SDSU alum’s gift doesn’t miss a beat

Courtesy photos: Above, the Oceti Sakowin, meaning Seven Council Fires, are commonly referred to as the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota. Seven of the walls in the octagonally-shaped drum room represent the Seven Council Fires, each made up of individual bands based on kinship, dialect and geographical proximity. Below, the drum room’s ceiling speaks to the open and light design within the American Indian Student Center.

BROOKINGS – For Louis Whitehead, his time at South Dakota State University would impact the rest of his life.

For SDSU, Whitehead’s experience and generosity will impact generations of students, especially American Indian students, through a gift to the on-campus facility dedicated to their success. Whitehead ‘02/’05 M.A. recently made a financial commitment to support programming and activities in the American Indian Student Center.

His passion for music, particularly drums and percussion, inspired the Louis Whitehead Endowment for American Indian Student Programming. The gift will help establish an American Indian Student Drum Group, opportunities to host elders with experience in drumming, and travel to Wacipi events.

“The drum room is one of the most unique features inside one of the most unique buildings on campus,” said SDSU President Barry H. Dunn, who has championed greater opportunities for American Indian students to access higher education through the Wokini Initiative. “Louis’ investment is truly heartfelt. I am continually humbled by the investments people are making in this program and these students.”

As a student, Whitehead was active in the Native American Club and The Pride of the Dakotas Marching Band, organizations that spurred his lifelong loyalty to SDSU. While his undergraduate years were interrupted by a journey with cancer, he graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He has remained connected to both music and the university, playing percussion in the SDSU/Civic Symphony and Brookings Area Community Band.

In recent years, Whitehead has supported music and honored his late parents with a gift to the Oscar Larson Performing Arts Center. While touring campus and visiting with faculty and students, he noticed the worn condition of drum kits used by the SDSU Pep Band and Jazz Ensembles. That led to his funding of new and customized drums for both groups.

The American Indian Student Drum Group and related activities will further elevate the Wokini Initiative. Wokini stands for “new beginning,” and provides scholarships and programmatic support to enrolled members of South Dakota’s nine tribes that attend SDSU.

The American Indian Student Center’s grand opening is scheduled for October. The facility is used to support students with advising, culturally appropriate programming, and initiatives to boost inclusion and diversity campus wide. On a grand scale, these efforts will increase recruitment, retention, and the sense of “home” for American Indian students who choose SDSU. Equally valuable is the focus on supporting students who wish to learn more about their cultural heritage and descendancy, as well as offering non-native students opportunities to learn more. The AISC will provide an environment to perform Native traditions, such as smudging and pipe ceremonies, and the use of the new drum room.

“I remember how much I enjoyed and appreciated the opportunities and connections the American Indian student organizations offered me when I was in school,” said Whitehead. “I’m glad to be able to offer support for succeeding generations of students.”

Through the endowment and the naming of the drum room, Whitehead found a way to honor interests that positively influenced his years as a Jackrabbit, paving the way for Indigenous students welcomed at the center. Visitors can sense Whitehead’s generosity not only through the drumming echoing throughout the halls, but by his gift dedication hanging outside the drum room: “Honoring all Native Peoples past, present, and future.”

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