Roots: Life On and Off the Rez

Never forget where you come from.

This mantra is one that Matilda Anderson, a 2014 Cooke Young Scholar and 2019 College Scholar, holds dear.

While Matilda currently lives over eight hours away as a student at the University of Kansas, she feels a strong pull toward her ancestral home: the Rosebud Reservation in Rosebud, South Dakota, where she grew up.

“When I’m on the rez, I’m in a whole different world compared to being here on this university campus,” Matilda says. “I think remembering and staying grounded with yourself is really important when coming to a university off the reservation.”

Matilda is the oldest of three siblings, and frequently reminds her younger sister and brother to stay true to their roots as well. While it’s difficult to be away from her family and her people, her ambitions to go to college and get a degree in public health are also tied to her home.

“We don’t have that many resources or opportunities on the rez, but with the Cooke scholarship, that was my way of getting my education,” Matilda says.

Her dream is to go back to South Dakota and build a top-notch recreation center on the reservation after graduation. The lack of infrastructure and opportunity for young people is one thing Matilda wants to help improve for Rosebud.

The Rosebud Reservation is home to over 20,000 people belonging to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, although Matilda and her people prefer to be called the Sicangu Lakota. Sioux was the name the newly-formed United States government gave to the many different Indigenous peoples living in the American West and Midwest during colonization.

Native American reservations often suffer from high rates of poverty, substance abuse, and poor healthcare systems due to many systemic issues. For one, the U.S. government has historically underfunded public health, education, and safety infrastructure for Native Americans living on reservations despite their promise in numerous treaties to do so adequately.

Since she was a young student, Matilda has always felt a strong sense of responsibility to get her college degree and return to Rosebud to help improve it. She also feels passionately about sharing her Native American heritage with others, including the good parts about living on the rez. In the media, Native American reservations are often portrayed negatively because of the lack of resources and economic opportunity for Indigenous people. But there’s so much beauty she wants the world to see too.

“The rez builds you as a person and it builds your character,” Matilda says. “People should see that we come from powerful ancestry. Our teachings and our beliefs. Our stories. It’s all bigger than what you see.”

The Lakota people abide by seven values: respect, compassion, honesty, humility, wisdom, perseverance, and spirituality. Matilda carries these values with her always, whether she’s on or off the reservation. They helped shape her into the person she is, and fuel her passion for giving back to her community through education and opportunity.

“Never forget where you come from or your roots,” Matilda says. “That’s what made you who you are today.”