Maggie Dunne ’13 and Colgate Professor Peter Balakian travel to meet young Pine Ridge writers

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Balakian and Dunne at Pine Ridge

Colgate Professor Peter Balakian and Maggie Dunne ’13 at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Typically a student accompanies a professor on a research expedition, not the other way around. But nothing about Maggie Dunne ’13 is typical.

Dunne, who is founder of Lakota Children’s Enrichment, Inc. (LCE), a non-profit foundation dedicated to promoting awareness and assistance to families on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, invited Professor. Peter Balakian, a celebrated author and director of creative writing at Colgate, to accompany her to the reservation in South Dakota over winter break.

Balakian, an Armenian-American with a passion for social justice, had agreed to serve as a judge in a writing contest Dunne created.

Balakian traveled with Dunne, Glamour magazine’s 2012 grand prize winner in the Top 10 College Women Competition, to meet with participants in the Student Writing Challenge, and to personally present awards to the winners.

Witnessing the difficulties encountered by children on the reservation was an important aspect of the trip for Balakian, 2012 recipient of the Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance.

“It brings us face to face with the U.S. legacy of genocide against Native American peoples,” Balakian said. “The Lakota reservation reminds us that we have a crisis of poverty in our culture. … It was powerful to see the rugged plains landscape of the Lakota people; a landscape that’s marked by the massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890, a landscape where there’s a lot of history of resilience and refusal to give up their way of life.”

Balakian said many of the entries to the writing contest, which asked students to focus on an inspirational female figure from their community, showed themes of strength and resilience.

“They were very noble pieces. In the poems and nonfiction pieces, you of course got a sense of the extraordinary struggles that these mothers and grandmothers have endured to give their children nurturing sustenance and love,” Balakian said. “The cultural struggles were embedded in these pieces of writing.”

Dunne created the writing contest as a tribute to her late grandmother, who was passionate about poetry, and had asked that donations in her name be made to the LCE charity.

“A lot of what we’ve done in the past has been drives, collecting shoes and providing resources to schools and communities on the reservation. Those types of initiatives are not going to stop, but we wanted to develop something with a measurable impact on the youth,” Dunne said. “It’s not just about winning, but it’s about writing, and how you can use that as a force to tell stories of yourself and the community.”

Dunne, a Native American studies major and religion minor, plans to run LCE full time after graduation.

Pine Ridge

Maggie Dunne ’13 reads to students on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.