Lifting Up a Community Through the Arts
Thirty years ago, I founded the Cheyenne River Youth Project, a nonprofit organization on South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation that is dedicated to providing Lakota youth with access to a vibrant and more secure future. Simply put, CRYP gives our kids a wide variety of opportunities that might otherwise be denied to them, because they are living in a remote, rural, underserved area and are dealing with the vicious, lasting effects of historical trauma.
Although we’ve always offered arts and crafts at our youth and teen centers, we didn’t formalize our arts programming until about four years ago. Since then, we’ve opened a free public art park, created teen arts internships, and developed a series of classes and workshops featuring guest and local artists. We also continue to host the annual, award-winning RedCan invitational graffiti jam.
I strongly believe that we’re moving in the right direction with our arts programming, which is now under the umbrella of our Waniyetu Wowapi (Winter Count) Lakota Youth Arts & Culture Institute. Our kids must be able find their own voices, explore their identities, and tell their stories in positive, healthy ways.
Yet we’re still new to all this, and when people tell me they see me as a leader and influencer in the nonprofit arts world, I must confess that I don’t really see myself that way. I’m in a unique situation as a Lakota woman.
First, we actually have no Lakota word for “art.” Expressing ourselves visually is something we’ve always done; it’s part of who we are as Lakota people. Art is life.
We also don’t perceive leadership the same way the dominant society does. For me, it’s my honor and my responsibility to find the right ways to care for our people. In this case, I’m very fortunate to be able to help lift up my community through the arts.
There are challenges, of course, that come from CRYP’s position at this intersection where Lakota culture meets the arts world, and where Indian Country meets the dominant society. Beyond my work in the arts, and my youth work in general, I also must educate, create ambassadors, and find allies.
Fortunately, we are resourceful—as an organization, and as Lakota people. The perception is that we must be superheroes to do what we do, but it’s not remarkable to us. We do what we do because we have to. We use our ingenuity to find a way.
Resilience is in our DNA. I saw a T-shirt not long ago that said, “Powered by my ancestors.” I love that. I believe I’ve been given a responsibility to care, to move forward, and to do more than survive—to thrive. We owe it to those who came before us. They struggled so much so I could be here.
As CRYP’s executive director, I do serve as a role model for the other women in our organization. I also give them new and sometimes uncomfortable opportunities, because that’s how they’ll grow in their own leadership abilities.
Working in the arts influences my own leadership for exactly that reason. It’s new and uncomfortable, and that makes me grow. I’m blessed to be surrounded by creative, knowledgeable, generous souls, and what they teach helps me shape the direction that CRYP will take.
To me, at its heart, leadership isn’t really about leading something. It’s about using what you learn to forge a path forward. When you grow internally, that shapes what you want to do and the impact you will have. The arts absolutely can empower others in their own leadership journeys, because getting in touch with creativity in any way will change you.
As a child growing up on a reservation, I believed the arts were for others. I believed I didn’t have the right background or the right education. I thought, that’s not for me. But my journey has taught me that “art” really is about creativity, something that is quintessential to the human experience.
And that has shaped my leadership, because I see the value of art to life. Everyone needs this. Everyone deserves this. Now I can bring light to my community through the arts, and that’s exciting to me.
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