West River Eagle

Austin Sunka Lúta named OLC Student of the Year award

The Leadership and Financial Aid Team at Oglala Lakota College (OLC) chose Austin Sunka Lúta of Eagle Butte to receive the Student of the Year Award for the 2023-2024 academic year. OLC now includes 11 college centers providing classes to students on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the Rapid City area, and the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Sunka Lúta is the sole recipient of the award chosen from among all students at all OLC centers. The award recognizes the academic achievements, community involvement, and commitment to excellence and growth of an outstanding scholar at each Tribal College/University and includes a $1,200 scholarship.

In the area of academic achievement, Sunka Lúta says his cumulative Grade Point Average in his OLC studies is currently an exemplary 3.5 on a scale of 1 – 4. He said he graduated from Cheyenne Eagle Butte High School with a “D” average and that the journey forward from there has been “difficult and challenging.”

On what he believes propelled him to excel in college studies after struggling through high school, he says, “I had to learn to overcome some personal barriers. …It took me to learn my (Lakota) culture, who I am, my identity, who my people are, my Tiospaye …I learned to make a spiritual connection through prayer….”

He added, “Anyone can change and make progress in their lives if they are ready to sacrifice the time and effort.”

Sunka Lúta says his life is about “laying a foundation for the next seven generations, especially the unborn ones, so that the next generations can live better.”

Sunka Lúta’s commitment to community service is evident in many ways. In 2022, he was one of four OLC students who won the Sovereignty in Action award from Native BioData Consortium (NBDC), a nonprofit organization run “for natives, by natives.”  That award was for his activities in the areas of food sovereignty, Lakota language preservation, culture preservation broadly, and support for those recovering from trauma and/or substance misuse.

Sunka Lúta used the cash award from that recognition for expenses for a Sobriety Conference in Eagle Butte leading into Home Town Days as well as varied language and culture awareness events. He also purchased computer and recording equipment to record and store video of fluent Lakota language speakers who are typically elders.

When he won the Sovereignty in Action award, Sunka Lúta said, “The award opened my eyes to new possibilities and new ideas. It has been an opportunity that spiraled into other opportunities.” He also said that winning the previous award helped him meet the criteria for this year’s OLC Student of the Year award.

Sunka Lúta’s passion for Lakota language preservation is illustrated by his recent social media post which reads, “ADVOCATE for the language because if you don’t, who will advocate for it? RETURN the language back into our spaces because if you don’t, who will return it? LEARN the language because if you don’t, who will learn it? SHARE the language because if you don’t, who will share it? Lakoliyapi ki ni kte lo (The language will live.)”

Winning the Student of the Year Award allows Sunka Lúta to partake in unique activities and evets such as the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Student Conference which will be held March 9 -12, 2024, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This conference has grown to over 1,000 students, faculty, and staff coming together each spring to compete in academic, cultural, sports, and artistic exercises; share stories and best practices; participate in workshops and plenary sessions; and celebrate the Tribal College Movement.

This year’s conference will also feature a Pow Wow and a basketball tournament as well as other sports competitions. Sunka Lúta is already involved is AIHEC’s Critical Inquiry Team and will contribute to a presentation at the conference on how to revitalize native languages using Artificial Intelligence.

Sunka Lúta will graduate with his bachelor’s degree in Lakota Leadership and Communications and a certificate in Lakota Language Teaching in May 2024. During the summer he plans to collaborate with colleagues to develop a non-profit entity named the Wakpa Waste Community Development Corporation which will be Lakota language based. He plans to start his master’s degree in Lakota Leadership at OLC in the fall semester of 2024.

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