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Shirley Plume, BIA Superintendent


On this day in 1973, Shirley Plume was appointed Bureau of Indian Affairs Agency Supt. for the Standing Rock Reservation of North and South Dakota. It was a major milestone.

Plume was born in 1920 in Interior, a small town on the southern rim of the South Dakota Badlands. As a member of the Oglala Sioux Nation, she graduated from St. Francis Indian School in St. Francis and then attended college at the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas.

Back in the 1960s, Plume worked as an employment assistance officer at Fort Yates. She was a strong advocate for grass roots education for tribal members and was known for being honest and direct when advising tribal and government officials on possibilities for growth.

During that time, five North Dakota Indian tribes had a dream of creating a worker training facility for their members. Standing Rock tribal chairman Aljo Agard, Councilwoman Alvina Greybear and another Standing Rock leader, “Tiny Bud” Jamerson wanted Shirley to help work on the project, and she agreed. In her new position, she sat through countless board meetings and planning sessions to help make the new training facility become a reality.

The physical site they chose was For Lincoln, which was built in 1898 to provide military training. In 1941, in response to World War II, the fort had been used as an Internment Camp for people the government deemed enemy aliens. About 3,600 Japanese-Americans, German-Americans and German nationals were held behind 10-foot cyclone fences topped with barbed wire, and reinforced with armed guards. After the war, Ft. Lincoln became the headquarters for the US Army Corps of Engineers, and in 1966, it was taken over by the Job Corps.

The United Tribes Training Center opened on July 1, 1969. Plume stayed on to help administer the program and also acted as a liaison with the training group, Bendix Engineering Field Corp.

Shirley made big news in 1973 when she was appointed the Agency Superintendent for Standing Rock – she was the first Native American woman in the nation to hold such a title. During her six-year tenure, one of her primary focuses was protecting the rights of Indian landowners; she also looked for ways to get higher lease rates for tribally owned land.

Plume followed her superintendent position with three terms on the tribal council. During those years, she watched the United Tribes Training Center expand, adapt a new mission, add new programs and become the United Tribes Technical College, one of the leading tribal colleges in the nation. Using the Ft. Lincoln’s historic buildings, UTTC now annually serves 660 American Indian students, and their families, from 70 tribal nations around the country. The college’s President, David Gipp, likes to say, “The Indians have taken over the Fort, for good and useful purposes.”

When Shirley Plume retired in the early 1990s, she had worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for 40 years. In addition to helping to start UTTC, she was one of the first board members of Sitting Bull College in Ft. Yates and also served agencies at Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota, and Crow Creek, Lower Brule and Pine Ridge Reservations in South Dakota.

Shirley Plume died earlier this year, on January 30, at age 83.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm