Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

Haskell president blazes new trail

Swisher is inaugurated as first woman to lead the American Indian institution

April 6, 2001


When she was 19 years old and growing up on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, spread across the central Dakotas, Karen Swisher didn't know what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

Her parents had made sure she had the drive and ability to succeed. But at what?

"I liked history, and I'd thought about going into social work or being a teacher," said Swisher, in a January interview. Swisher took the chance to reflect on a journey that led her to become Haskell Indian Nations University's first female president.

Several receptions, an inauguration ceremony and a powwow were held in Swisher's honor in late January as she was officially sworn in as president of the university.

Swisher, now in her mid 50s, said she found her direction in the summer of 1962.

"I had already been to college and I was working at a preschool program there on the reservation when the message was made very clear to me that education is the key, that if we provide kids with a good education, they'll have the basis for making informed choices in their lives," she said.

Swisher remembers hearing about the now-famous troubles at the Pine Ridge Reservation and Wounded Knee in South Dakota during the 1960s.

"I was an (school) administrator on the reservation at the time," she said. "I knew some things were going on, but I was pretty removed from those things, and you have to remember that communication back then wasn't what it is today."

But that doesn't mean she wasn't part of her generation's push for change.

"I was more involved in the movement that was building up around Indian education. This was about the time the National Indian Education Movement got started," Swisher said.

"And it was when we were moving from a system of termination the government moving people off the reservations and terminating the rights of tribes to a system of self-determination. The year was 1969 and Richard Nixon was president."

At the time, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs no longer had total control of a tribe's affairs and its education curriculum. Instead, tribes were allowed to form educational advisory boards and contract on-reservation services.

This meant that American Indians finally had a hand in determining what was best for their communities.

In Swisher's community, that included Haskell.

"Haskell wouldn't be what it is today without self-determination," Swisher said.

The great equalizer

Education, she said, remains the great equalizer, the best antidote for social injustice. She's seen the proof.

Swisher was a teacher and principal from 1967 to 1977 at Standing Rock Community Elementary School at Fort Yates, N.D.. She later earned a doctorate in education administration at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

After teaching stints at the University of Utah and Arizona State University, Swisher in the fall of 1996 was named chairwoman of the teacher education program at Haskell. Two years later, she was named dean of instruction.

On May 14, 2000, after an 11-month term as interim president, Swisher was named president. She replaced Robert Martin, who is now a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona.

A rocky first year

During Swisher's year as interim president:

l Three HINU students and a friend were killed in an early-morning, alcohol-related accident in North Lawrence.

l The HINU Board of Regents rejected a controversial plan to route the South Lawrence Trafficway through the Haskell Wetlands.

l Budget cuts forced the university to cut five positions from its security force, leaving it with one officer.

l The director of the Haskell Foundation resigned abruptly amid reports of checks bouncing. Officials later learned the foundation was more than $1 million in debt, prompting an FBI investigation.

l Student Senate President Prentice Crawford resigned after the BIA began an investigation of his on-campus activities. Earlier, Crawford had accused a professor of pulling a knife on him, an allegation denied by the professor.

l The men's basketball coach resigned after several players threatened to quit.

Swisher says these situations were all the more difficult because of her shy nature. Though naturally soft-spoken and self-disciplined, she attributes much of this shyness to her American Indian heritage.

"You don't brag on yourself, you do your work and if you do a good job, others will say it for you. That's how I was raised," she said. "I don't like being in the spotlight. I do it when I have to I'm not saying I won't or that I'm hesitant. But I am not comfortable calling attention to myself."

And because she is a woman, Swisher said, some have wondered if she is "strong enough for the job."

Is she?

"I believe I am," she said.

She already has weathered all the storms of her first year as interim president.

And during the week of her inauguration, Swisher put her shyness on ice, as hundreds of Haskell alumni and busloads of Standing Rock friends and family gathered on campus to honor her. But more importantly, they honored Haskell.

She wouldn't have it any other way.

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