Kyle, S.D. – Even a casual glance at artists in different mediums will find people who were looking for a way to express themselves and deal with the issues in their lives. A summer art program on the Pine Ridge Reservation introduced professional artists to tribal youth in an effort to help combat the high rate of suicide among young Lakota.The Mitakupi – or “My People” Foundation – hosted the “I am Sending a Voice” Summer Arts program to help lift Lakota youth out of the daily task of survival, explained Mitakupi founder Jennifer Jessum.“You know, I grew up in a real difficult situation and art saved my life,” Jessum recalled. “It gave me tools to express myself. It gave me ways to deal with some difficult things I was going through. And I wanted to share that with the kids out here…because every young person goes through difficulties. And out here on Pine Ridge and a lot of First Nations youth…they’re dealing with some additional difficulties.”So many additional difficulties, noted Jessum, that the reservation has had more than 25 youth suicides this year with 150 attempts per month.
Lakota students working on assignments in writing class during Pine Ridge Summer Art Program. Photo by Brittanie Sterner
Artists from as far away as India took part in the 2-week program that offered Lakota youth aged 6 to 21 alternative ways to express themselves through instruction in film, dance, music, visual arts, and writing. Brittanie Sterner is a Philadelphia-based writer. She’s been impacted by the spirituality on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She also cares for the Lakota people here and feels that the state-of-emergency they’re currently experiencing should be recognized and spoken about as well as being at a much higher level on the list of topics of public conversation.Sterner said that since the kids are really into rap, she used instruction in poetry and spoken-word to teach self-expression and claiming identity.“For a long time poetry was a medium that was inaccessible,” observed Sterner. “But that’s really changing. So we’re just trying to give them the tools to share their voices and tell their stories. And we talk a lot about how they’re the only ones who can represent themselves accurately…and using poetry as a self-empowerment tool. And it’s just been amazing. It’s been really amazing.”Although getting started was a bit difficult, Sterner noted that the 8 to 10 regular students who eventually became part of her class blossomed.“Initially, they were a little bit shy,” she recalled. “But then they were super engaged. They were really open to being vulnerable. And being teenagers their poetry goes back and forth between talking about the really difficult topics…like oppression and violence and suicide and cultural identity and hope and courage. Those are thing that come up a lot in spoken word, but they’re also things that are relevant here.”
Adam James Watters shares his work with writing class during Pine Ridge Summer Art Program Photo Credit Brittanie Sterner
Sterner noted that her students were very open to addressing all of those topics. They also had the opportunity to learn how to project their voices and develop confidence by taking part in performance poetry.Los Angeles artist Jess Minckley was invited to be part of the Mitakupi program due to her background of teaching a diverse student population at 3 different colleges, as well as her ability to offer instruction in various levels of art within the same classroom.In her role at the “I am Sending a Voice” Summer Arts program, Minckley offered guidance in drawing, painting, collage and sculpture.“They’re not really great at expressing their feelings in themselves and even being able to understand why they feel the way that they feel,” Minckley commented in observing her Lakota students. “But being able to talk to somebody…I tell them about my life and my experiences and show them ways that contemporary artists tackle cultural and political issues.”Minckley noted that art helped her “stay afloat” during a somewhat chaotic childhood and she enjoys being able to pass on that knowledge to others.
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Mitakupi founder Jennifer Jessum told students that the more experiences they have through opportunities like the “I am Sending a Voice” program, the more colors they’ll have on the paint pallet of their lives to bring into their art.The program culminated with a public presentation/performance of work by the students involved in the project at the Oglala Lakota College Campus in Kyle.
Written by Jim Kent