Frank Pommersheim Guest Post: “The Red Bird Trilogy”

The Red Bird Trilogy: Comments Delivered at the 11th Annual University of South Dakota Native Alumni Dinner[1]

Frank Pommersheim

I. Opening Welcome

A special thanks to John Little,[2] Megan Red Shirt Shaw,[3] Damon Leader Charge,[4] the Tiyospaye Council, and many others for all their hard work on this event to recognize and highlight the contribution of Native alums to this University and to their Tribes and the State of South Dakota in their professional lives.

            I also want to give special thanks to John and Megan for the decision to highlight the contributions and accomplishments of Native law school grads both during their time at the Law School and in their subsequent professional lives.  This is an important first in the history of the Law School.

            Although I am not sure that this is public knowledge yet (I remain a relative stranger in the world of social media!), I want to commend Dean Neil Fulton of the Law School for selecting J.R. LaPlante, class of 2009 and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, as the 2023 keynote speaker at the special hooding graduation ceremony held by the Law School on May 5.  This will be another first.  J.R. will be the first Native alum to give the keynote at this prestigious event.  Cheers!

II.  Gratitude to My Students

            Any truly committed, dedicated, and passionate teacher knows that they are deeply affected by the students they teach.  And so it is with me.  I give special thanks to all the Law School honorees – Sherman Marshall,[5] the late Jenny Fyten,[6] Dani McQuillen (aka Dani Daugherty),[7] Janet Routzen,[8] Creighton and Andrew Robertson,[9] and Lacy Neuenfeldt (aka Lacy End of Horn)[10] – individually and collectively for all they have taught me about how to be a better teacher and a better person.

            Yes, I have taught all of the honorees.  In fact, I taught Sherman Marshall at Sinte Gleska College on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation 50 years ago when I just arrived there back in 1973.  I’m sure that Sherman remembers that Introduction to Sociology class in the condemned BIA building (the sole Sinte Gleska College building at that time) with its three students – Sherman Marshall; Sherry Red Owl, the Sinte Gleska registrar; and Marlene Hacker who was to become the first Native graduate of Sinte Gleska’s nursing program.

            No, I didn’t teach Franklin Ducheneaux.[11]  He is even older than I am!  But I did have the honor of serving on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Court of Appeals for the past 10 years with Franklin and I learned much from him about history, tradition, and collegiality.


III.  Stanley Red Bird

A.        I also want to take a few moments to pay tribute and to honor Stanley Red Bird, who was the co-founder and long-time chair of the Board of Directors at Sinte Gleska College on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.  He was also my mentor and teacher.

            In my early days at Sinte Gleska, Stanley took me to community meetings all over the Rosebud Reservation – Milk’s Camp, Ideal, Parmalee, Swift Bear, Grass Mountain, Antelope, St. Francis, and Stanley’s home community of Spring Creek.  In those first days, Stanley said to me, ‘Frank, just listen!’  Later he would often say – without advanced notice to me – ‘Frank’s going to say something about the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868,’ or ‘the theft of the Sacred Black Hills,’ or the ‘pros and cons of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Constitution.’  I was young but I grew into it.  Stanley said I was doing okay, I was even pretty good.  Whatever.  It was what it was.

            After about three years, Stanley said I should write a book about Rosebud Sioux Tribal government.  I was shocked.  It was a huge honor, but I wasn’t sure I could do it.  But I did it.  It was published in 1977.  It’s title is Broken Ground and Flowing Waters: An Introductory Text with Materials on Rosebud Sioux Tribal Government.[12]  Sherman remembers the book.  Damn, my friend Butch Felix,[13] sitting over there remembers the book.  The book is still around and still being used.  You can even find it in the library of the University of South Dakota and way out east in the green fields of Harvard University.


B. The Red Bird Trilogy

            In federal Indian law, the foundation is the well-known Marshall Trilogy.  It consists of three early nineteenth century cases in which the lead opinion was written by Chief Justice John Marshall.  These cases are Johnson v. McIntosh[14](1823), Cherokee Nation v. Georgia[15](1831), and Worcester v. Georgia[16] (1832).  But when I considered the contribution of Stanley Red Bird, I began to realize that I learned something else entirely.  It is something I will call the Red Bird Trilogy with its own foundational teachings. 

1. The cornerstone of tribal sovereignty is treaties – especially the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Treaties are not something old and irrelevant but something always new and alive. A set of mutually exchanged promises between equals; mutual covenants with respect and a continuing commitment into the present and future. The unilateral and ongoing breach by the federal government of these legal and cultural commitments caused a rupture that still needs repair and healing.

2. Closely related to the importance of treaties is understanding and teaching the history of the sacred Black Hills. It is to know and to speak up about the high crime involving the ‘theft’ of the Black Hills in 1877 and how that theft created a separation and division between the Great Sioux Nation and the federal and South Dakota state governments and between Native and non-Native people. It is to know and to teach that the time to make it right is now and it is always now. It is still the biggest challenge out there in the Lakota world despite the favorable decision of the Supreme Court in 1980 that involved financial redress, but did not provide any land return or recognition of Tribal sovereignty in that holy landscape.

3. Lastly, the key to meaningful self-determination is always to be found in the hard work of identifying vibrant tribal tradition and implementing informed constitutional self-governance.

C. Stanley Red Bird’s Values

            As part of all this, there was a cluster of values that animated the Red Bird Trilogy.  The values I learned from Stanley were:  to always listen, to always learn, to always show respect; to work hard, to teach well, to speak up with and for Lakota people, to write with knowledge and spirit, but always to remain humble and to listen to my elders.  And lastly, to always have a sense of humor and to understand the importance of stories.

            Back in the late 1970’s, Stanley decided to run for a position on the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council from his home community of Spring Creek.  Before the election took place, Stanley’s candidacy was challenged on the grounds that he was no longer a resident of Spring Creek Community.

            The challenge was filed with the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Election Board.  The Election Board decided to hold a hearing to receive evidence.  Stanley said that he wanted me to represent him.  I agreed.

            At the hearing before the five member Election Board, which consisted of five members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council, the Hearing Officer, who was a non-Native attorney from Rapid City, received into evidence and read several sworn affidavits contesting Stanley’s residency in Spring Creek.

            Stanley raised his hand and was recognized by the Hearing Officer.  Stanley said, ‘Mr. Hearing Officer, my attorney here, Mr. Frank Pommersheim, does not speak or understand English.  He only speaks Lakota.  Please translate what you just said into Lakota.’

            All of a sudden, silence filled the packed hearing room.  And then several moments later, everyone burst out laughing except for the Hearing Officer, who remained speechless.

            The Election Board immediately went into executive session. It returned in about five minutes.  It announced that it decided the residency challenge in Mr. Red Bird’s favor.  The chair of the Election Board noted – as she smiled broadly – that only someone who lived in Spring Creek could tell such a story.

            As Stanley and I exited the hearing room, he shook my hand and said I did a great job.  I just smiled.  It was the only case I ever ‘won’ without saying a word.

            But as often is the case, Iktomi[17] had the last word.  Stanley lost the election and never ran for elected office again.

            Stanley passed into the spirit world back in 1987 – 36 years ago.  This is the last paragraph of an elegy I wrote back then.  It reads:

It is almost six [now 36] years ago since we buried Stanley on a little knoll out on his land near Spring Creek Community. That day the sun was bright and the sky was an endless blue. Mother Earth took him in Her arms and held him gently. Zintkala Luta was home again.

We covered him with fresh earth, and then turned and walked back to the house to share a final meal in thanksgiving.

I picked some sage to keep with me these long days. I still have it.[18]

            And lastly, a poem I wrote for my Indian law students to praise them and to encourage them to carry on.

Buddha Sends a Hunter-Gatherer Poem to Professor Pomm’s Indian Law Students

Cut complicity

gather reason

seek balance


show respect                      

find spirit


pour it

all out


Mitaku Oyasin[19]

[1] April 14, 2023.

[2] Director of Native Recruitment and Alumni Engagement at the University of South Dakota.

[3] Director of Native Student Services at the University of South Dakota.

[4] Director of Tribal Outreach at the University of South Dakota Medical School.

[5] Class of 1984.

[6] Class of 1993.

[7] Class of 2002.

[8] Class of 2006.

[9] Father and son, classes of 1976 and 2009.

[10] Class of 2013.

[11] Class of 1965.

[12] Frank Pommersheim, Broken Ground and Flowing Waters: An Introductory Text with Materials on Rosebud Sioux Tribal Government (Sinte Gleska College Press, 1977).

[13] Long time staff member at Sinte Gleska College and emcee for the 49th Wacipi and Pow Wow (2023) at the University of South Dakota.

[14] 21 U.S. 543 (1823).

[15] 30 U.S. 1 (1831).

[16] 31 U.S. 515 (1832).

[17] Iktomi is a well-known Lakota trickster figure.

[18] Frank Pommersheim, Snaps: Poetry and Prose from a Family Album (Rose Hill Books, 1994), at p.73.

[19] A Lakota phrase, which means all my relatives.