Dr. Laurel Vermillion of the Hunkpapa-Lakota tribe is president of Sitting Bull College. Her path to leadership represents a remarkable full circle journey in her life and career. She began as one of the first students of Standing Rock Community College, now called Sitting Bull College, on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. In 1973 there were no buildings to house the newly founded school.
“We used to find a quiet corner in the community center to hold classes,” she recalls.
That handful of students has since increased to more than 300.
The college offers a number of associate degree programs as well as baccalaureate programs in business and elementary education. It also maintains an articulation agreement with Oglala Lakota College and Sinte Gleska University to offer other four-year degree programs. Students no longer have to scramble for classroom space. The college includes a state-of-the-art Science and Technology Center, a Family Support Center that houses education classrooms and a day care center, and a Transit Center where vocational classes will be held. An Entrepreneurial Center is currently under construction as the college works to raise the second half of its $40 million building campaign. In keeping with the college’s five-year strategic plan to help build the community’s economy, the center will include incubator spaces for start-up tribal businesses and a tribal business center and will house business classes.
“Absolutely not!” Vermillion responds when asked if she ever dreamed she might one day lead the college during her days searching for classroom space.
“It’s funny how life moves you forward,” she muses.
Born and raised in the little town of Kennel,N.D. on the Standing Rock Reservation, Vermillion attended a one-room schoolhouse. Early on, she learned lessons of responsibility as she rode a horse to the little school. Since Doctor School had only one teacher for 25-30 students in first through eighth grade, children learned cooperation as they helped each other with lessons. Thus, Vermillion came to know and love teaching from an early age. She fondly recalls her teacher Hope Chamberlain, who read to the class often and instilled in Vermillion a love and respect for books.
She also credits her parents and extended family with teaching her the value of hard work, responsibility and an appreciation of traditional Lakota ways. She remembers spending hours with her grandmother as she worked drying meat and corn. “I didn’t know at the time that I was being taught our traditions; it just happened so naturally,” she recalls.
She is convinced that these early life lessons prepared her for the hard work of pursuing her college degrees. As a young mother, she also worked while attending college and shared many of the same struggles that current Sitting Bull College students face: work, family and school.
President since 2006, Vermillion’s vision for the college continues to grow. Currently she is working with the Standing Rock Education Consortium that includes K-12 and Head Start schools. The consortium seeks to find ways to get children interested in STEM classes at an early age.
“By the time students are in high school or college, it is sometimes too late to get them passionate about science, she says. Since she began her career in elementary education, the consortium’s work is near and dear to her heart.
Vermillion, whose Indian name is Oyate Wanyanka Pi Win or Seen-By-Her-Nation, embodies the motto of Sitting Bull College. The motto is that of the great Hunkpapa leader Sitting Bull: “Let us put our minds together and see what we can build for our children.”
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