Indian man first to earn doctorate at South Dakota Tech
By PETER HARRIMAN
The Associated Press - Saturday, January 08, 2005
The first American Indian to earn a doctorate from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology considers himself an Indian man who practices science rather than a scientist.
Timothy Bull Bennett says he can relate to what the great Boston Celtic coach and player Bill Russell meant when he said: "I'm not a basketball player. I'm a black man who plays basketball."
"That has always stuck with me," Bull Bennett says. "I'm not a scientist. I'm an Indian man who practices science. I am very comfortable with who I am as an Indian man, strong in my convictions. I am also a believer in science and the scientific method and know how to apply it."
He looks at what he does as a scientist through the perspective of an Indian. This insight interests officials at the South Dakota college, which is trying to recruit more American Indian students.
Last May, Bull Bennett became the first American Indian to earn a doctoral degree from South Dakota Tech. He is a member of the Mi'kmaq Tribe from northern New England and eastern Canada. Born in Maine, he grew up in Wyoming and attended college at Casper College and the University of Wyoming before completing an undergraduate degree at Black Hills State University. Bull Bennett returned to the University of Wyoming to earn a master's in wildlife and range ecology.
In 1998, South Dakota Tech recruited him. Now, they see him as a harbinger. The school has created a multicultural committee to develop strategies to attract more Indian students. This spring, recommendations will be made to President Charles Ruch.
Bull Bennett was recruited into a multidisciplinary Ph.D. program at the university involving atmospheric, environmental and water resources. His doctoral research was on bison.
Now, he is the science education coordinator for five North Dakota tribal colleges. In a program funded by the National Institutes of Health, he is working to increase the number of Indian students enrolled in higher-education biomedical research programs.
In the past two years, South Dakota Tech has set records for enrolling and graduating Indian students. But it still falls short. In fall 2003, Tech enrolled 22 first-time Indian students, the most ever, and had a total Indian student enrollment of 65, also a record. But that represented only about 4 percent of the student body; Indians make up 8.3 percent of the state's population.
Last May, nine Indian students earned undergraduate or graduate degrees. This semester, there are 10 Indian graduate students at Tech and 65 undergraduates.
"As a university, we are making progress. But this issue is so important, we can't sit back and say we've done our job," says Al Boysen, a professor in Tech's humanities department and the multicultural committee chairman.
Bull Bennett says it is especially important the institution make a commitment to bringing Indian students to science and engineering, because the university, founded in 1885, was largely created to produce engineers for the gold-mining industry that had a key role in ending the traditional lives of Northern Plains Indians.
"Really, that stood against everything the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty stood for," Bull Bennett says of a higher-education institution established to educate mining engineers. When the U.S. abolished the 1868 treaty and opened the Black Hills to mining, it paved a path that ultimately led to the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the Indian wars of the late 1870s. In that conflict, regional tribes lost both their homeland and nomadic way of life.
If Indians since then have been forced to live in a culture founded on European thinking with its high regard for logical procedure and science, many of them in the 21st century can enrich that intellectual approach with traditional insights, Bull Bennett says.
"We are very connected to the land and the resources around us. Our society is built on that. Our sense of space is what drives us, as opposed to the sense of time that drives Western societies.
"There's a contingent of very talented and intelligent people within American Indian communities. They bring a diverse knowledge of who they are. They can make great students of science, if opportunities were provided."
Such thinking resonates at South Dakota Tech.
"Historically, the work ethic of South Dakota Tech students was enough for them to get a start on a great career," Boysen says. "But we've moved into a different world where students need to have a global view. That's what employers want, and that's what increasing diversity can give us."
The university is targeting several groups of Indian students: those in Rapid City, those who live on the state's nine reservations and students who are already enrolled in the school's American Indian Outreach programs.
Students have to be dedicated, says multicultural committee member Jacquelyn Bolman, manager of special projects in South Dakota Tech's Graduate Education and Sponsored Programs Department.
"We are seeking students who can successfully do the mathematics and science, are interested in a science or engineering career, and are committed to four to six years of study," she says. "Earning a degree from this university is difficult. It always will be."
And once Tech enrolls such students, Bull Bennett says the school has to create an environment on campus that includes a center or an office for the tribes, staffed by professionals and students.
During his years at South Dakota Tech, he says he found such support intermittently. "When I was there it was not entirely lacking. Let's just say it was spotty."
But he hails the effort to bring Indian students into the sciences, reflected by the creation of the multicultural committee.
"What it is really going to take is a mind-set that has not been especially prevalent in South Dakota schools, and that is that you are actually dealing with students with a unique cultural diversity."
The multicultural committee is an appropriate first step, he says.
"It's the right way to go about it. It's a good start. But the work is in front of them."
article from the Argus Leader