Roger Buffalohead’s name in his Ponca tribe of Oklahoma was Inshtaduba, which means Four Eyes, an ancient Ponca dog that had yellow markings above its eyes.
It was an honor to be named for a dog, said his wife, Priscilla Buffalohead of St. Louis Park. “A dog is one of the three sacred gifts from the creator, along with the bow and an ear of corn,” she said.
So it was fitting that one so deeply rooted in his native culture would lead the nation’s first Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, founded in 1969.
Buffalohead died Sept. 6 at age 77. His death was not expected, although he had been ill.
Buffalohead was a mentor for countless students over the years, including Hattie Kauffman, a member of the Nez Perce tribe who became a correspondent for CBS News.
“I cannot imagine how many lives he touched during the decades he devoted to Native American education,” said Kauffman, who was a freshman in 1972. “He was the center around which all the Native students orbited.”
“You have to remember that back in those years, ethnic studies programs were quite new on university campuses,” she said. “Culturally relevant student support services that are common today simply did not exist in those years. Our support system was quite literally Roger.”
Over the years, Buffalohead ran the U’s American Indian Learning Resource Center, worked with the Upper Midwest American Indian Center in Minneapolis, and taught at Washington State University, the University of Minnesota Duluth and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., among others. He ended his teaching career at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
“He loved the diversity of the students there,” said his wife, a noted anthropologist. “He found connections between his own tribal life and immigrants’ lives.”
Buffalohead was born near White Eagle, Okla., on May 30, 1939, an enrolled member of the Ponca tribe. The ninth of 10 children, he was the first to attend college, at Oklahoma State University, then graduate school at the University of Wisconsin with a Woodrow Wilson scholarship, receiving his degree in 1966.
He was at the University of California, Los Angeles, when the U asked if he would teach in its new department, then was asked to lead it. There, he worked with members of the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes to develop one of the first accredited language programs in the country. But his reach extended across campus.
“He was not only a professor of American Indian Studies, he was the one we all turned to in any crisis, big or small,” Kauffman said. “If you were struggling in an English class or economics or sociology — choose any subject, it doesn’t matter — the person you turned to was Roger. He was willing to help out even when the issue wasn’t academic. I believe were it not for Roger, many of us students would not have made it to graduation.”
Buffalohead, who wrote extensively on American Indian issues, was interviewed by Studs Terkel in 1971. It was a pivotal time in Indian history, highlighted by the Wounded Knee occupation in South Dakota in 1973. Priscilla Buffalohead said he supported such efforts, “but he wasn’t really the kind of person who was an upfront activist. He was more behind the scenes, encouraging his students that education is what is going to make you free.”
In addition to his wife, Priscilla, Buffalohead is survived by a son, Eric, (Joni), Minneapolis, who chairs the Indian Studies Program at Augsburg College; a daughter, Julie (Nate Flink), St. Paul, a respected American Indian artist; his brother, Tom; sisters Lee Ann and Anita; five grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Services have been held.