While Sam Dupris was growing up on a Native American reservation in South Dakota, the airplanes flying overhead fascinated him, and he developed a dream of becoming a pilot.

That dream became a reality. And he became the first and only Native American to be employed as a pilot in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

He went on to become both a military and civilian pilot. And all this led to his being inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2010.

‘An American hero’

Sam’s story was sent to Neighbors by Earl Strinden, Fargo.

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Many of you know Earl as a former North Dakota legislator. But Earl emphasizes that this story isn’t about him; it’s about this man he deeply admires. “He is truly an American hero,” Earl says. “I don’t believe in the history of our nation there is another Native American who can match what Sam has accomplished.”

According to his South Dakota Hall of Fame history, Sam, now 86, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, was born on the reservation, the fourth of five children. He was educated in the Catholic Indian Mission Board School system.

After he graduated from high school, he enlisted in the Army. He was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries he received during the Korean War. (He was a paratrooper and was hit by shrapnel.)

Following his honorable discharge from the service, Sam, the history says, “worked his way with hard work and determination into a career in aviation; a career that would take him to Southeast Asia with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and to Alaska, Europe and the Middle East with the FAA. He was also an aviation project manager for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“Over the years, he has received numerous commendations for his service.

“He is a pathfinder and role model for Native Americans,” the history says. “Because of his great pride and love of his South Dakota roots and his Native American heritage, he continues to seek and create opportunities for them.”

Sam, asked by Neighbors for more information about himself, credits crop-dusting in the South with getting him going in flying. “I worked my butt off,” he says.

That led to his being a flight instructor for 30 years, and to his spending 17 years flying overseas: three years in the Far East, five years in Alaska, seven years in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and two years in Saudi Arabia. He flew for Air America, a CIA operation.

“The Army was the second best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “Convincing my wife Sammie to marry me was the first.”

He and Sammie now live in Eagle Butte, S.D. They have four children and five grandchildren.

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Helping his people

Earl, in his letter to Neighbors, says that when he and his wife Jan first met Sam, he and Sammie were living in a Minneapolis suburb. “Some time later,” Earl says, “they made a very unselfish decision to move back to where they grew up in order to give more to their people.”

Sam is constantly seeking ways to help Native American people — the youths in particular.

“I like to help those who can’t help themselves,” he says.

For one thing, he’s seeking to get an “Indians in Aviation” program started on the reservation. He says that even though some tribal leaders are opposed to it, “I seem to be making some progress.”

He wrote that both he and Sammie have eye and hearing problems, but his major concern is that Sammie has cancer, although, he says, “she is holding her own.”

Many awards

Now, let’s return to the Hall of Fame letter of commendation about Sam.

“From the days of wooden aircraft to the highly sophisticated flying machines of today, Sam has experienced it all,” the letter says.

“During his distinguished and storied 40-year career in aviation, he has been a witness to and was involved in many history-making changes in the aviation industry while logging more than 15,000 hours of flight time.

“He experienced firsthand the transition from propeller-driven airplanes to turbo-jet aircraft, navigated by the sound of low frequency range stations to guidance by satellite, from open cockpits and flying by the seat of one’s pants to pressurized jet aircraft at the speed of sound.

“Sam has been at the command of many aircraft,” the letter goes on, “from the DC-3, the C-46, the C-123, the DC-6 and several multi-engine jet aircraft.

“He began his career as an agriculture pilot, transitioning to a corporate pilot position and eventually to pilot position with the FAA.

“As a corporate pilot, he has flown corporate and charter flights for VIPs, entertainers, dignitaries. As an aircraft commander for the FAA he has flown through the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa.

“He also served as a designated check pilot, standardization check pilot and operations officer for the FAA.

“Sam has received many awards and commendations during his career, but he is most proud to be recognized as ‘an expert and daring aviator and most proficient flight instructor.’

“As the only Native American employed as a pilot in the FAA, Sam was appointed to serve on the Minneapolis Federal Executive Board’s committee for minority affairs. He was also selected by the FAA for a special assignment in Washington, D.C., for the purpose of inducting aviation education to Native American children.”

Earl says Sam has worked on a project in North Dakota, which allowed him to visit the Strindens when they lived in Grand Forks while he was traveling to Devils Lake, N.D., and the Spirit Lake Reservation. They also recently visited the Strindens in Fargo.

“We had an enjoyable time with them,” Earl says. “I’m so impressed with Sam; he truly is an American hero.”

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107, fax it to 701-241-5487 or email blind@forumcomm.com.