Dwayne Stenstrom Sr. stands in front of a full classroom as the late afternoon light fades to dusk. He begins to tell a fable of an eagle egg that was found by a farmer and placed in a chicken coop to be raised by hens. As the eaglet grows, he begins to realize he's different from the others, but he comes back to the coop each night.
Dressed in pressed jeans, an untucked polo shirt, and tennis shoes, Dwayne's approachable style has students leaning in as he shares the story of his life - a story that is at the same time profoundly sad and profoundly hopeful. Perhaps more importantly, it's a story that is profoundly impactful, resonating with the room full of future counselors, caseworkers, and community leaders.
Dwayne shares how he spent most of the first years of his life at his grandfather's house on the Winnebago Reservation in eastern Nebraska. He was a man who's life was so full and, as Dwayne describes it, "could have been made into an excellent book." For eight years his life was filled with family, stories, wisdom, and happiness. “Never forget where you come from,” his mom would tell him. Little did he know how important that phrase would become in his life.
Then came the day that changed everything. A woman from the government showed up to his school dorm one day. Armed with the full authority of the federal law (and a vague justification about his home not being suitable), they quickly carried little Dwayne from the only place he'd ever known to a white foster home hundreds of miles away.
The next twelve years were a whirlwind of new families, new houses, and a new way of living - all while hoping for that van to return to take him home. After graduating high school, he battled the intense grief that comes with the realization of the loss of childhood, culture, and family. In the midst of this grief, Dwayne describes how he found himself on the campus of Sinte Gleska College (now Sinte Gleska University), feeling like he had arrived a home-away-from-home. Learning from elders and scholars, Dwayne began unraveling the policies, powers, and history that ripped him away from his family. As a Human Studies major, he began to process his life in a new way and reclaim the power stolen from him as a kid.
Dwayne settled in the sprawling, pine-dotted hills of western Rosebud in the traditional community of Old Ring Thunder. He married a Lakota woman, became a father, grandfather, and great grandfather. The wounds of the "Termination Era" of federal policy (also known as the "Adoption Era") will always be a part of his story, Dwayne says. He reflects, "I've had to rebuild a life for myself with limited connection to my family back home because when I was finally able to understand what happened and make decisions for myself, years had passed between us."
For four decades, Dwayne has been a constant reminder to the Sinte Gleska community of what's possible for Indigenous students. Through his work over the years as a community educator, bookmobile driver, adjunct professor, student counselor, retention specialist (and more), his story has reverberated with thousands of students. In the fall of 2021, he accepted an offer to move into a full-time faculty position with the same Human Services Department where he began his higher-education journey years ago.
"SGU has always written its own blueprint for education, and that's important." Dwayne tells me. "The people and the curriculum here helped me look at things from a different perspective; to expand on the anger I had from my childhood - being taken and isolated from my family - and turn it into understanding. I think students in my classes have always seen something they could connect with in my stories. It makes the policies, history, and counseling practices come alive."
Back in his evening class, in his polo shirt and pressed jeans, he shares, “That little eagle believed it was a chicken and acted like a chicken because it was surrounded by chickens. One day, that eagle saw birds flying high overhead and felt something calling him. So he climbed to the top of a hill and leapt off with wings spread. He found himself soaring. And, at that moment, he realized he was no chicken. He was an eagle."
Dwayne pauses and takes a deep breath as if it's all hitting him again for the first time. "I'm here to tell you today I was that little eagle - this is also my story. And that hill, for me, was this place, Sinte Gleska University."
Looking back on the winding road behind him and the untraveled road ahead, Dwayne continues to find meaning in his story. "My grandfather and mother always told me, 'Never forget where you come from.' I know now they weren't just talking about home, they were talking about life experience."
Welcome aboard, Dwayne. We're lucky to have you - your humor, experiences, and wisdom - on our faculty.
Submitted by Dan Seibel, Academic Dean
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