
“And not even just heightened awareness but put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is now in 2022,” Baird added.
University Year for Action
Before the start of his fourth year of college, Baird decided to join a program that would allow him to be a student remotely. While this was long before anyone knew what online classes were, the program—University Year for Action—allowed Baird to get hands-on learning away from campus.
“They sent me to the Lower Brule Reservation in ’76,” Baird said. “We’re dealing with a third year of drought right now, but in 1976 the drought was at full impact.”
Baird spent the year helping the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, located along the Missouri River, mitigate the sustained and devastating drought impact on the local reservation.
“For the time that I had spent in my book studies—it’s like everything else—it’s just theory,” Baird said. “The one year I spent at the Lower Brule just made everything that I learned up to that point become that much more meaningful because I was applying it out in the field.”
Baird credits SDSU for allowing him access to the University Year for Action program and to connect with his relatives on the Lower Brule Reservation.
Looking to the future
Baird graduated from SDSU in 1978 after being selected as one of nine students in the U.S. to serve an internship in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Indian Education in Washington, D.C.
Since graduating, Baird has been committed to helping Native Americans succeed in higher education, specifically in relation to tribal colleges. He first worked as vice president of Sinte Gleska University and then as an academic vice president and interim president for the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota.
He spent time in various other professional capacities before returning to Sinte Gleska in 2016.
Since Baird has been intimately involved with tribal colleges for the better part of his 45-year professional career, he has a finger on the pulse of what the current landscape and challenges are. Some of the challenges include limited resources, accreditation, rebounding from the pandemic and hiring credentialed staff. The want and need for advanced degrees among enrolled students are also something at the top of mind for tribal colleges. Sinte Gleska is one of the few tribal colleges in the country that offers master’s degrees, but as Baird explains, once students get a master’s degree, they often will seek a Ph.D., something not currently offered at Sinte Gleska.
“We need to partner up with other institutions and that’s why we’re involved with the Wokini Initiative at SDSU,” Baird said. “We’re creating a pathway for students in coursework and degree programs that we don’t have right now.”
When Dunn first proposed the Wokini Initiative in 2016, Baird was a little concerned that Dunn was “putting his head on the chopping block.”
“Somehow he got it done,” Baird said. “He put his neck on the line, and he convinced people by telling the story—both in the context of SDSU being the place to be but also the blessings that we have out there to utilize.”
Outside of his work in higher education, Baird maintained his relationship with the Horse Nation and participated in the saddle bronc riding event through the years. In 2016, Baird was inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Rodeo is actually where his philosophy on life came about.
As Baird remembers, he cut school during his high school days to work a roundup. A Lakota cowboy came up to him and asked him, “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“I said, ‘I’m not at school,” I’m thinking to myself there’s no teachers or anything like that here,” Baird explained. “But then he said something profound to me.”
“Always remember Phylbird (Baird’s nickname), school is always in session,” the elder cowboy said to Baird.
“That set my personal philosophy about education. Lifelong learning—school is always in session,” Baird said. “I was motivated by that, and I’m still motivated by that.”
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