Native Youth Prepare for Olympic-Style Poetry Competition

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015

The 19th Annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C., is just around the corner for five courageous young poets from the Pine Ridge Reservation community. The First Peoples Fund-supported culture program — Dances with Words — has teamed Cetan Ducheneaux (16, Cheyenne River Lakota), Marcus Ruff (17, Oglala Lakota), Ohitika Locke (17, Hunkpapa Lakota), Senri White (16, Oglala Lakota), and Sina Sitting Up (13, Oglala Lakota) to represent Native youth at the high-energy, Olympic-style Brave New Voices poetry competition. Poets are “judged” by a panel of 5 judges based on the quality of the writing, the content of the piece, and the performance. This platform encourages youth to critically and creatively analyze their worlds, strive for excellence, and share their voices.

Youth Speaks — the organization behind Brave New Voices — fills a need for creative approaches to literary arts education and literacy development. Youth Speaks believes it’s crucial to provide spaces where youth can undergo a process of personal growth and transformation in a program that enriches their educational, professional, leadership and artistic skills.

This goal reverberates in Dances with Words. Within the program, mentors address the modern realities of Native youth navigating their lives in their communities on Pine Ridge.

Young people on the reservation don’t always have the opportunity to honestly share the things they want to say and may never feel it’s their time to say it. In Dances with Words, they are speaking, they are writing, they are sharing their everyday lives and how they relate to everyone around them. At the meetings, they talk about poetry or what is going on at the rez. They’ve found a part of themselves that has always been there. The Dances with Words youth on the Brave New Voices team have undergone transformations as individuals and as a family. They are change-makers.

“Son, I’ll pay you $20 to try out this poetry session.” Ever since Cetan Ducheneaux’s mom bribed him to attend the Dances with Words program, he’s loved poetry and the group. Three years later, he’s preparing for his third Brave New Voices competition.

The Dances with Words program impacted Cetan’s life by letting him express his emotions how he wanted, adding to his personal growth. For the Brave New Voices competition, he’s presenting a poem about alcoholism on the reservation. It’s an issue he sees every day, and he wants those with this problem to be helped.

The Brave New Voices team poem addresses issues Native people face in the U.S. today, including a portion on missing and murdered indigenous women. The second group poem is about the body shaming within the Korean-pop (k-pop) industry and how it’s also embedded within American culture.

The youth have studied select writings and documents, including Native American treaties with the U.S. government. They are challenged to think, to have an opinion. To share that opinion with the world in a bold way. To stand up and tell their story.

Nervous? Excited? The Dances with Words team is a blend of both as they prepare for the Brave New Voices competition at the nation’s capital in July, where they will join some of the most outstanding and outspoken youth poets from around the world.

These Native youth will be ready to share their voices.


Image: Marcus Ruff (17, Oglala Lakota) at the 2015 Atlanta Brave New Voices competition. Photo by FPF Staff.