Woman’s life path — from reservation to mountain roads to local rivers — led to graduation from Haskell

Haskell Indian Nations University graduating senior Samantha Milk of Lawrence, an Oglala Lakota tribe member, is receiving her bachelor's degree in environmental science. Milk plans to work for the U.S. Geological Survey after graduation.

When her mother decided to leave the reservation, move to Kansas and enroll in Haskell Indian Nations University to make a better life for her family, Samantha “Sami” Milk was a young child.

The family lived at Lone Star Lake, in tents, for a camping season before getting on their feet and moving into low-income housing while her mother worked on her degree, Milk said.

Almost 20 years later — after some twists and turns in her own life — Milk herself enrolled at Haskell, where she’ll graduate this week with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.

Milk, Haskell’s 2017 Student of the Year, will be among 230 Haskell graduates recognized during the school’s commencement ceremony on Friday.

Milk, 26, is an Oglala Lakota tribe member who was born in South Dakota.

After her parents had both quit drinking, Milk said, a specific incident solidified her mother’s decision to move away from the reservation.

She spotted Milk and other young kids playing “house party,” Milk said, pretending someone was drunk, talking about someone else being passed out.

“She knew she didn’t want me to grow up like that,” Milk said.

Haskell Indian Nations University graduating senior Samantha Milk of Lawrence, an Oglala Lakota tribe member, is receiving her bachelor's degree in environmental science. Milk plans to work for the U.S. Geological Survey after graduation.

So to Lawrence they moved, and Milk attended public school here while her mother — Theresa Milk, who has been an adjunct instructor at Haskell — pursued an associate and a bachelor’s degree at Haskell, then master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Kansas.

That was until the final semester of Sami Milk’s senior year of high school, when her mother started teaching at Kickapoo Nation School, a U.S. Bureau of Indian Education school in Powhattan. The faraway job meant her mother left on a bus three hours before school started and didn’t get home until three hours after.

At Lawrence High School, even with her mom in town, Milk had been skipping class a lot, she said. Instead of staying at home unsupervised, it was decided she’d have to get on that bus every morning, too, and finish her high school education at Kickapoo.

Milk did well at Kickapoo — and even tutored other students there in math — but didn’t go directly to college. She was in an abusive relationship, she said, and when she finally decided to get out for good she moved far away from Lawrence, to live with her sister on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state.

There, she helped with her sister’s five children and started a job as a dispatcher for the tribal police.

She worked the overnight shift, and borrowed her sister’s minivan to drive to the other side of the mountain — on a road that was especially scary in ice and snow — each day, she said.

“I loved it so much,” she said of the job. Milk figured she could do that for the rest of her life, but gave it a second thought after returning to South Dakota to be with her grandmother when she died.

“That’s when I really took a look at my life,” she said.

Milk decided to go to college, “to be sure” about her career path.

She started at Haskell in 2012 and had a baby — Kili, now 2 — right after finishing her associate degree in 2014. After a semester off, Milk went back to Haskell to complete her bachelor’s degree.

She’d always liked math and been good at it, but didn’t want to be a math teacher, she said. At Haskell, a math teacher suggested she try GIS, short for geographic information systems, and Milk was hooked.

“I took that class and then took every single class that I could that was related to it,” she said. “It has so many applications; that’s what I really liked about it.”

She’s done an environmental research internship in Hawaii as a student, and also worked as a student hydrographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, helping to monitor water levels in the Kansas River and Clinton Lake.

After graduation, she’ll convert to working as a full-time hydrographer for the U.S. Geological Survey, which she says is about half-and-half office work and physically challenging field work, going out and taking measurements at bodies of water.

Milk is excited about her career.

At the same time, moving as a child to Lawrence and pursuing higher education at Haskell has meant a break with some aspects of her Native American heritage.

Her father was full-blood Lakota and his father was a medicine man, she said. Had she stayed on the reservation, she would have learned more Lakota ways, things like native dancing, and probably been given a tribal name.

However, growing up in Lawrence, she doesn’t speak like her fellow tribe members on the reservation or know all of their customs. She has felt ostracized when she goes back to visit.

In South Dakota, there’s a lot of racism against American Indians by white people, she said. At the same time, tribal members can be pretty “mean” to other natives they consider outsiders, which is partly why she didn’t consider college at the tribal university there.

Going to Haskell has been a “tradeoff,” Milk said, but one she’s glad she made.

“I wouldn’t have the education that I do have,” she said.