2017-11-30 / Headlines

Jace DeCory - Teacher By Prayer & Friendly Coercion


Recently retired assistant-professor Jace DeCory had an area of Black Hills State University campus named in her honor. Photo courtesy Black Hills State University Recently retired assistant-professor Jace DeCory had an area of Black Hills State University campus named in her honor. Photo courtesy Black Hills State University SPEARFISH – What began as a circumstance of innocent coercion for a Lakota woman to teach a college course ended up as career in higher education and the honor of having an area of Black Hills State University named after her.

“I graduated from the University of North Dakota in May of 1973,” recalled Jace DeCory, recently retired from her assistant professor position at Black Hills State University. “I turned 21 in August and a month later I was teaching at Turtle Mountain Community College.”

Born Janet Lee Cuny at the Pine Ridge Hospital, DeCory left her Catholic roots behind the previous summer “to follow the Red Road” and took part in a Sundance for guidance on her new path.

“I asked the Creator to put me where I’m supposed to be,” she explained. “Help me to be where I’m supposed to be. So…I’ve always relied on prayer and intuition, personal gut feelings and my heart. And it’s really helped me in my life if I pray about things.”

Shortly afterwards a friend who taught at Turtle Mountain asked DeCory for her assistance.

“Actually…she kind of tricked me,” DeCory observed. “She asked me to come and develop curriculum. Develop the classes. ‘You know how to do all that stuff,’ she said, because I used to do that with my Mom (who was a teacher). And I’d done that with other anthropology classes (her major). And then she said, ‘Now that you have the syllabus and you have the books and everything, I want you to teach it.”

DeCory objected, but to no avail. She had, after all, prayed during Sundance for an answer to her own question of whether or not she should teach.

“And if I am to be a teacher,” DeCory had asked the Creator, “help me to be a good one. And give me the gifts so that I can be in the field of education…higher education…and help people to understand our ways.”

She soon found herself as a sociology and anthropology teacher for students who were older than she was. And DeCory taught a G.E.D. class.

Her time at Turtle Mountain was cut short by an automobile accident that left DeCory incapacitated for several months. Upon recovery she found herself working with the University of North Dakota in the Student Support Services department, but was soon also branching out to consulting work with various tribal colleges and universities along with giving presentations.

During the summer of 1974, DeCory had the opportunity to visit Africa through the Phelps Stokes Ethnic Heritage Seminar.

“It was really a life changing experience for me,” DeCory recalled. “Because I was able to be out of the United States and I was able to make cultural comparisons between the tribal people there and our Native ceremonies. I felt very comfortable. And it helped me to reaffirm my idea of doing further studies in anthropology.”

DeCory was accepted to the University of Washington to continue her education in a PhD program. But she found the damp, rainy weather impacted her health and had to return home to South Dakota during her second year, just short of completing her Master’s thesis.

It was several years before she was able to resume her studies, this time at South Dakota State University. Along the way she met and married former Marine and U.S. Army veteran Sam DeCory and started her family.

In January of 1984 she received a job offer from Black Hills State University with a Master’s Degree in counseling and guidance. She accepted and never looked back.

“They hired me without the PhD,” explained DeCory. “Now, for different teaching positions, you have to have a PhD. But if I would have left there to go on and get a PhD I would have to have reapplied for the job. So…I didn’t do that. I just decided to keep teaching…because I love teaching. I fell in love with it.”

And perhaps that was as it should have been since both of DeCory’s parents - Alvin Earl Cuny and Dorothy Cadotte – had been teachers while her maternal grandmother’s name was Scholastica.

DeCory started teaching Lakota Studies at BHSU and continued in that department until she retired. One of the best aspects of her job was the students.

“I’ve always thought that BHSU, and this area… most of the students are pretty respectful,” DeCory observed. “They’re there because they want to learn. I think that’s why I like higher ed. They’re adults. Nobody’s forcing them to be there. After all, it’s not cheap to go to school, so they should have some sort of incentive to want to get done.”

She also enjoyed being able to continue the learning process along with her students.

“Grandpa Frank Fools Crow was one of my mentors,” DeCory explained. “He always said ‘You should learn something every day. And if you haven’t…it’s because you haven’t been observant, and you haven’t really opened your heart and mind.”

In recalling her long career, DeCory hopes she’s been able offer some degree of explanation of her culture to her non-Native students while offering a greater awareness of their own culture to those who were Native American.

“I see students now who I’ve taught who stop me on the street and say ‘That’s the best class I took at Black Hills State University,” DeCory commented. “I don’t know, they might just be saying that. But it makes me feel good to know that, hopefully, I’ve been able to educate and to help others feel good about themselves and good about what they’re learning.”

And it’s through education - whether in the classroom, through lectures, or by offering presentations at community events - that DeCory feels there can be an inroad to combatting the racism that still exists among many.

As for BHSU’s newly renamed Jace DeCory Center for American Indian Studies, the Lakota elder is humble.

“People are still going to refer to it simply as ‘The Center,” DeCory observed, adding that her true legacy will always be her students.

Jace DeCory continues to teach classes at BHSU – though fewer than she has in the past, and still offers presentations on her culture wherever she can…noting that she is “redirected” not “retired”.

She will teach an “American Indian Women” class at BHSU as an adjunct faculty next Spring as her 2018 challenge.

“I always do at least one major thing each year that is scary or challenging to me,” DeCory explained.

And she’ll have more time to spend with her grandchildren – each of whom, DeCory observed, she’s very proud of.

Jim Kent can be reached at

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