By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
A Dances with Words poet ended the “I Too Am American” session with his poem “You Call Me Indian.” At the Brave New Voices (BNV) competition in Washington, D.C., fingers snapped in approval during his performance, where Marcus Ruff (17, Oglala Lakota) alone represented North American Indigenous people. The audience was amazed at how different the Native voices and narratives were, yet still paralleled their own challenges and struggles. These bold young people from the Pine Ridge Reservation were valued. Their voices heard.
Lori Pourier (Oglala/Mnicoujou Lakota), president of First Peoples Fund, joined the Dances with Words (DWW) poets at the opening ceremony for the BNV competition at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Over the next few days, DWW competed with teams from around the country and the world, including Des Moines, Baltimore, Miami, and London.
The experience was unbelievable for Senri White (16, Oglala Lakota). The music, the intensity. The poems gave her goose bumps. The Baltimore team — her favorite — spit a poem about loss that stuck with her, the only poem that made her cry.
The Baltimore team was also Marcus Ruff’s favorite. He felt the energy within the language and imagery as the poets put their hearts and souls into their performances.
Ohitika Locke (17, Hunkpapa Lakota) met amazing people and loved the encouraging words the BNV participants gave. He was nervous, but thanks to the support, performed his poem well.
Once he started delivering his poem, Cetan Ducheneaux (16, Cheyenne River Lakota) felt at home once again. The sights, the spoken words, the people. Memorable.
The youngest poet, Sina Sitting Up (13, Oglala Lakota), shared her sweet heart with the team and leaders throughout their journey.
But for the DWW team, this wasn’t only a trip for an international poetry competition. They explored the nation’s capital for a week. It started with a VIP tour of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). They gathered in front of a collage of historical photos with the words We never gave up. This theme found its way into their poems at the BNV workshops and open mic sessions. They presented the NMAI with a Cheyenne River flag, a flag the museum didn’t have.
The DWW team, their leader and mentors — Brandie Macdonald (Chickasaw/Choctaw), Dawn (Denise) Moves Camp (Oglala Lakota), and Josh Del Colle — went to the NMAI Cultural Resources Center to examine collections and touch their history. Bustles, moccasin patterns. Treaties. They were grounded in the connection with their ancestors.
They visited the National Congress of American Indians at the Embassy of Tribal Nations. This broadened their understanding of nonprofits’ work to create and support movements in Indian country, and internship opportunities for young people. The Pine Ridge youth saw it as their embassy, comprehending what sovereignty means for Indian nations.
Food broadened the youths’ experience in cultural diversity. They embraced first-time experiences at an Ethiopian restaurant and discovered the blend of food and feeding their art at Busboys and Poets.
For downtime, the team relaxed on the grass-lined sidewalk of Washington Circle and practiced slam poetry with NMAI partner Keevin Lewis (Navajo). Keevin spit a poem for the first time.
Lunch at the NMAI opened dialogue with the executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, Bill Mendoza (Oglala-Sicangu Lakota), about education in Indian country. The youth also spoke with the NMAI education department about ways to bring Dances with Words poetry to the NMAI.
The young poets returned to Pine Ridge, but their lives, families and communities won’t be the same. They experienced the nation’s capital with a brave community of poets. They’ve been transformed by the Dances with Words program, and are now transforming their world.