Benjamin Reifel was born on September 19, 1906 in a log cabin near Parmelee, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Reservation. He was the son of a German-American father, William Reifel, and a full-blooded Lakota Sioux, Lucy Burning Breast. Ben Reifel was an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe; his Indian name was Lone Feather.
He attended both a Rosebud Reservation boarding school and a county school. He graduated from the eighth grade at age sixteen and spoke both the Lakota and the English languages. After working on his parents' farm for three years, he entered the School of Agriculture in Brookings, S.D. Upon completion of this high school program in 1928, he enrolled as a special student at South Dakota State College. He paid his own way through four years of college, with the aid of one of the first loans made available to Indian students under the program for the education of Indians recommended by the Merriam survey. He graduated in 1932 with a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture. In his senior year, he was elected President of the Students' Association. Mr. Reifel married a college classmate, Alice Janet Johnson of Erwin, SD, on December 26, 1933. They had only one child, Loyce Nadine, who is married to Emery Andersen.
After graduation in 1932, Ben was hired as boy's advisor at Hare's School in Mission, S.D. In 1933, he began a long, distinguished career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, when he was appointed "farm agent" at Oglala, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. That first appointment lasted only a year before he was promoted to "field agent" at the headquarters in Pierre, SD. He was assigned to promote the new programs under the Indian Reorganization Act signed by President Roosevelt in 1934. This was a period of drought and intense hardship on the reservations, and young Ben, although meeting with counter agitation from some members of the tribes, was extraordinarily successful in winning support for the Reorganization Act, first at Pine Ridge and later on other reservations across South Dakota. He is credited with the major responsibility for making the programs of the Bureau effective on South Dakota reservations.
World War II interrupted his career in the B.I.A. Mr. Reifel had been commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve in 1931. In March of 1942, Ben was ordered to active duty and served in the Army until July 1946. He obtained distinction in France and Germany and achieved the rank of Lt. Colonel. After his discharge, Ben continued his work with the BIA. He was appointed Tribal Relations Officer and later served as Superintendent of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.
In 1949, Mr. Reifel felt the need to continue his education. He was awarded a scholarship in public administration at Harvard University, where he received his Master’s Degree in 1950. A John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowship enabled him to further his education. He completed his Doctorate in Public Administration in 1952. After graduation, Dr. Reifel returned once more to the BIA. After a brief period in the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington, D.C., he returned to Fort Berthold as Reservation Superintendent. He then served at the Pine Ridge Reservation and in 1955 was appointed Area Director of the Aberdeen Area Office in Aberdeen, SD. Now responsible for more than a thousand employees, and for application of federal policies and programs among the Indians of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nebraska, he played his strongest role as administrator, serving to within three years of retirement.
During this period and immediately following, the distinction of Dr. Reifel's career was marked by several awards. He received the Outstanding American Indian Award in 1956 and the Annual Indian Achievement Award by the "Indian Council Fire" in 1960. That same year he received the Silver Antelope Award from the Boy Scouts, also the Silver Beaver, Silver Buffalo, and Gray Wolf Awards in Scouting. He also received the Department of Interior's Distinguished Service Award in 1961 for an outstanding career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In 1960, Dr. Reifel resigned from the Bureau to run for Congress in the First District, South Dakota. He was elected by a substantial margin and served for five terms as Representative from South Dakota. His political popularity was reflected in the solid support he received in every election. He was regarded as a "conservative Republican," and a thinker who prepared himself well on legislative matters, always able to give a substantial and thoughtful basis for his stand on issues. He was the first person of Sioux ancestry to serve in the Congress, and the only Native American in Congress throughout the 1960's.
While a member of congress, Dr. Reifel held several important committee assignments. In his first term, he was appointed to the House Agricultural Committee; in his second, to the House Committee on Appropriations. Thereafter, he served as ranking Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior Department Affairs.
Using these important posts, Congressman Reifel gave distinguished service on behalf of his constituents. He worked hard for farming interests in South Dakota and the plains states in general, opposing cuts in farm support programs, pushing the Oahe irrigation project, and similar matters vital to the state. At the same time, he continued to work vigorously for Indian education, with significant accomplishments. A stern opponent of segregation, he believed that the key to the plight of the Indian people lay in educational programs enrolling Indian and non-Indian students together in modern progressive facilities. While in congress Dr. Reifel gave his support to the Civil Rights Act of 1966 and to the act increasing the minimum wage. Reifel was instrumental in getting the Earth Resources Observation Systems center (EROS) located in South Dakota and in keeping Ellsworth Air Force Base as an active military base in the state. On a broader national level, he was instrumental in securing passage of legislation, which created the National Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Despite his popularity and success, Congressman Reifel decided not to seek reelection in 1970. Although intending to retire in 1971, he remained very active. He accepted an appointment by President Nixon as chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission, and served as Special Assistant for Indian programs to the Director of the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior. He also served as Interim Commissioner of Indian Affairs during the last two months of the Ford Administration. Ben also gave many speeches, speaking at Memorial Day and July 4th celebrations and several high school and university commencement exercises.
Throughout the 1960's and 1970's, Ben was a member of several organizations. He was a member of the Masons, Rotarians, and Elks. He also served on the National Council of the Protestant Episcopal Church and the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He also served as National president of Arrow, Inc., an Indian service organization. In 1977, Ben became a trustee of the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings, SD and served terms as their board president in 1982-83. He established the first Native American collection at the Art Museum in 1977, donating most of his personal collection.
Since Reifel's retirement in 1970, he was honored by several South Dakota colleges and universities. He received honorary doctorates from South Dakota State University, the University of South Dakota, and Northern State College.
Ben's first wife, Alice Johnson Reifel, died of pneumonia on February 8, 1972. Ben remarried on August 14, 1972 to Frances U. Colby of De Smet, S.D. Ben died of Cancer on January 2, 1990.