This is the second 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.
To ward off nerves before a poetry reading, 15-year-old Cetan "Sonny" Ducheneaux (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe/Cherokee) simply closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.
"Then I feel like I can perform and show them my feelings," said Sonny Ducheneaux, who is a member of First Peoples Fund's Brave New Voices Program, an initiative under the National Youth Speaks organization.
First Peoples Fund is one of 13 cohorts from around the United States selected to participate in the program designed to provide a platform for young people to find their voice in today's society.
On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the program engages a group of students ages 13 to 19 to think critically and expand on books, poetry and oral history to connect deeper with their culture and forms of literature and storytelling, while simultaneously developing their own writing and speaking skills.
Sonny Ducheneaux, who lives outside of Kyle, South Dakota, and attends Our Lady of Lourdes School in Porcupine, wasn't keen on the first meeting, said his mother Tawa Ducheneaux (Cherokee).
"It's been utterly transformative," she said. "I bribed him to attend once. Then, not another word was needed. He loved it."
First Peoples Fund staff, under the direction of Program Manager Brandie Macdonald (Chickasaw/Choctaw), have been working with teachers at Red Cloud Indian School, Oglala Lakota College and Crazy Horse School to create an inclusive environment for young people to support each other through open dialogue and writing. They are also holding community-based poetry workshops and creative writing sessions once a week the young writers titled "Dances with Words." The young writers have also identified 10 values that are important for the group to reflect. These values range from integrity, humility, inclusion, forgiveness, and love.
At the youth-based meetings, an average of eight to ten students come together and watch creative writing videos, study poetry and work through writing prompts. Tawa Ducheneaux said that before the meetings, her son wasn't attracted to the liberal arts.
"He wasn't necessarily a writer or reader," she said. "He's active and into the outdoors. Reading never appealed to him."
But the workshops have helped him feel empowered, she said.
"They get to be themselves at least one night of the week," she said. "They know they won't be talked about or teased. These kids all have different personalities, but they connect in this type of setting. It's so important to develop kinship during these years."
The youth group has been able to do a bit of traveling to share their love of writing, including to Huron, South Dakota; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and at a few community events in downtown Rapid City last year. The group is currently working diligently to prepare to represent their community at the annual Brave New Voices Festival being held this year in Atlanta, Georgia. They are also working to raise funds for the trip.
"It's very awesome," Sonny Ducheneaux said. "I get to meet new people. Living on the reservation, you don't get that."
Tawa Ducheneaux, who is a librarian at Oglala Lakota College where some of the workshops are held, said it's encouraging to see the students create a comfort zone around each other when they perform in the community.
"They feel safe with each other," she said. "There's not that hesitation. You find that voice inside yourself and you create a coping mechanism that might not have been there otherwise."
Besides learning more about the Lakota tradition of storytelling, Sonny Ducheneaux said the workshops are also a safe outlet for youth to share about their lives.
"I like the idea of having a group where kids and teens have a chance to express feelings about what is happening at home and other places, and just let things go," he said.
Sonny Ducheneaux said he writes about his land, family, friends and school. He expects that the lessons, which include Lakota language and songs and discussions about values and culture, will influence the way he and his peers see themselves and their heritage.
"I feel like some of us can learn more about our culture and express it in a different way," he said.