Montana State University

Steven Davis brings perseverance, tribal perspective to MSU degrees

April 30, 2014 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Despite dealing with a severe concussion, Montana State University graduating senior and former Bobcat basketball player Steven Davis brought a never-quit attitude to his studies in chemical and biological engineering. As a Native American who believes in giving back, Davis took his never-quit message to schools in tribal communities across Montana. MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham. A Montana State University graduate from the Class of 2014, Steven Davis played three years of basketball, while earning bachelor’s degrees in biological and chemical engineering, with highest honors. Davis honed his skills as a charismatic public speaker through his regular outreach trips to tribal communities across Montana. MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham.

Despite dealing with a severe concussion, Montana State University graduating senior and former Bobcat basketball player Steven Davis brought a never-quit attitude to his studies in chemical and biological engineering. As a Native American who believes in giving back, Davis took his never-quit message to schools in tribal communities across Montana. MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham.    High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN – Steven Davis will offer a Blackfeet prayer to open Thursday’s graduation celebration for Montana State University’s Honors College. A meditation in the language of his ancestors will give expression to the role that his Native American heritage and faith have played in his accomplishments at MSU.

“Coming to MSU was a way for me to be connected to my community and to give back to that community,” said Davis, who will graduate on Saturday. “I had always been raised to be an ambassador for my faith and for my people.”

Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the Honors College, said Davis was chosen to offer the ceremony’s invocation due to his remarkable success. In addition to his honors degree, Davis played three years of basketball for MSU, and he will earn bachelor’s degrees in biological and chemical engineering, with highest honors. Davis was also asked to give the invocation because he has become a charismatic public speaker through his regular outreach trips to tribal communities across Montana.

It’s a success story in which MSU played an important and surprising role.

During his senior year in high school, Davis was weighing academic scholarships from Stanford and Notre Dame. But his plans began to change after the MSU men’s basketball program asked him to come to campus for a scrimmage. Davis said his visit to Bozeman coincided with a family trip to the annual pow wow at MSU.

The excitement of that MSU weekend gave him a glimpse of a possible future, one that held the allure of playing NCAA Division I basketball and attending a top-notch engineering college on an academic scholarship, while remaining involved in the Native American community. Davis said he sensed he would be fulfilling a demographic need at the Ivy League schools he had visited.

“I’ve never wanted to be recognized or recruited just for being Native American; I wanted to be recruited because of my own abilities and my own merits,” said Davis, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe on his father’s side and an enrolled member of the Lower Brule Lakota of South Dakota through his mother’s family.

So, with the full blessings of his Bobcat parents, Davis, a co-valedictorian at Billings Skyview High School, chose Bozeman.

Davis joined the MSU basketball team in the fall of 2009. Including his redshirt freshman year, Davis was on the team for three years, all while juggling honors, undergraduate laboratory research and the dual major.

But Davis’ basketball career ended abruptly in the spring of 2012, when a collision in practice left him with a serious concussion.

Ross Carlson, Davis’ mentor and professor of chemical engineering, said there was concern the injury might derail his academic career.

Headaches, vision and working memory problems and reduced mental sharpness plagued him for more than a year. But Davis worked with his professors and MSU’s Office of Disability Services and eventually finished a raft of incomplete courses.

“A large percent of the population would have packed up and gone home,” said Carlson, who thought highly enough of Davis as a freshman to offer him a position in his lab, where he’s been researching the engineering of microbes for biofuels and bioplastics. “It’s hard enough to get a chemical engineering degree as it is. But he kept motoring and, despite his injury, got the bio (engineering) track completed, too.”

Davis’ hard work has already earned him his first job, as a process engineer with ExxonMobil in Baton Rouge, La. Davis will be a second-generation MSU engineer, following in the footsteps of his father, Douglas Davis, who got his MSU degree in construction engineering and now works in Billings.

Without basketball on his schedule, Davis took on more leadership roles in his extracurricular activities, serving as president of MSU’s chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and becoming even more involved with mentoring efforts through EMPower (Engineering Minority Program). On top of McNair Scholarships, he earned funding from the American Indian Research Opportunities program for his research and studies.

Nearest to his heart, he redoubled his outreach efforts, traveling more often to visit students in far-flung tribal communities, telling them that they should ignore the story that they can’t succeed, or worse, that success in school is selling out.

“We’ve all heard that story, but it’s past time we write our own story and define our own success,” Davis said.

Although he is from an urban background, Davis is well received on Montana reservations.

When he visits Browning, his ability to speak some Blackfeet and talk with reverence about his family’s history as holy women and men of the Thunder Medicine Pipe Society connects him to the community, said Darnell Rides at the Door, who is Davis’ aunt and an important elder. Rides at the Door teaches a traditional Indian studies class at the De La Salle Blackfeet School, a private Catholic school in Browning.

Rides at the Door said Davis brought her sixth graders a simple message that came straight from his great-grandmother, Grandma Ground, a powerful medicine woman who was the holder of the Thunder Medicine Pipe Society bundle. Grandma Ground is credited with helping preserve Blackfeet spiritual traditions and language in the face of efforts during the early 20th century to push tribes from the ways of their ancestors.

“Steven simply told them to try hard and to not ever give up, which is what Grandma Ground used to tell us grandchildren…. I got chills,” said Rides at the Door. She added that Davis’ own induction into the Thunder Medicine Pipe Society is a very high honor and a recognition of his caring nature and his deep spiritual commitment to the culture of his people.

If students aren’t aware of his spiritual inclinations – Davis is also a devout Catholic and has translated liturgical passages into Blackfeet as part of his Honors College thesis – they do recognize his basketball abilities.

Standing 6-foot-7, Davis makes quite an impression wherever he goes, said Browning High School chemistry teacher Leo Bird, who is also Davis’ uncle and the Blackfeet elder who brought Davis into the All Brave Dogs Society (Kanattsoomitaiks), a group also known as the Crazy Dogs.

As a Crazy Dog, Davis is charged with protecting and promoting the Blackfeet youth and elderly. It is a heartfelt mission that is on display when Davis speaks to students in Browning, Bird said.

“Becoming (a Crazy Dog) is something that is traditionally for people in their 50s and 60s – I like to call him a young-old man,” Bird said. “For Steven, at those times in his life when he’s needed the (Blackfeet) culture, he’s done a good job of coming here and immersing himself in the ways of the people…. To have a guy like that, who has played Division I basketball, come and talk about the value of education and science, and to have him explain that playing basketball was a means to an end, that’s a powerful example.”

Davis said he sees his education through the lens of the warrior culture, an opportunity for counting coup while serving a purpose that is greater than the self.

Davis’ commitment to others, particularly in helping strengthen the support networks for Native American students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines, will leave a legacy for students who follow, said Christine Foreman, director of EMPower and associate dean of student success in the College of Engineering.

“He is a big personality and he has used that to get other students involved,” Foreman said.

Lee agreed, noting that Davis had prompted the Honors College to change its foreign-language requirement – now called a second-language requirement – to include Native American languages as well.

“He’s an inspiration to many young students and to faculty members also,” Lee said. “He’s dedicated himself to showing us the opportunities that are available, and he’s done that despite his injury, which is a testament to his character and commitment.”

From Davis’ perspective giving back to the MSU community comes naturally, because the school is inextricably intertwined with his tight-knit family.

“The very day I was dropped off at MSU, my father told my brother, Leo, and I that Grandma Ground had once told him that we call this place (the Gallatin Valley) the Valley of the Flowers, and we were not leaving home but finally back home.” Davis said. “He reminded us that our ancestors’ bones are interred here in this earth and that we are today’s warriors, fighting today’s fight. Truly understanding that mission really helped inspire me and when you add in all the support I’ve had from my family, as well as the faculty and programs here, it has felt like home. I’m so grateful to MSU for all of it.”

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371, seppjannotta@montana.edu.