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His fight for Native aviators


Sam Dupris at flight school in 1956. (Courtesy Photo)

RAPID CITY—Sam Dupris came back from the Korean War determined to become a pilot. For a young man born and raised on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation this would be a lofty goal today, let alone back in the early 1950’s.

Sam Dupris (Courtesy Photo)

Water chooses the path of least resistance, and more often than not, so do people. Society expected no tribal members to want to be aviators, and if they did try to become a pilot, they would find no help, and if they became a pilot despite no help, they would struggle to find a job.

“Sam suffered to get through flight school,” his wife Sammi said, “Because he didn’t have any money, he had no sponsors. He worked three jobs, and he had to live with people, rent a room, and eat day old donuts.

After he got through flight school, Dupris had to settle for flying crop dusters in Mississippi, because there were no other offers for a Native American pilot fresh from flight school. But from that humble beginning he went on to have a long and successful career as a pilot, working for the US Government from Southeast Asia, to Japan, to Europe, and eventually the Middle East. That is a feature story unto itself, but Sam Dupris has another story to tell, another struggle that has kept him occupied for over two decades: creating an opportunity for other Native American students to become aviators.

The logical place to start was on his own reservation, and so he met with the tribal council. “They were all very receptive at first,” Dupris said. “But when I started talking money, then they withdrew. They said I needed to be talking to the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE).”

That required a trip to Washington with Cheyenne River Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier. Dupris had never even heard of the BIE until this incident, but once he got to DC, he explained he wanted to start a program for five students to learn to be aviators. The BIE response was a stonewall: “I said I wanted to do it at one school, the University of North Dakota or South Dakota State. He said can’t do that.”

Dupris regrouped, came back with another proposal: “Could you authorize setting up a pilot program, just to get it started? We’ll iron out all the wrinkles, then when we know how we are doing, we’ll open it up for everybody.”
Response? “We can’t do that we have to open it up for everybody.”

Dupris was given a piece of paper and told that “these are the programs that we have approved at the BIE. I read through it, there was nothing about any aviation, so he said, and then you can’t have it. So, I said can you get it in there? And he said, I can’t get it in there. I said, could I try and make a request? Well, he said, it has to get everybody’s approval. So, I had everything negative dumped on me at that time, we just couldn’t make him understand how important this thing was.” Sammi Dupris points out that back on Cheyenne River, the tribe recently built a new gymnasium. “They already had a gymnasium,” she said, “and this new one cost millions of dollars.” But there was no money to fund even one student to become an aviator.

A few years back a tribal education conference was held in Rapid City. The event was well planned and well attended. Many educators gave speeches and presentations, but what was missing were the consequence of good education: the Native American doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and aviators. None attended. None spoke.

Dupris had found out the hard way that a half century of cultural and social enlightenment had not made it any easier for a Native student to become an aviator. But he did not give up.

Dupris: “I said to Harold (Frazier), you’re the chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, there’s nine of you here, you meet once a month, and will you put me on your agenda. So, we went to Fort Pierre for the next meeting, and I made my presentation, but I said this time I want to change it up. I would like to have each one of you on your reservation fund one person, one student, and that will put nine kids in there. I said, will you do that? Every one of them said no, couldn’t afford it. I could not believe that.”

Twice turned down by the tribe, stonewalled by the BIE in Washington, Dupris had faced the same opposition in the past, during the years he struggled to become an aviator. He didn’t give up then, and he wasn’t going to give up now, despite being past the age of eighty, despite battling health issues, despite losing a son to cancer.

“I contacted some individuals that I knew,” Dupris said. “I said point me in the right direction. Help me with just these five kids. Right now, we have zero in the entire system. That needs to be changed. So, they told me, look at this organization right here, the Airline Pilots Association. There are 122 different organizations listed in here. I read through every one of them but there was only one organization that had an offer for Native Americans.”

And that was for only a $1000.

Dupris decided to contact the airlines, since they were always in need of pilots. Delta said no. United Airlines said no. “American and Southwest didn’t even bother to answer,” Dupris said.

Finally, Dupris decided to reduce the funding from five prospects to one actual student. “I went to our loan committee and told them about a kid in aviation,” Durpis said. “But he needs $5000 dollars to stay in school for this last half, but our loan committee wouldn’t even loan his parents $5000 so he could stay in school.”

The parents were left to come up with the $5000. “She had to sell horses,” Sammi said.

Still, Dupris would not give up. Accompanied by Chairman Frazier, he sat down with one of the richest, and most generous tribes in the country, another of the Seven Council Fires of the Oceti Sakowin, the Shakopee of Minnesota. Result—we have no money for you, try again next year.

He tried the BIE again, as it had been a number of years: “Can’t do anything for you guys.”

Running out of options, Dupris decided to take his case to South Dakota’s favorite billionaire benefactor, Denny Sanford. He managed to get ahold of his secretary: “We talked back and forth for about a week, but she finally said no, but I can get you a couple of tickets to a basketball game.”

Sammi sighed at that story, and was disheartened Sanford had millions to train local students to shoot basketballs and lift weights for football, but no money to train even one Native kid to be an aviator.

Dupris tried to go directly to the schools, directly to the students. “Sam spoke at the high school two or three different times,” Sammi said. “South Dakota State came with simulators and a couple of airplanes. Those kids were just so excited, they were beside themselves. The parents came, the council members came…and then voted him down afterwards.”

Most people would have given up and settled into retirement at that point. But Dupris won’t give up. He became a pilot against all odds: he was badly wounded in Korea, and spent months in the hospital, he flew dangerous Air American missions deep into the Laotian jungle, he survived twice being detained by armed forces at two African airports, the second of which he had to bug out flying low along the coast over choppy waves just to keep from being shot down. But none of those obstacles were as formidable and unyielding as the bureaucracy he has battled just trying to get a program started for Native kids to become aviators.

Sam Dupris (Courtesy Photo)

Dupris went back to where his crusade started, the University of North Dakota, and he made this eminently sensible plea, referring back to what the former Dean of Aviation, Bruce Smith, had told him: “(Bruce Smith) said he flew his airplanes 150,000 hours a year. Five dollars an hour from each one of those flights, that’s $750,000, and that will take five kids through two years.” The university still said no.

Despite impeccable credentials, despite living in the richest country in human history, Dupris has not been able to secure a dollar for his cause. But he keeps plugging away: “I do believe if we can get enough exposure, and we find a donor from the outside, like Walmart or Target or somebody like that, and if they’ll sponsor it, and keep these people away from it (the tribes and the BIE), it will be a good program.”

Dupris spent hours painstakingly telling his story. At the end, his mouth dry, he took a sip of water. “The people I have been talking to for the past twenty years,” he said, “they know, and they understand…they can fix it…if they want to.”

(Contact James Giago Davies at

One response to “His fight for Native aviators”

  1. Michele J. Rousseau says:

    This story about Charles Dupris’ struggle to get ANYONE to sponsor funding for Native Americans to achieve becoming pilots is heartbreaking. This man has devoted his life to this effort and I find it unbelievable that NO ONE will help him and the potential students. Does he have a a Go Fund Me page? Surely there are other people besides myself that would be interested in seeing this project come to fruition.

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