By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
College preparation — skill building, how to handle studies, financial education — did not fortify Laree Pourier (Oglala Lakota) for the culture shock of moving away from her home, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, for the first time. Nothing could have prepared Laree, now 25, for the new reality that overwhelmed her when she left for college.
At Marquette University in Milwaukee, she experienced the differences in her story and those of her colleagues — non-Natives who had grown up in suburban environments. The differences were deep, historical. Not only were these her own experiences, but those of her ancestors. The experience uncovered intergenerational pain and strengthened her identity as a Lakota woman.
Before, Laree knew being Lakota in a sense of ceremony and family. College showed her the necessity of knowing truth and history.
Depression came as a surprise, too. To help navigate her experience, she turned to writing and art, though she didn’t intend to become a poet or a painter. It was a way for her to express. It felt natural.
A passion awakened in that process, a passion to return home and cultivate spaces to give young people the opportunity to learn history in a way that included politics, language, and culture through story. She understood the need for physical space, and imagined a community-based facility for young people to learn and to tell their stories, and to be artists who made things that the community responded to and honored.
In her second year of college, Laree’s auntie Lori Pourier (Oglala Lakota), President and CEO of First Peoples Fund, took her and Laree’s friend, Autumn White Eyes (Oglala Lakota), to an Alternate ROOTS Festival in Baltimore.
Autumn, who recently graduated from Harvard University with a master's in arts education, had participated in Youth Speaks’ Brave New Voices poetry slam while a senior in high school on Pine Ridge. Her and Laree’s conversation revolved around going home and doing youth work together. At Alternate ROOTS, they witnessed community artwork that incorporated spoken word, music, and visual arts, all happening in a community-building way. That was Laree’s dream. After college, she was going to go home and do youth work through the arts.
The two-year Youth Speaks Future Corp Fellowship at First Peoples Fund provides Laree just that opportunity.
Through the position, Laree leads the Dances with Words™ program and is helping broaden young people’s experiences and their understanding of themselves — identity, oppression, and resistance. When these young Natives go to the Youth Speaks sponsored poetry slam, Brave New Voices (BNV), they hear young people from all over the world talking about the same issues.
Having the space to activate their own capacity to look at these deep issues and name solutions, to dream of solutions, is empowering. That’s what young people are doing at BNV. First Peoples Fund’s relationship with Youth Speaks provides a platform for young people to meet and build relationships with other artists, poets, and storytellers.
FIRST PEOPLES FUND AND THE FUTURE OF DANCES WITH WORDS™
Laree is guiding First Peoples Fund’s creation of a toolkit for Dances with Words with training for mentors and a teaching curriculum developed by the poet Layli Long Soldier (Oglala Lakota), who will be part of a new advisory committee for the program. Layli’s curriculum walks poets through first getting to know their own stories and then writing and telling them in ways that feel natural. It introduces them to other Indigenous poets and different poetry and performing formats. By the end of the curriculum, they learn how to facilitate open mics on their own, which creates youth-driven programming.
Laree is also leading the expansion of Dances with Words into other area high schools. The program will include small grants for community mentors to facilitate weekly workshops, using the new curriculum with local youth. The plan is to sustain the program in three districts of the vast Pine Ridge Reservation. Beyond that, FPF will offer the toolkit to communities throughout South Dakota, and ultimately spread the Dances with Words program to tribal communities throughout the region.
Laree is still on her journey home. Though she lives in Rapid City, which is in He Sapa — the Black Hills — home for her is Pine Ridge. It’s where she feels grounded. She looks forward to moving home to Pine Ridge someday, of raising Phéta, her 16-month-old daughter there.
The Dances with Words poets love Phéta, and she loves them, watching them perform and tell their stories. She goes everywhere with the youth, the youngest member of the Dances with Words family. Laree loves that her daughter is growing up in a community space.
Laree’s Youth Speaks fellowship lasts through December 2017. She hopes for the possibility of continuing the work beyond then. For now, Laree feels fortunate to be home in He Sapa, doing her dream work.