Dream Warriors Use Performance-Based Art to Create Pathways for Youth to Heal

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015

Dream Warriors is the subject of a video story First Peoples Fund has created with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. There will be an accompanying official written component for this video story. This video study is one of three focusing on how performing arts is creating healing pathways for Native youth into performing arts-based enterprises. These are rooted in traditional culture, knowledge, and values through performing arts, allowing them to reclaim, reconnect, and revitalize themselves and their culture in their communities.

First Peoples Fund Video Story: Dream Warriors


“I just got out of the hospital after trying to commit suicide.”

This is what one youth in Oklahoma shared with the five Indigenous members of Dream Warriors after one of their shows on their “Heal It” tour. During three days in Oklahoma, they played six shows. It was exhausting for Tanaya Winder (Duckwater Shoshone Tribe), Frank Waln (Sicangu Lakota), Lyla June (Diné / Cheyenne), Paul Wenell Jr. (“Tall Paul,” Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe), and Mic Jordan (Ojibwe), but stories the youth share remind them of the reason they are on the road.

“Our Native youth struggle with coping mechanisms to heal their traumas,” Tanaya says. She is a spoken word poet, founder of Dream Warriors Management, and 2017 First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership (ABL) Fellow. “Without healthy methods of processing their mental and emotional needs, their lives are at stake.”

The youth who came up after a concert filled with voices, guitar, and drum told the Dream Warriors how her life was changed by hearing how they had overcome painful experiences in their lives. She was happy to be there to hear their stories after her own painful experience.

Frank had stickers in his bag, which he signed and gave to her and other youth with a message:

“When you guys are having a hard time, pull these out and think about today –– think about this conversation because you matter to us. We’re doing this because you guys are special to us and we know what you’re going through.”

Frank, a two-time First Peoples Fund (FPF) ABL Fellow and hip-hop artist, intimately understands the struggles of youth and performs his original songs for healing. He launched the hashtag #healit after youth started telling him that with his music, he “killed it.” The Dream Warriors felt a better description of their work was performing to “heal it.”

“I feel really blessed individually as an artist because everywhere I go, every show I do, a young Native person comes up to me and tells me that my music changed their life,” he says.

The Dream Warriors mission is to embody, teach, and live their heartwork by providing a range of multi-faceted services around performance art and arts-based education to communities throughout Turtle Island. They define a Dream Warrior as someone who uses their passion, dream, or gift to provide for their loved ones and community while understanding the responsibility in using the gifts he/she has been given. Dream Warriors seek to empower others to tell their stories through art. By providing arts-based education and pedagogy as well as performances to community members, youth, and teachers, they hope to help those they serve find healthy outlets to address historical and present-day traumas.

Ultimately, their goal is to help communities heal.

selfie with girls at St Francis they loved tanaya and lyla_women empowerment.jpg

Last year, one of the Dream Warriors, Lyla June, a public speaker, poet, hip-hop artist, and acoustic singer-songwriter, had the idea to reach out to Native boarding schools. Combined with Frank’s Heal It hashtag, Tanaya decided they could bring it all together for a tour. Dream Warriors received a 2018 Our Nations’ Spaces grant through First Peoples Fund to help support the tour.

The Dream Warriors impacted communities as individuals and collectively. Their stories and styles twine together to touch youth of all backgrounds and pain — cycles of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual assault, and historical trauma.

“All of us have broken those cycles,” Lyla says. “What we try to do through our music is to help kids understand they are beautiful Indigenous people and to never, ever think less of themselves than that.”

“I always tell them I share these hardships about my life not to be a tearjerker, but to let people know where I’ve come from and what I’ve experienced in life,” says Paul, a 2018 ABL Fellow. He often brings the power of Native language into his songs.

“They can see me right here in person,” he adds. “Here I am, far away from home, doing things that I love to do. If we can do it, you can do it too.”

DW group selfie at St Francis.jpeg

The artists expressed how they’ve grown individually in their artistry by being together, learning from one another. But their collaboration takes it a step further.

“We’re not just individual artists anymore,” Mic says. “We’re like a family. No egos are there when we do what we do. It’s all togetherness, and we wanted to prove that it’s a beautiful thing to just heal together, and also to get together as a team and build something.”

In 2017, Mic used his First Peoples Fund ABL fellowship to expand on his #DearNativeYouth project.

“All it takes is one moment of inspiration to change the course of a young Indigenous person’s life,” Tanaya says. “Each of the Dream Warriors has our own story of how music, how poetry, how art has helped us heal. If we can help youth find healing pathways towards empowerment by sharing our journeys, we can help heal our people.”

Dream Warriors has taken on not only a national identity but one that will last well beyond this clip of time they are together.

“We are the new ancestors,” Mic says. “We are the ones who our children and grandchildren are going to look up to in the stars. They’re all going through the same thing. It’s not us trying to help them heal, it’s all of us healing together.”