New First Peoples Fund Initiative Gives Voice To Youth On The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

This is the first article in a series that will focus on First Peoples Fund's new initiative to engage young artists through the new Brave New Voices Program.

Students on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota are "finding their voice" thanks to a program that connects them with oral tradition and literary tools.

The Brave New Voices Program is an initiative under the national Youth Speaks organization. First Peoples Fund is one of 13 members in a cohort from around the United States selected to participate in the program designed to give young people a voice in today's society. They are the only organization in the cohort focused solely on working with Native American youth.

On Pine Ridge, the program is being used to guide a group of students ages 13 to 19 as they study and research books, poetry and oral history to learn more about their culture, the forms of literature and develop their own writing and speaking skills.

The students study select writings and documents, including Native American treaties with the U.S. government, said Brandie Macdonald (Chickasaw/Choctaw), program manager for First Peoples Fund.

"We challenge them to think and to have an opinion," she said.

First Peoples Fund staff have been working with teachers at Red Cloud Indian School, Oglala Lakota College and Crazy Horse High School. They are also holding community-based poetry workshops and creative writing sessions once a week, which the youth have named "Dances with Words."

At the student-based meetings, an average of eight to 10 students come together and watch creative writing videos, study poetry and work through writing prompts.

"It's a safe, supportive space," Macdonald said. "It's a space where young people on the reservation can come together and grow through their writing."

The transformation of the students has been encouraging, she said, and lines up with First Peoples Fund values-based philosophies.

"It's about how to create sustainable pockets of creative writing spaces," she said. "We're taking oral history and connecting it with young people who are living in a contemporary time."

Oral traditions are an important part of many Native cultures as a way to transmit ideas and traditions from generation to generation, Macdonald added. "We're teaching them how to stand up and tell your story," she said. The skills will not only remind or inform the students on their history, but also assist them in their current school situations and be useful as they apply for scholarships, grants and college.

The students have already seen success. "We've watched these young people grow from writing one sentence to writing pages."

Their perspectives are also changing, Macdonald added.

"They go from writing personal stories to socially-active stories," she said, including writing and speaking about issues on the loss of language, religion and buffalo. "They're starting to become socially aware of what's going on in their community. They're becoming change makers through their writing."