By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Dances with Words™ — a youth development initiative of First Peoples Fund — works with young people, adult mentors, high schools and nonprofit partners on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to empower students and community leaders through literary, spoken word and other art forms.
Move around the room, change the pace, make eye contact, don’t make eye contact. Feel the emotion — anger, sadness, joy. Where is it coming from? What part of you? Allow it to move you.
Diné artist Reed Bobroff, an alumnus of Brave New Voices, spent a weekend this month at a poetry retreat coaching the Dances with Words poets as they prepare for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in San Francisco in July. Collaborating with the Heritage Center at Red Cloud, the Dances with Words mentors and poets hosted Reed for this special poetry retreat.
The transformation over the weekend showed the poets’ dedication and their willingness to be uncomfortable — in a good way — and put themselves into every word. When it came time to perform their poems the second day, Reed encouraged them to recall where they felt that strong emotion during the movement exercise and to speak from that place.
After his time of growing up in Brave New Voices, Reed went on to graduate from Yale University and become a fellow at the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts program. He’s researching historical trauma and how poetry and spoken word are methods of healing for youth. He came to Pine Ridge for workshops with Dances with Words at the poetry retreat.
“Their performance was transformed during the retreat,” Laree Pourier said. “Even Reed commented on the young people’s rapid growth with minor feedback. I think a lot of the poets feel more confident in their performances now.” Laree Pourier is a Youth Speaks Future Corps Fellow at First Peoples Fund.
When young people first go to Brave New Voices, they are relatively new to spoken word. It was important for the Dances with Words youth to spend time with Reed, to know his history, to know Native poets went before them to Brave New Voices.
The Dances with Words program encompasses more than BNV, though.
"REZILIENCE" OPEN MIC SERIES
A large piece of Dances with Words is the monthly open mic night through a partnership with the Cloud Horse Art Institute in Kyle, South Dakota. “These powerful open gatherings bring together young people from across the reservation and Rapid City to share their stories on the mic through traditional poetry, spoken word, written word, music, hip-hop, and comedy,” Laree said.
The performance part of the Dances with Words program has a deep impact on young people. “Before I started the (DWW) program, I was not a serious artist,” 18-year-old Marcus Red Shirt (Oglala Lakota) said. “I was also very shy and just on a bad path in life. After years of getting exposed to constant dialogue, poems, and writing exercises I began to come out of my shell. I also got pushed to take opportunities that presented themselves through my spoken word performances. Opportunities that have taken me away all summer traveling by myself and getting commissioned by other arts non-profits to perform and to talk about activism.”
The DWW programs are structured to include time solely for kinship-building and emotional expression, aspiring to build a strong, supportive tiospaye (“family” in Lakota) in which everyone is safe to be their authentic selves. In this vein, Dances with Words holds monthly Tiospaye building days. At the request of the poets, they have visited several of the Sacred Sites in He Sapa (Black Hills) during these weekend gatherings.
Similarly, to keep language, culture, and history at the center of and guiding the work, an upcoming DWW advisory committee will include an elder, Philomene Lakota. Laree shared with Philomene how she wants to be intentional about incorporating Lakota language into the program because that’s what the young people want.
“She’s a storyteller, she’s an unci (grandma), that’s natural to her,” Laree said. “So having her there in that way is important, especially in relation to learning about our place, our history. She shares not only the stories that our ancestors carried and how they influenced our relationship to land and home, but also how that moves us as people.”
BRAVE NEW VOICES
The 20th Annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival will convene young poets from around the world for four days of workshops, slams, showcases, community service, and civic participation events from July 19-22, 2017 in San Francisco.
MEET THE 2017 DANCES WITH WORDS TEAM
Cetan Ducheneaux (Cheyenne River Lakota, from Kyle)
Ohitika Locke (Hunkpapa Lakota, from Standing Rock)
Marcus Red Shirt (Oglala Lakota, from Allen)
Senri Primak (Oglala Lakota, from No Flesh)
Rose Little Whiteman (Oglala Lakota, from Kyle)
When preparations began, the mentors had a conversation with the team to discuss what stories the group wants to take to the international platform. Being the only Indigenous team attending, they asked themselves: “What do we want to represent, and what do we feel responsible to represent?” They asked each other more questions such as: How do they be honest about hardships without validating stereotypes? How do they represent joy, happiness, and resilience?
Though a first timer to BNV, Rose Little Whiteman has been in DWW for over three years. “After joining the poetry group, I was writing about my depression and struggles with it,” Rose said. “A few years go by, and I started writing more about hope and love. Not because I felt it constantly, but because I wanted to search for it. Dances with Words is a very friendly and outgoing group. I love the people in it so much.”
The DWW mentors are committed to these young poets. An alumna of the program, Santi Yellow Horse (Oglala Lakota) is among the mentors and brings invaluable knowledge of spoken word and the Brave New Voices event to the team.
The other two mentors for the trip are Josh Del Colle (teacher at Red Cloud High School, and a Tȟéča Wówapi Káǧa Okȟólakičhiye mentor) and Golnesa Asheghali (English and history teacher at Rapid City High).
On July 15, the weekend before BNV, the Dances with Words poets will perform at Native POP: People of the Plains. The Native art market and cultural celebration takes place in a public square in downtown Rapid City and draws thousands of people from the area.
“I’m really excited for that,” Laree said, “because it’ll be a chance for our community and our relatives, our people here, to be able to see what stories we’re taking to BNV. And also to see the depth and beauty of the stories our young people are telling.”