Ann and Ilhami Konur founded Windswept in 2009. The school opened with only 12 students in a house where bedrooms doubled as classrooms. The Konurs had lived in Virginia, but they were familiar with the reservation because their church made regular mission trips there.
The couple fell in love with the small town of Eagle Butte and the fourth-largest reservation in the United States: Home to 8,500 people, the reservation sweeps west from the Missouri River for 60 miles over treeless plains. Cattle, creek bottoms, ranch houses, and a privately owned buffalo herd dot the landscape.
The Konurs saw how poverty and substance abuse challenged the reservation. They realized that annual, one-week Bible schools weren’t making a long-term difference in the lives of children and their families, and Ann Konur began dreaming at night of a school that would be involved in the day-to-day lives of families.
In 2006, the Konurs left Virginia and moved to South Dakota. Three years later they opened the school. In the beginning years, Ann and one other teacher taught while Ilhami traveled and raised funds. “We were fearless because we were so green,” he said.
Raising money was easier than winning trust. The Lakota still remember how some Christian schools forced children to cut their hair and punished them if they spoke their Native language. When Windswept first opened, rumors circulated that the school doled out corporal punishment. An angry member of the community saw Ilhami one day and told him he could have “run you over so easily.”
Over the past decade, Windswept Academy has earned acceptance in the community by honoring Lakota culture and caring for the community’s children. Tribal elders have given the Konurs and others at the school three star quilts—a symbol of honor and respect. And four years after that man threatened Ilhami Konur, he approached both Konurs at the grocery store and shook their hands.
They’ve also earned the support of churches in the community and around the country. Sixty churches have raised money and sent teams to build the school. First came a small gymnasium, then an elementary wing, and, this past year, a high-school wing. In nine years, the school has grown from 12 to 92 students.
Sometimes the school still missteps and cultural miscommunications occur. This year, Windswept created a fundraising video that offended some members of the tribe by focusing too much on the problems on the reservation. The school took the video off the internet and didn’t try to defend it. When conflict occurs, Windswept chooses to apologize and move on. “They’ve had a lot of bad experiences with Christians,” headmaster Clint Holley said. “I can’t change the way my ancestors treated them in the past … but what I can do is do right from this point forward. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”