EDITOR’S NOTE: The Volante news section features a profile on an award-winning USD faculty member.
Gene Thin Elk is the director of Native Student Services for the University of South Dakota, and was named a recipient of the Dr. George Blue Spruce Jr. Award, presented by Pathways Into Health at the 2012 Achieving Excellence, Harmony and Balance Conference in Rapid City, S.D., this fall.
Thin Elk has been recognized nationally and internationally for his leadership in the field of Native American drug and alcohol rehabilitation, wellness and cross-cultural training. He has been featured in several publications, such as Time Magazine’s Top 100 People of the Year and Newsweek’s New American Heroes.
Christian Hansen: Where are you from, originally?
Gene Thin Elk: I’m originally from a town called White River, S.D.
CH: How long have you been working at the University of South Dakota?
GTE: Next month will be 26 years.
CH: That’s a long time, do you enjoy working here, then?
GTE: Oh, I love it. I just love the collegiate environment, partly because it’s full of different challenges, but mostly because you get to meet a whole bunch of really neat people. I get to watch a lot students, you know, matriculate and graduate four or five years later. It’s always new, it’s exciting.
CH: What is the most difficult part of your job?
GTE: Limited funding. Like everybody else, we are barely surviving on a small budget and we try going out and getting funds. But even nationwide, a lot of the funds are drying up.
CH: What specifically do you do here?
GTE: I’m the director of Native Student Services.
CH: What can you do for Native American students?
GTE: Basically, we work on building a really strong retention program for our native students, giving them a really strong support system, study tables and a lot of different activities. We also assist admissions and recruitment.
CH: You do some work off campus, can you tell me more about that?
GTE: Basically, our off campus activities include an incentive trip. Our students go to visit the Twin Cities and the Shakopee Tribe in Minnesota. They’re in a multimillion dollar industry, and our students get to look at a highly successful tribal nation. It’s something that you hear about, but when you actually see it, it’s like, wow. Then our students go “You know, why can’t we do this at home?” So it’s a really positive experience. But that’s an incentive trip for our students who do well.
CH: You recently won the Dr. George Blue Spruce Award, so can you tell me about that particular honor?
GTE: I was really, extremely honored to win that award, especially because I actually got to meet Dr. Blue Spruce, who was the first Native American dentist in the United States, and also an assistant Attorney General, and a very successful Native American leader. It was an extreme honor to win an award named after him. I was really grateful to win that, and just to meet him and talk to him.
CH: What did you receive it for?
GTE: Just, you know, providing innovative youth services and leadership.
CH: Is there any formative experience that shaped your views in your work?
GTE: Just seeing our elders and the way they lived. The way they did things and expected no recognition, and also being a native person and wanting to fulfill our tribal commitments, traditions and values.