Donor Highlight: Lisa and Steve Ryan

December 18, 2017

Red Cloud donors, Steve and Lisa Ryan.


When she was just a teenager, Lisa Ryan’s family took a trip across the country—and driving across the Rosebud Reservation, she was stunned by both the beauty of the landscape and the depth of poverty that affected community members there. Determined to make a difference, she became an attorney and focused her career in Indian law, helping tribes protect their natural resources and improve educational opportunities. That work, and her commitment to Jesuit education, eventually led Lisa and her husband Steve to become strong and long-standing advocates for Red Cloud Indian School. We asked Lisa to share how Red Cloud became a part of their lives—and why it’s mission remains so important.


What drew you to get involved with Native American issues?

I first became aware and interested in reservation communities at the age of 13, when my family undertook a seven-week, coast-to-coast, border-to-border camping trip across the country. I remember driving through the Rosebud Reservation and being appalled by the sight of families with children living out of their cars. Even today that is one of the most vivid memories I have of that trip.

How did that experience shape your life?

Though I pursued my interest in Native culture and history through reading and media, it was not until I graduated from Notre Dame Law School that I felt I had a real opportunity to make a difference. I joined a relatively small DC law firm that had practice groups in both Indian Land Claims litigation and in assisting tribes and Native Alaskan groups in natural resource development and protection. I eventually moved to the Justice Department, where I did environmental litigation.

You ultimately became an advocate for quality education in Native communities.

After a stint as a stay-at-home mom, I joined some old colleagues in a firm that practiced Indian law exclusively and I specialized in education issues facing tribally-controlled, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) funded schools. So I developed some knowledge and background in the myriad of obstacles facing Native communities seeking educational opportunities for their children.

How did you eventually get involved with Red Cloud?

Two of my sons went on to a Jesuit-run high school that had developed a relationship with Red Cloud and, coincidentally, my husband had practiced law with Ambassador Chuck Manatt, who had served on Red Cloud’s Board of Directors. I also had the opportunity to help with the Lakota Language Program (LLP) at its incipiency. My experience working with federal government agencies came in handy as Red Cloud was required to administer federal grants that were awarded for development of the program curriculum and materials.

Shortly thereafter I was offered a seat on the Board, which I held for the last six years. Steve, of course, was totally on board with me in this enterprise, helping to support the institution financially by hosting fundraisers over the year and suggesting that we create a scholarship for a Red Cloud Student to attend Cornell, Steve’s alma mater. And in addition, we shared annual gifts to support the Lakota Language Project, which is close to my heart.

Why is staying involved at Red Cloud so important to you?

As a member of Red Cloud’s Advancement Committee for almost eight years, I know one of our concerns is the geographic remoteness of our school to many of our prospective supporters. But I think Steve’s and my commitment to Red Cloud suggests that charitable support doesn’t have to be confined to the local. Rather we both feel extraordinarily lucky to have had opportunities that are much harder to come by in many communities. We both support and remain committed to Red Cloud for what the school accomplishes, but also how it makes such an impact– through the communication and inculcating of Lakota and Catholic values and a respect for the community which it serves.

With so many challenges facing our country and communities, why should others care about what happens on the Pine Ridge Reservation? Why should they be a part of Red Cloud’s work?

I believe we have a moral imperative to make sure that our youth, regardless of ethnic identity, income status, or geographic location, are afforded the opportunities and resources to become the people that they dream of being. That imperative is particularly urgent in the case of Native American youth, who must overcome the consequences of a historical record that reeks of abysmal treatment and total apathy on the part of our larger society.

Red Cloud students, as anyone who has spent any time at the school is already aware, are amazingly accomplished and very centered, and they have so much to offer their community and the rest of us. How gratifying it is to have the opportunity to make a contribution—however small—to their success!


 Photos Courtesy Lisa and Steve Ryan



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