Welcome to 'FIELD TO THE FAIR' website, where Native American Indian students learn to embrace science!

James J. Sanovia - Geological Engineer

Embracing Science - Program Coordinator/Director 2007-2009
Institute of Atmospheric Sciences Department
South Dakota School of Mines & Technology
Enrolled Member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe

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Questions about me!
Various pictures of my life
(bottom of page)

Some Research & Projects I have done or been apart of...
Mapping Projects
(Opens in Adobe PDF)

Black Hills Cultural Map(JPEG low resolution 244KB)

He Sapa Field Guide Book (Opens in Adobe PDF)


        Hi, my name is James (Jim and Jimmy are fine too) Sanovia and I am an enrolled tribal member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Lakota), South Dakota. My father and mother are from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (Oglala Lakota) and the Rosebud Indian Reservation (Sicangu Lakota), respectively. They moved away from the reservation during the early 1970's. My love for the land comes from my father who inspired me to do something with myself all during my entire childhood without me even knowing it, by taking me to Makosica (the Badlands) and He Sapa (the Black Hills) and telling me Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) needs our help. He told me to do something with the environment, stay close to it somehow in my own way, and that there will always be a place for such.

        I am now in my final stages of getting my master’s degree in geological engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSM&T). I also received my BS (bachelor of science) degree in geological engineering from SDSM&T and also received an AA in SEM (Science Engineering and Mathematics) a pre-engineering degree from Oglala Lakota College.  I am a first generation college student in my family and to my knowledge the only Lakota geologicalengineer.

       My first experiences with science started when I attended Oglala Lakota College in the math and science department. While attending the tribal college I would have access to an array of scientists, engineers, and large amounts of hands on science projects. Whether in the field surveying the land or utilizing the tribal colleges state of the art laboratories I was able to better prepare myself for each new and exciting venture. This quickly lead to my first internship!

        I first learned about the digital mapping world during my first internship at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 2001. At NASA I would learn to work with a multi-kilohertz microlaser altimeter, which is a remote sensing instrument on board the NASA P3-B aircraft. That summer of 2001 I would be a recipient of their most prestigious intern award, The Rahsaan Jackson Presentation award, where only 7 of 77 interns received this award for our projects. We had to present our project in front of several judges who were NASA scientists and engineers. I would also take delivery of the NASA GSFC Award of Achievement and offered to return for another internship/co-op.  The summer of 2001 would set the stage for my college career path and research missions working with cultural geospatial issues. These endeavors would continue while attending Oglala Lakota College. I should note that I did return for another NASA internship during the summer of 2004.

       During and after the summer of 2001 I was able to start thinking like a geospatial Native American engineer/scientist, if for better words, combining the two worlds I live in. Since 2001 and to this very day a good majority of my projects, whether they are directly related to or not to cultural, science or engineering projects, have a cultural component to them. Some projects have started with the pure intention of just culture, the Lakota culture in mind, where others may have originally been an engineering or science projects converted over for cultural purposes after the fact. Since my projects where in and around the Black Hills, when finished, can be used for cultural preservation and education of such sites since this is, after all, Lakota country. For example, my senior design project as an undergrad was dealing with ground and surface water issues at Spearfish Canyon and the City of Spearfish, SD. The project produced geologic maps, site characterizations, and surface and sub-surface 3D models of the terrain. This data could now be easily handed over to a Lakota cultural instructor for their interpretation of the site. In fact, I have already been doing such, "project-converts" if you will, like this with Sinte Gleska University Lakota Studies Department on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.

       The main cultural project I have undertaken is what I have been calling the Black Hills Visualization Project, which is a project I started back in 2004. This renames historical, sacred, and any other culturally significant sites in He Sapa (Black Hills) back into the Lakota (Sioux) language.  This project is and will probably be a work in progress for some time. This project got a great boost working with the Sinte Gleska University Lakota Studies Department. They identified all the major and some minor streams in about a 7 state region. These are archived in a geodatabase and the Black Hills portion of the stream naming are on a map I produced called He Sapa Ki Inyanka Ocanku or the Black Hills Red Race Track. This is a poster size map created from a mosaic of Landsat imagery (thanks to USGS EROS), with the Triassic Spearfish formation superimposed on the imagery. The Spearfish formation is red and represents the “Great Race” that took place long ago against the two-legged (birds, bears, and man) and all the four-legged animals. This is a part of the Lakota creation story, about a great race that took place around the Black Hills to determine the fate of two-legged creatures.

       There have been several other research projects naming sites within the Black Hills I have done but the race track story ties them all together. For a few years I travel to professional conferences, government, and university (tribal and non-tribal) and other tribal settings presenting the ideal of the Black Hills Lakota naming project. A Lakota kids cultural-science camp even received ideas from the Black Hills project. I am in the process of preparing to update the imagery from Landsat to ASTER data but that takes time and a better computers than I now have access to. The new imagery will give the poster a new and sharper look.

       I have always strived to somehow include culture into my work whether the learning process be historical or environmental.  That being said, this has all guided my college career path, and hopefully my future career, to lean towards geospatial or GIS and remote sensing interests as well as cultural mapping. My undergrad as well as my graduate studies have been heavily GIS and remote sensed based, even now incorporating InSAR technologies into my present research.

       Last but most certainly not least I am most thankful for the support my wife Lilly and our kids have given me throughout the years. I have to give much credit to my wife for helping me write and edit several projects and reports I have done. Lilly is an excellent writer who graciously dealt with my late nights writing and doing research. My kids also play great roles in all of this work as well, by adventuring with Lilly and I to these historical/sacred sites.

       Indian people are very visual people and showing and inspiring them how these technologies can be used, such as an attempt to give them a physical connection with the land, has and will always be at my forefront. I believe deeply in education, learning and teaching, from all aspects.

Thanks for taking the time to read my introduction!


Here are some questions about me that I will try and keep simple.                            Various pictures of my life      Back to top

* Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised right here in Rapid City, South Dakota. I grew up on the South Side of town in the Robbinsdale area. In fact I attended Robbinsdale Elementary, after that I went to South Jr. High (now it's called South Middle School) and finally attended and graduated from Central High School. My mother is from the Rosebud, SD reservation and my father from Pine Ridge, SD reservation. They would eventually meet in Igloo, SD (about 30 miles Southwest of Hot Springs, SD) and finally end up in Rapid City, SD in 1966.

* What subjects did you like most when you were in middle and high schools?

Before I talk about my middle and high school era I must say that it was my 6th grade (Elementary school at that time) science project that still sticks with me today. With my project I created a simulated suspended cloud inside of a 5 gallon (19 Liters) glass jug. I didn't win anything but I sure thought it was neat and the experience of it stuck with.

When I was in middle school I did not seem to care much about school other than doing well enough to play sports. I played football, basketball, wrestling, track and field, and baseball. You see, I was a below the average student or at least it always took me longer to learn certain subjects than the rest of the kids. In middle school when I was placed in a learning disability (LD) math class I started to do a little better.  The LD math teacher had different techniques than traditional math methods. Although I struggled with my science classes I really enjoyed them. For me middle school consisted of hanging out with friends and playing sports.

During the 9th grade (Middle school at this time) I got my first bass guitar and everything would change for me. During this period High School started in the 10th grade and by this time I was already in my second band. Thus, during High School I went from being active in sports to being active in playing in music rock bands. I would struggle with my High School work but I started to identify that I had an artistic side to me and that was music and art classes. My art work I made in my art classes all had my culture, the Lakota culture, incorporated into it. It was not until my last year in high school that I would take school seriously enough to seek help and desire to graduate. Getting my High School diploma was my parents' only request, one that I would finally accomplish but not until 1994. When I graduated I did so being ranked 472/476. That means I graduated almost rock bottom of the list, almost last. I was not ashamed at that time nor am I now because I did it, I graduated High School.

*Who and what helped you to be where you are in life today?

My parents and their cultural values are the reason I am where I am today. My parents gave my brothers and I a great place to live and raised us with both Lakota cultural and Catholic values, neither of which were forced upon us. We also lived or grew up in a large family structure system, my families Tiospaye, where it just so happened that all of mother and father's brothers and sisters would eventually move from the reservation to the Rapid City area. This made for large family gatherings, this still happens to this day. This structure helped me know right from wrong, but that does not mean I was always a good kid growing up. I made many bad decisions and probably did not so great things while growing up but I always knew or could distinguish between the good and bad. In the early years of my life, lets say 14-25 years of age I fell off the Red Road and drifted to other places that led nowhere. Now that I look back at that era of my life I believe it was my love for playing music (I played bass guitar) that really helped get me back closer, or at least helping me not drift too far away, to being on the Red Road.

I must also mention that I had a friend or two help with with academic and moral support through out my college era. One good friend even taught me another life, one with endless boundaries and opportunity that will last a life time. They also brought me to special potlucks or dinner gatherings, ones I never experienced or even have heard of before. Through these small experiences I would begin to transform my ways, my thoughts, my ideas, to this new life I know have.

*Why did you decide to become a scientist?

When I entered college I did not know I was going to get a geological engineering degree. I just knew I wanted to be helpful in some way or another. My mother taught within the Rapid City school system for 23 years so when I first started college I was looking into being a school teacher but that would quickly change. When I first enrolled at Oglala Lakota College they had a program called the Model Institution for Excellence or MIE program. The MIE program dealt with science and pre-engineering degrees and they paid the students a stipend and paid for your classes. I grew up in the Black Hills and my father always took us on adventures there, thus, I got interested in rocks and streams growing up. Through the MIE mentorship I would find out you can get a degree learning such things as rock and streams. I would soon be directing my degree towards the geology and geological engineering path. I was back on Canku Luta - the Red Road. I must also say that while painting during the summers with my father he always would tell me to do something with the Earth. This would be and still is at the back of my mind and helps know why I do what I do.

*How difficult it is to study to become a scientist?

I think trying to become a scientist or engineer is tough work. There is no way around the difficulties each of these disciplines offer. This is one of the reasons why I stand tall and proud and can say, "I did it, I became an engineer." Although, the road was not easy. It was not the difficulty of the classes that would be my biggest challenges but it would be me, myself and I that would be the biggest challenges. When I first started college I did not even know how to study or when to study. Luckily for me I did my core or basic classes (such as History, Biology, Chemistry, Cultural, English, Speech, Government, etc.) at Oglala Lakota College where they would prepare me for engineering school, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSM&T).

While at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology I would soon learn what it took to get through their engineering courses. Basic engineering classes such as Mechanics of Materials, Fluid Mechanics, and even Differential Equations would take up to anywhere from 10-25 hours of homework-time each week for one of those classes. A lot of us students made it through these types of classes by studying and doing homework in study groups. Finding a study group was not always easy and sometimes I had to invite myself to a study group. Students in study groups must contribute to the group and be helpful to others in the group. Failure to do so may result in a non-invitation to the next study or homework session. There were many nights we would do six hour homework sessions, that is six straight hours of homework. The average might be 3.5 hours each night but not forgetting what gets done during the day too.

In putting it, getting into and staying with these study habits was one of my greatest challenges.

*How do you see your life now as a scientist?

I now see myself in a position to make a difference. Studying geology and geological engineering has helped me understand the complex dynamics of the Black Hills. I now feel a connection with the land and its surroundings. Science has also brought me closer to my cultural, the Lakota culture. Every time I learn new scientific terminology of a locality I desire greatly to learn its Lakota origins as well.



Below I have put up various pictures of me of various aspects of my life.


My kids love science too!

My wonderful Lilly and I at Reptile Gardens.

Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns with my family.

Grill master at my summer internship at NASA summer 2004.

My second intership at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 2004.

San Diago. CA - ESRI GIS International Conference taking a break.

I got to be a presenter at the 2005 ESRI International User Converence in San Diago, CA.

Geological Engineering Field Camp 2005 - somewhere in the Northern Black Hills doing field word.

Geological Engineering Field Camp 2005 group picture near Spearfish, SD.

Taking soil samples with a Geoprobe. This machine was one of many scientific opportunities I had while at Oglala Lakota College.

That's me in the green hard-hat! I am training Oglala Lakota College students how to take soil samples with the Geoprobed.

I am near the top of Mato Paha - Bear Butte with the 2007 He Sapa Oyete kids camp.

Group picture of the 2007 He Sapa Oyate Summer Camp at Mato Tipila Paha - Bears Lodge Butte.

2008 He Sapa Camp 2 Group at Bears Lodge Butte.

Observing the view up on Mato Paha - Bear Butte with our camp students..

Just trying on my new outfit.

Graduation Day - In 2008 I received a Bachelor of Science in Geological Engineering.

My graduation cake at the feather ceremony. Three of us Native students that graduated that year just all happend to be Rosebuders. (Rosebud Sioux Tribe)

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Image created by Jim Sanovia.

Page created by Jim Sanovia.

Last update: June, 2015