Discovering Native American Oral Traditions with Dr. Delphine Red Shirt
Posted 11/23/2018 10:15AM



On November 21, Keystone invited Dr. Delphine Red Shirt, a prominent Native American scholar and author to visit the campus. Dr. Red Shirt has advised the United Nations NGO Committee on the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People and worked tirelessly as a United Nations Representative for the Four Directions Council: International Indigenous Organizations, helping to give a voice and visibility to marginalized groups around the world. She currently serves as a professor at Stanford University, and is a visiting lecturer at Yale University, Connecticut College, and Wayne State University.  


The high school library at Keystone buzzed with excitement as IB Diploma Programme students welcomed Dr. Delphine Red Shirt to campus. Her talk complemented their Indigenous Knowledge Systems curricular unit, part of their Theory of Knowledge Course. Students prepared for the lecture by considering questions related to the universality of knowledge systems and their similarities and differences.


The curricular unit on Indigenous knowledge systems seeks to expose students to knowledge that is unique to particular a culture or society. Knowledge systems around the world today are amalgamations of oral traditions, written language systems, folkloric elements found in storytelling, and rituals, all of which serve as modes of communication within a culture and society.  


Dr. Red Shirt’s lecture began with her personal family history as a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe and her recollections of growing up as a Lakota in Nebraska during the 1960s. She greeted the audience in her native language, Lakota, which she lectures in at Stanford University.


Throughout the evening, Dr. Red Shirt shared photos of members of her tribe and identified the powerful political and cultural contributions they made to preserving Native American culture in the face of American colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries. At present, 520 Native American tribes are federally recognized by the US government and Dr. Red Shirt educated students on the importance of retaining the cultural heritage of numerous tribes in the US. As a member of two sovereign nations, the Oglala and the United States, the duality of her identity resonated powerfully with the students, who also experience the struggles of adolescent identity in China.  


Her most recent book, George Sword’s Warrior Narratives: Compositional Processes in Lakota Oral Tradition, chronicles the life of George Sword, a powerful Lakota warrior whose recollected narratives of colonialization in the 19th century United States deeply influenced Dr. Red Shirt and inspired her to complete the translation of the work from Lakota to English for her PhD.  


Learning about the Lakota knowledge systems and the transference of culture and history opened the students’ eyes to the complexity of language and the preconceived beliefs they hold about indigenous cultures and societies. Dr. Red Shirt’s lecture concluded with a final Q&A session, in which the students asked the professor challenging questions regarding the construction of the Lakota language, traditions and rituals important to her tribe, and the roles of songs and rituals in preserving the heritage of the Lakota. Fortunately for the students, several of Dr. Red Shirt’s books can be found in the Keystone High School library, so that everyone can learn more about this fascinating indigenous culture.


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