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The Life of Ben Reifel


Ben Reifel

Benjamin Reifel was born on September 19, 1906 in a log cabin within the Rosebud Indian Reservation. His father, William Reifel, was German-American and his mother, Lucy Burning Breast, was a full-blooded Lakota Oceti Sakowin. Ben was an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. His Indian name was Lone Feather.

In Ben's 83 years he would graduate from South Dakota State College, rise through the ranks of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and serve his country in World War II and in Congress. The various pages listed below highlight specific aspects of his life, from his family to his political career. 


89th United States Congress in session in 1965
The 89th United States Congress in session in 1965.

Congressional Career

In 1960, Ben Reifel resigned from the BIA in order to run for the United States House of Representatives from South Dakota's First District. He was elected in a landslide victory and served five terms as the state's representative. He was the first U.S. legislator of Oceti Sakowin ancestry. 

Post-Congress

Ben remained very active after leaving Congress. Ben was appointed by President Nixon to serve as the nation’s first Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior. He later accepted another appointment by President Nixon as chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission. Ben spoke at numerous occasions such as graduations and Memorial Day services.

In 1977, Ben became a trustee of the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings, SD, and served terms as their board president for 1982-1983. He established the first Native American collection at the Art Museum in 1977, donating most of his personal collection.


Representative Ben Reifel with an man at the South Dakota Art Museum.
Representative Ben Reifel with an man at the South Dakota Art Museum.

In 1990, Ben died of cancer at the age of 83. To honor him, South Dakota State University named a dormitory after him. A Sioux Falls middle school is currently being built will also carry his name. In 2017, Governor Dennis Daugaard designated September 19th as Ben Reifel Day.