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IN HISTORY: Ben Reifel Becomes First Person of Lakota Descent to Serve in Congress U.S. House of Representatives Collection
January 3, 2018

IN HISTORY: Ben Reifel Becomes First Person of Lakota Descent to Serve in Congress

On January 3, 1961, Ben Reifel became the first Lakota man to serve in the United States House of Representatives. As a congressman, Reifel was a strong advocate for education, veterans affairs, and the humanities. Reifel was the first American Indian to serve South Dakota in Congress.

Although Reifel did not complete the 8th grade until he was sixteen years old, he was able to attain degrees in both chemistry and dairy science from South Dakota State University. During his undergraduate career, Reifel had joined the Army Reserves and later served in World War II. Reifel went on to earn both his master’s and doctoral degree from Harvard University after the war. He was one of the first American Indians to earn a doctoral degree.

After working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Pine Ridge Reservation, Reifel ran for U.S. Congress as a Republican. Reifel won his first campaign and went on to serve five terms. As a congressman, Reifel advocated for education in tribal communities, and advocated for combining county and tribal schools so that both Native and non-Native students could learn together.

Reifel returned to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to work following his last term in Congress. Reifel died at the age of 83 in Sioux Falls, following a battle with cancer. Shortly after his death and to honor Reifel’s legacy, Congress renamed the Cedar Pass Visitor Center to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Additionally, Governor Dennis Daugaard declared September 19 as Ben Reifel Day in South Dakota in 2017.

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