Robert Brave Heart Sr.
Robert Brave Heart Sr. and Red Cloud School are Living the Jesuit Mission

Thanksgiving 2014

More than 125 years ago, Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud began working with a group of men he called the Sina Sapa – translated as “Black Robes,” a reference to the black cassocks worn by the Jesuits. Chief Red Cloud saw that the way of life to which he was accustomed was quickly ending, that his people were facing irrevocable economic and cultural loss—and he believed Jesuit education would help them to survive in a rapidly changing world while remaining true to their Lakota identity. So he invited them to collaborate with the people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. 

The result is the Red Cloud Indian School system, which carries on Chief Red Cloud’s dream of empowering Lakota people to walk in both the

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Red Cloud Student      It is clear that Red Cloud Indian School's distinctive educational approach is working. According to recent data, only about half of Native American students across the country receive a high school diploma. 

At Red Cloud, nearly 100 percent of students graduate and go on to post-secondary education or training at top institutions around the country including Marquette University, Stanford University, Regis University, and others coast to coast.

Red Cloud Graduation
Fr. George Winzenburg, SJ congratulates a Red Cloud graduate. 

Click here to learn more about the Lakota Language Project. 

Lakota world and the “white man’s world.” This system has emerged as a leader in holistic education, cultural and linguistic celebration, spiritual formation and social justice. 

“Red Cloud represents a true convergence of Jesuit and Lakota values, in support of an education of the mind, body and spirit,” explains Executive Vice President Robert Brave Heart Sr., pictured left. “We work to incorporate Lakota heritage, identity and particularly Lakota language and the arts into everything we do. That has resulted in tremendous growth for our students academically, culturally and spiritually.”

Having been a Red Cloud student himself, and spent many more years working in the schools, Robert sees the effects this institution has had on his own personal, professional and spiritual development. “Red Cloud has made a tremendous difference in my life, which is so much better than I ever imagined,” he says. 

“Red Cloud grew on me”

Although he had a scholarship to study engineering in college, Robert knew he wanted something else – a career helping people in counseling or education. After attending what is now Montana State University Billings as an undergraduate, and graduate school at Arizona State University, he returned to Red Cloud – where a board member told him the school needed a physical education teacher.

“I thought it would be for a short time, but Red Cloud grew on me,” he recalls. “I began to embrace the mission here, and have been rewarded with the feeling that we are making a significant contribution to the young people of the reservation – to make better lives for themselves and others.”

In the 28 years since he began working at Red Cloud, Robert has served as teacher, coach and athletic director, middle school and high school principal, and director of the high school’s Spiritual Formation Department. He also served nine years as superintendent, until accepting the newly created position of executive vice president two years ago. He now oversees day-to-day operations for the schools as well as the parishes and The Heritage Center – all aspects of the Red Cloud Indian School system.

Many strides have been made in that time. Just two examples include Red Cloud becoming the first Catholic school in the United States to receive district accreditation through the NCA/AdvancEd accrediting organization, and the strengthening of Lakota culture and language programs.

Robert explains the importance of the latter:  “We have long believed a positive association with our language, culture and spirituality is important for success among Lakota children. Previous generations didn’t always have this sense of identity, which led to social ills, cultural shame and even tragedies. There was a dark period in which we lost a great deal of our way of life, beliefs and ceremonies, but they’re coming back – and young people are taking pride in who they are and where they come from.”

To this end, Robert started teaching a Lakota spirituality course in the high school in 1993, as well as a singing and drumming class. Those courses are now taught alongside other courses on faith, morality, ethics, Catholic rights and Lakota stories. “We are supported by the Society of Jesus in offering these courses side by side, and giving attention to both Catholic and Lakota traditions in our spiritual formation and campus ministry programs,” he says.

In 2007, Robert spearheaded the Lakota Language Project, a six-year project to develop a comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum, with a goal to develop proficient and ultimately fluent Lakota speakers. The project includes teacher training and materials development, and an independent impact evaluation has shown that it is helping improve Red Cloud students’ overall success. 

“Road map for the future”

Strengthening students’ knowledge and use of the Lakota language is one of 36 activities highlighted in Red Cloud’s 2014-2018 Strategic Plan. This plan represents the result of three years’ work and broad-based input from internal and external stakeholders (tribal, Jesuit, community and family). “In addition to serving as a road map for the future, it’s also a menu for fundraising,” says Robert. “You have to know what your goals and needs are to be able to ask donors and foundations for support.”

Another Strategic Plan goal is to educate lay employees in Ignatian and Lakota spirituality and traditions. “With Jesuit numbers declining, we need laypeople to embrace and own the Ignatian pedagogy and spirit of education,” Robert explains. “Red Cloud was founded on Jesuit ideals and they have enabled it to become what it is today. Our continued success is contingent on keeping alive the Lakota-Catholic values in which we are rooted, and maintaining the Jesuits’ rigorous expectations for excellence.”

When thinking about the future, Robert reflects on the past. “We’ve come a long way in this ministry in the last 12 and a half decades,” he says. “Chief Red Cloud’s dream has been kept alive by countless people – Jesuits, Lakota and others who have believed in this effort and persevered through difficulty. We hope to continue building strong leaders, who will advance their education, and who will continue to come back to the reservation to make a difference in the life of the people here. Some might even complete the circle and come back to work at Red Cloud.”

If you'd like to read about others who are Living the Jesuit Mission, please click here.

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