When Araceli Spotted Thunder (Oglala Lakota) first joined a poetry program designed to give Native youth a platform for their voice, she never imagined it would take her to a national stage. But that's exactly where Spotted Thunder is heading next month as she joins her team on the Brave New Voices trip to Atlanta, Georgia, to compete in a poetry slam.
"I never thought I'd be competing," said Spotted Thunder who is a 16-year-old junior at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. "It's really awesome I'm going to have the opportunity to do this."
First Peoples Fund's Brave New Voices Program, Dances with Words, is 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.
On Pine Ridge, the program works with a group of young people ages 13 to 18 as they study, discuss, and research books, poetry and oral history. The young people holistically learn more about their culture and personal identity through discussion, literature, and writing activities that cultivate writing and speaking skills. Spotted Thunder said that when she first joined the program, the poetry came easy. Performing was a different story.
"I did poetry clubs after school," she said. "But at first, it was really hard to open up."
Her sentiments have changed. "It's amazing and fun," she said. "There's a family environment about it."
That has been purposeful, according to First Peoples Fund staff who have been working with teachers at Red Cloud Indian School, Oglala Lakota College and Crazy Horse School. Staff have also held community-based poetry workshops and creative writing sessions once a week.
At the student-based meetings, an average of eight to 10 students come together and watch spoken word videos, discuss social events, study poetry and work through writing prompts. The students have been able to do a bit of traveling to share their work around the region. Students have expressed their thoughts through the written word on a wide range of topics, from school and family to racism and emotions.
Spotted Thunder said she focuses her energy on personal experiences.
"I write about how I feel... about racism, and how women are sacred in different cultures," she said.
Each performance begins with a healthy dose of nerves, she added. "But it is very comforting," she said. "And you can feel all the support from the people there."
Spotted Thunder will spend her summer preparing for the Georgia trip and gearing up for another year of writing and reading in the program.
"I'm revising and trying to memorize," she said, of the one group and individual piece she will perform.
A piece called "Truth is Home," has resonated with her the most. "It's about the reservation and how hard it is, but also a lot about the ways that traditions are coming back and the language is coming back," she said.
Spotted Thunder, who plans to earn a doctorate degree in psychology in college and work for Indian Health Services or start her own therapy business some day, is determined to return to her roots after college.
"I want to come back and continue to encourage youth to do poetry or art to get their voices heard," she said. "I want to come back and continue this program."
A lot is at stake, she added.
"It's important for us as Native people," she said. "Our voices go unheard a lot. Through this, we will be heard. It helps me gain confidence and makes me want to do more."