Wooyake Theca Oyate & Supporting Youth Storytellers
January 30, 2023

Wooyake Theca Oyate & Supporting Youth Storytellers

Supporting Youth Storytellers

Here at First Peoples Fund (FPF), we believe storytelling and poetry are crucial cornerstones in preserving traditional knowledge and culture. We also believe intergenerational work and focusing on our youth are critical to sustaining and growing the cultural fabric of our communities and our ability to thrive.

Through our Dances With Words (DWW) program, First Peoples Fund cultivates and support young literary and spoken word artists on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota – a program inspired by and born out of our experience with the nationally renowned, San Francisco-based Youth Speaks. Our youth programming grew beyond DWW in 2021 with the introduction of the  Emerging Poets Fellowship - a program supporting Lakota youth in building their artistic skills and professional development connections while building new paths for their success. And this fall, our youth development team hosted the first annual, Wooyake Theca Oyate, or Youth Storytelling Festival, at the Oglala Lakota Artspace in Kyle, South Dakota.

In organizing this event, First Peoples Fund collaborated with regional partners at the Cheyenne River Youth Project in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, Nis’to, Inc. in Sisseton, South Dakota, and the Indigenous Peoples Task Force in Minneapolis, Minnesota to bring 14 Native youth to the Artspace for a three-day celebration. These storytellers, ranging from 12 to 19 years old, gathered to celebrate their stories through poetry, song, and visual art, led by fellow artists and culture bearers. Together the group composed a rap song, created a short book of poetry and art, and painted a mural.

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1. Hannah Owen, 2022 2. (L-R) Omaka Mendoza, Tusweca Mendoza Background: Jayden Hernandez 3. (L-R) Kinsale Drake, Pte San Win Little Whiteman

Youth participants had the opportunity to learn first-hand from accomplished Native artists and mentors who are part of the First Peoples Fund family. Tusweca Mendoza (Oglala Lakota, Sicangu Lakota) and Michael Patton (Oglala Lakota) led the mural painting, while First Peoples Fund Cultural Capital fellow Talon Bazille Ducheneaux and Terrance Jade led a songwriting workshop with the festival participants. Students learned writing and poetry fundamentals from Cultural Capital fellow Kinsale Drake. Together with First Peoples Fund Associate Director of Youth Development Autumn White Eyes, the group created a safe place for Native creatorsto tell Native stories.

“Native storytelling often hinges on sharing deeply held beliefs and traditions with others, building a sense of community and reciprocity in the attempt. Whichever form those stories ultimately take, they stem from a place of vulnerability and connection, which means creating the appropriate place to share them can be crucial,” White Eyes says. “Creating art can be this really vulnerable experience, especially for Native youth who struggle with so many things. [This event] gave people their own space, and [the opportunity] to take up that space during the festival. They worked together and shared their work with each other. That reciprocity is something we talk a lot about with the youth and that is really central to storytelling.”

White Eyes sees Wooyake Theca Oyate as another way to support the goals behind Dances With Words™, and First Peoples Fund’s mission toward celebrating and lifting up Native storytellers. FPF plans on hosting the festival again next year while working to expand the ways participants may express themselves and engage with their culture. White Eyes said she hopes to host the program during the summer, and include film as a medium.

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