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Alum uses anthropology, cultural background to improve opportunities for Native Americans

Richard Meyers
December 11, 2012

Richard Meyers, tribal relations director at South Dakota State University, recognizes and empathizes with the extreme poverty in his own backyard. Meyers, an enrolled Oglala Sioux (Lakota) tribal member with Irish ancestry, holds a beneficial perspective that is both outside and within the Native culture.

With master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology from ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, he seems qualified to profoundly understand the situation of American Indians, as well as how to potentially improve it.

Meyers points out that several of the poorest communities in the nation are in South Dakota and are connected to Lakotas. It concerns him that American Indians on the whole are “lowest in terms of representation in higher education completion and highest in drop-outs.” As a result, few go on to careers in fields that can affect policies that impact their peoples.

With this knowledge in tow, Meyers felt indebted to his family to pursue a discipline that may help reconcile Native American ideals with government interests. Fittingly, the Lakota term for his position is iyeska, which roughly translates to “interpreter.”

In the past, Meyers was a ghostwriter in Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior, known more commonly as the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. In that position, his goal was to not only edit the hundreds of government press releases on American Indian tribes, but also to communicate to the world the policies being contested.

One cause Meyers is championing is the increased representation of American Indians in D.C.

“As the U.S. dealt with tribal groups in its history of land grabbing, the tribal leaders who came to D.C. were often guided or manipulated or influenced by ‘lobbyists’ who saw their travel to D.C. as an opportunity for money,” he says.

With the current drop-out rate and underrepresentation in post-secondary education, there are relatively few native lawyers and lobbyists appealing for their tribes' rights, but Meyers believes that tide is turning.

“I think that through institutions of higher education, there will be new input into a lot of the politics that shape and influence ‘Indian Country,’” he says.

At some point in the near future, Meyers hopes to institute an American Indian Studies major at South Dakota State University to further propagate awareness and engagement. However, his true passion remains the study of anthropology, which he set his heart and mind on long ago.

After an undergraduate career at Amherst College, Meyers felt that ASU was just the environment he needed to equip him for his future in the field by melding his intimate liberal arts college experience with the opportunities of a large, top-tier university.

“Anthropology was the only discipline that allowed terms and writing to explain with clarity ‘cultural’ realities in a discourse that made sense to me,” he says. “I am an anthropologist first and foremost with a subject-matter expertise in Native North America more so than Native studies/American Indian studies. That means that from the human condition of tribal peoples across the globe to an economic analysis of late capitalism, I enjoy anthropology and its lens of viewing human beings.”

“It is interesting to invert the initial paradigm of anthropology and its associations to iconic Whitemen in khakis,” Meyers says.

Isaac Gilbert,
School of Human Evolution and Social Change