Power to the Poets
July 27, 2020

Power to the Poets

For Pte San Win Little Whiteman (Oglala Lakota), writing is about her self-journey and her potential career as a poet. She is a 2020 First Peoples Fund Emerging Poets Fellow. Pte San Win joined Dances with Words at its inception in 2014. When she was 14 years old, that poetry program — also facilitated by FPF — allowed her to find her voice in spoken word.

“I was never super outspoken about my poetry. But after joining the program and getting familiar with public speaking, I gained confidence in my writing. The workshops helped with writer’s block when I didn’t know what to write, but had a desperate need to write. The program helps with that and different opportunities, such as steps to make a career out of it.”

— Pte San Win

This was the pilot year for First Peoples Fund's Emerging Poets Fellowship, giving young people a chance to go beyond the skill of writing poetry; it has taught them the business side. The program’s intention is to provide poetry, leadership, and professional development training to young people through the Youth Development Fellowship Curriculum. It integrates poetry curriculum developed by Layli Long Soldier (Oglala Lakota), and professional development components created by Autumn White Eyes (Oglala Lakota), inspired by the FPF Native Artist Professional Development curriculum for Performing Artists.

Autumn is the Youth Development Consultant for the Emerging Poets Fellowship, providing oversight, trainings, mentoring, and evaluation for the partners. Augusta (Gusti) Terkildsen (Oglala Lakota) and Sunny Red Bear (Cheyenne River Sioux) served as poet mentors for Dances with Words.

The program included regional partners in the Pine Ridge/Rapid City areas; the Cheyenne River Youth Project in Eagle Butte, SD; Nis’to Incorporated in Sisseton, SD; and the Indigenous Peoples Task Force in Minneapolis, SD. Approximately seven poets took part in each region. The program builds on work done by poet mentors and Dances with Words.

Kinsale Hueston (Diné) 2020 First Peoples Fund Cultural Capital Fellow joined for a session on revising and performing poetry.

Lakota Funds, a Native Community Development Financial Institution, and First Peoples Fund partner, joined the project to provide financial literacy training.

“They explained things about budgeting and finance that are important for a writer,” Pte San Win says. “A lot of poets don’t understand that finance is important.”

The curriculum covered resume building, cover letters, budgeting, how to balance a checkbook, and forming an event budget. In the final weeks of the fellowship, the poets received instruction on creating chapbooks and writing their artist bios, something they struggled with in the past.

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The poets put all the training into practice by coordinating and presenting an end-of-the-year poetry reading. With the 2020 shutdown, they shifted their event to live streaming with Zoom and Facebook Live, and included a raffle of donated items from Racing Magpie and Autumn.

While disappointed and lacking the energy of a live audience, the poets made the best of it. Pte San Win found it easier to deliver her deeply personal poem from her bedroom, while another poet, Ashanti Martin (Standing Rock), discovered she was more nervous doing an online event over in-person. She joined Dances with Words in 2018.

“It’s difficult for the audience to react to what you’re saying which usually I like at a poetry event,” Ashanti says. “You hear people saying things as you speak to show they liked what you’re saying or encourage you. At our event, people from First Peoples Fund and the poets’ family members, friends, and others commented favorably. The response was pretty positive.”

“Before Dances with Words, I was incredibly shy and social anxiety was very, very real. I never felt comfortable expressing myself around others. Being in Dances with Words and working within a small group, helped me be more comfortable with those experiences.”

— Ashanti

After the end-of-the-year poetry reading, the poets chatted virtually, praising one another at the success of their celebration.

“They had expressed feeling nervous before the event, and were relieved when it was over,” Autumn says. “We were able to utilize the Zoom chat for them to encourage and affirm one another throughout the event.”

Pte San Win performing at the end-of-the-year poetry reading. Watch the full poetry reading on Facebook.

As the program looks ahead to this next year, program staff and poet mentors are taking into consideration feedback from the poets and partners. One thought is recruiting young people in Dances with Words to take on leadership roles in the program or within the fellowship. Someday, they might become poet mentors themselves.

“I would enjoy helping fellow youth poets understand their poetry; to understand that poetry doesn’t have to have a specific algorithm,” Pte San Win says. “I want them to have a good idea about what opportunities there are for them that I didn’t have when I was their age.”

There is also discussion of expanding the Emerging Poets Fellowship into a two-year fellowship. This would allow poet mentors and the young people to focus on the skill of writing poetry while the second year could focus on the business and financial side of becoming a professional writer.

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“Whenever I thought about a career in poetry and writing, I imagined it was just something you did at home,” Ashanti says, “sending out cover letters to get published and things like that. That’s what I envisioned in my head, nothing more. The fellowship helped allow me to know what else there was. And one of the former mentors for Dances with Words got me into another local gathering. I performed at that event, which was neat.”

“The fellowship not only touched base on different forms of writing and how to write different forms of poems,” Pte San Win says, “but also how to further your poetry, how to make it more than writing on a piece of paper and make a career out of it.”

We fight this war together,

Future and Past

We’re both stubborn,

But, pain will never last.

You’re only 12 years old,

There’s so much I wanna say,

So much I wanna do.

But, I should end this letter.

Love, You.

— Pte San Win Little Whiteman, “Beat of Our Soul” poem excerpt

the negative thoughts and words from others are slowly melding with my own thoughts

i hate that

so easily influenced

my thoughts are pessimistic

negative and draining

being me is so exhausting now

im no longer physically repulsed by myself

no longer do i desire the features of others

i see myself and feel content with my outer shell

but exhausted inside

so exhausted

i want to self destruct but i can’t

i won’t

— Ashanti Martin, poem excerpt

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