By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
A safe place. Step into a world where youth are able to openly express their fears, their passions, their truths. Come and dance with words.
Honesty and pain are released through the power of poetry and the spoken word. This is the kind of power that emboldens, that heals, that changes lives. Youth are changing their families and their communities because they themselves are being changed.
Araceli Spotted Thunder (Oglala Lakota) uses poetry to claim space, without warning or apology. Though a gentle, comforting presence, she challenges her people and herself with a powerful voice. Who is Araceli Spotted Thunder? She is a poet and future culture bearer for her people.
Before becoming part of First Peoples Fund’s Dances with Words program for young people on Pine Ridge Reservation, Araceli was quiet. Depressed. She would not talk to people much. She was lost within herself.
At age 12, Araceli moved — with her mother and grandmother — from Oklahoma to the reservation in South Dakota. Things were a struggle for the family. Araceli had never lived on the reservation, but her mother — who was returning home — knew Araceli needed to reconnect with her culture.
When Araceli became a part of Dances with Words, she began to change. Poetry allowed her to think outside herself and beyond.
She immersed herself in the culture and understood not to talk back to elders. But there were things not talked about, things Araceli wanted to know, to reason, to express her feelings about. That was when the power of the spoken word bridged the gap.
From the stage, she has the ability to speak about culture and history, to express what she needs to say about today and the future, to know she’s being heard.
There are times she recites her poems, and her grandmother sits quietly and listens and thinks about what Araceli is saying. They are brought together by the words. Especially the words in their Native language, something that is emphasized when the youth work on their poetry. Araceli’s grandmother is a fluent speaker, and Araceli goes to her when she needs to know how to say a certain word.
Poetry and the spoken word are allowing the angst, the confusion, and the emotions of youth to be understood by their elders. An important mentorship takes place when the youth meet with people of the older generations for support. They dance together.
At the Black Hills Unity Concert that Dances with Words was invited to last summer, Araceli’s mom, Tanya, sat in the audience. When the first poet came on stage, Tanya got goose bumps. The second one, she became emotional. Then Araceli came on. Tanya broke down in tears.
Tanya, who has worked her way through recovery from addiction, knows the power of the written word. When she was younger, she wrote poetry, also as an outlet. She understands Araceli’s excitement when she comes to her with something she wrote. When Araceli was at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Atlanta last year as part of the Dances With Words team, she called her mom often and told her how things were going. Poetry forms a bond for this mother and daughter. They dance together.
The family unit of students and staff within the program has given Araceli a chance to be open, to interact, and yes, even to be hyper at times. When she sees fellow students outside the program, she calls to them and they hug. She didn’t hug before.
Tanya prays the program will continue a long time. A lot of youth need it.
To help with this, a new staff member — Laree Pourier (Oglala Lakota) — has joined the Dances with Words family to build the impact of the program within the Pine Ridge Reservation community. Laree comes to First Peoples Fund as a Future Corps Fellow through Youth Speaks, the San Francisco-based organization behind the Brave New Voices Network, a seven-year initiative that First Peoples Fund is part of. Laree knows the refuge and release of poetry, though she never felt comfortable enough in her writing to outwardly identify as a poet. That changed after she encountered the Dances with Words youth. Because of the bravery in their writing and delivery, they are inspiring her to share more.
Laree spent a season of life with ArtWorks for Milwaukee and facilitated safe spaces for young people to engage in conversations about identity and social justice. In May 2015, she graduated from Marquette University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in social welfare and justice.
But since leaving home on Pine Ridge after graduating from Red Cloud High School, Laree has intended to return to the reservation and continue her work with youth in the arts. The two-year Youth Speaks Future Corps Fellowship position at First People's Fund was perfect placement and timing for her.
Laree has seen how Dances with Words and Brave New Voices allow indigenous young people to express honesty and pain with pride and truth. How they dance together with words to change their world.