How Lakota Youth are Maintaining a Sense of Place

August 5, 2020

By: Julie Garreau, Executive Director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project,

The Cheyenne River Youth Project is a 2016 ArtPlace funded project.


My name is Julie Garreau, and I’m the executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project, a nonprofit community development organization that serves the youth and families of South Dakota’s remote Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.

When the Covid-19 pandemic erupted in the United States, CRYP’s staff worked hard to find innovative new ways to continue operating and engaging with our young people. As we focused on what we could do at our 5-acre campus in Eagle Butte, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe took necessary steps to protect all of our people from Covid-19. Those steps included enacting an overnight curfew and a stay-at-home order, requiring the use of masks in public buildings, encouraging hygiene and social distancing protocols, and establishing health checkpoints on CRST reservation boundaries. As Covid-19 continued to take its toll on human health and human life across the country, tribes like ours faced a daunting reality. We had to find a way to combat the virus and protect our communities with limited resources on a reservation the size of Connecticut. As a sovereign nation, CRST opted to screen travelers crossing reservation borders so we could, first, catch the virus if and when it should arrive, and second, be able to effectively conduct contact tracing to identify those at risk. We knew this was vital, as our people are vulnerable, and our reservation has limited hospital beds for those who need them. Yet it also occurred to me that, once again, grown-ups were making all the decisions — but what about our young people? Were we listening to how they’re feeling, what makes them worry or feel frightened, and what their priorities are? Did we understand what lessons they were learning from this intense experience?

I recently sat down with two of our Lakota teens to discuss the Covid-19 crisis with them. Roberta High Elk, 17, and Kailey Carter, 16, are part of our inaugural nine-month Lakota Art Fellowship program. They are accomplished youth leaders and artists in our community, and I was eager to hear what they had to say about the pandemic, their Lakota values, and how the novel coronavirus has affected their sense of place during this challenging time in history.


Let’s start by talking a little bit about the Covid-19 pandemic on Cheyenne River. How has it affected you, and how do you believe our community views it?

K: I think Covid-19 on Cheyenne River is nerve-wracking and sometimes scary. Our chairman is doing everything he can to keep our people safe. We have to be 6 feet away from anyone in any public location, which includes stores, offices, and other businesses. We also have to sanitize our hands and and wear masks, and we have curfew to make sure everyone is safe inside their homes at night.

R: We should just appreciate everything we can get, and do, under these circumstances. I think it’s unfair because some people in our community don't get it. They don’t understand that they need to take it seriously — stay home, stay healthy, and be humble and generous.


How do you think non-native people outside of the Cheyenne River community see you, and perceive the Lakota Nation’s challenges, during this pandemic?

R: From what I see, the people outside our community are handling this situation as if it's going to go away as quickly as possible. Even in our community, the teenagers and adults are wishing for this to go away so they can return to their normal activities. They want to continue to travel in and out of town (and on and off the reservation). There's people all around us that pass through, and a few don't take precautions as well as they should. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has health checkpoints to help keep us safe, and they’re doing their job to the best of their abilities.

K: I hope people can understand why we put up these health checkpoints, so we can control the outbreak of the virus and keep the people safe. I know I’m glad to be here on the reservation, rather than in a big city where the virus is less contained. I also hope that people outside Cheyenne River can see us as an example, so they know how to set ground rules in certain hotspots and learn how they can control the outbreak as much as possible.


Do you know anyone personally who has contracted Covid, and if so, how has it affected them?

R: I don’t know the people who have contracted Covid-19 personally, but they don’t live that far away. It's a little nerve-wracking. Not just the virus, but also the negativity that people show toward the ones who have come in contact with it. It's hard enough having to deal with the fact your health and your loved ones’ health are at stake, but it’s harsh also knowing that there are angry people who are stressed out and blaming others — even shaming them — for bringing it to the reservation. Everyone needs to encourage one another to be more kind to the Covid patients, and to pray for one another's health and safety. Pray for strength that our community can get through this, rather than put others down.

K: My brother was staying with his friends when one of them tested positive, so they were all quarantined. It has affected my brother, my family, and his friends very much. He was very scared and worried about his health; he also missed my family. Sometimes his friends would forget to get food, so they would be so hungry at night; we would have to try to get food to them before the curfew, and give it to the security at the residence. I’m happy to say he’s OK.


Do you have any personal stories to tell about something that has happened during the pandemic and related lockdown?

R: I like to walk, and I use a good stroll as a stress reliever for my personal feelings. The night before we were put on our 8p.m.-6a.m. curfew for the first time, the sky was a mix of blue and pink, and there was also a cool, slight breeze. I took my usual walk, and it was as lovely as could be. All of my walks were cut shorter starting the next night; it was barely getting dark when everybody had to be inside. Also, I have a brother who is an essential worker, and he needed rides home after work. As we would drive him home, the whole town was so quiet. That took a toll on everyone, because if people needed something, they had to wait another day to get it. Everything was so strict after curfew.

K: My sister and father work for one of the health checkpoints, and both get scared to go to work because of the chance of getting the virus. They also experience some crazy things, like racist people; my sister says they come to the checkpoints and scare her all the time. There was a video of a guy waving a gun, driving up and saying nasty things about the people working there. Officials did arrest him, but it’s still awful that security has to deal with these things. They’re protecting our people here on the reservation.


Do you feel you have the ability to be safe—or at least safer—on Cheyenne River during the pandemic?

R: I feel I could be safer. Some people in our community choose not to take precautions because of the freedom they miss so much. I miss it too, but I'm fine with staying home. We are not out of the woods. Covid cases are growing on CRST and other reservations around us. I think it's better to be safe than sorry.

K: I do feel safe here because of the health checkpoints, and because of the rules to help with containment and prevention. I would rather live here on CRST than live in a big city or in any place that does not have our health precautions. I’m very glad we take these precautions and enforce them.


How is Covid impacting your sense of place? Has that sense of place changed due to the pandemic and the challenges the Lakota people are facing?

R: Cheyenne River used to be a very shut-in spot before Covid came. We took care of one another, and all we had was really each other. We dealt with whatever was thrown our way and got through it the best we could. Now that Covid is here, I think a few people panicked — we saw limited supplies and access to healthcare, plus price gouging with food. Now our community is trying to make the best of it. I feel we can do better by continuing to take precautions, stay home as much as we can, and pay attention to the needs of others. 

K: The pandemic has changed my sense of place because of the precautions and safety measures that help protect us, especially our elders who are vulnerable to the virus. We try to take extreme precautions on every part of the reservation, including our hotels, stores, businesses, restaurants, commodity buildings, and gas stations. This is very challenging for some of our people, but we know that we have to follow these rules so we help each other to be safe from this sickness. We learn to adapt to these challenges we face, over time.


What lessons do you think we all can learn from this moment in our history?

K: I think we can learn to take these types of things seriously in case this ever occurs again. I believe we especially can learn from how Cheyenne River handled things during the pandemic. I hope people realize the Lakota people are still here, and this virus isn’t gonna be the thing to wipe us out after so many white diseases (since colonization). That is why we take Covid so seriously, because there aren’t many of us left. I also hope people see us as an example: We stand together and help each other during these difficult times.

R: I’ve realized there are a lot of people out there who don't have food to eat or money to pay the bills. I know that we need to learn that something like Covid affects everybody no matter what; it could happen to anybody. I have family members who easily could be exposed, and they need to be aware that it's not just about themselves getting sick. It's about others too. 


Do you think the Covid pandemic provides an opportunity for the dominant society to learn more about the issues facing minority groups? If so, how?

R: Yes and no. The schools and teen centers have decided to take their kids’ well-being into consideration and have gone all-out to make meal bags for those who need them. But a lot of places have raised prices, and there is scarcity of things that used to be plentiful. Thankfully, some of the utilities have been really understanding, and you can get financial help. The dominant society has chosen to take the extra step to understand everything about Covid and their safety, especially essential workers; but as part of the minority group, I’m not sure if we're getting the attention we need.

K: I do believe the dominant society can learn we need to all help each other. It is hard to get everyone to band together.


As Lakota Art Fellows, do you think artists have a role to play during a time like this? How do you perceive the duty, or place, of an artist on Cheyenne River right now?

R: I believe all artists have an opportunity to take on a big role right now. With Covid-19 and social distancing, I think they have all the room in the world for making new pieces or finding inspiration to make something. As an artist, I feel the biggest role is to embrace what you feel right now, because it's valid enough to put into your art — to make somebody feel something, or give them something they can relate to. From an artist’s point of view, you have the time right now to be in the headspace you've been seeking, or to finish that piece you've been trying to ace. Try new techniques and just take advantage of it! Somebody's out there cheering you on, and what better time to embrace this and make something. As a suggestion, maybe you can explore how Covid-19 makes you feel.

K: Artists definitely have a role to play during these hard times. They can convey important messages, so everyone can understand how serious and sensitive things are right now, and they can share how people can help and take action. For example, artists on Cheyenne River can send messages to the public that we are trying our hardest to not let the coronavirus spread like wildfire — and that we are very strong people. They can let people know that we are not being too cautious, we are trying to protect our people and slow down the virus, and we can be a positive example to everyone else.


How do you think young people can feel empowered to support their community during this challenging time?

R: Be the bigger person, take part in social distancing, and take those extra precautions to not only keep yourself safe, but your people as well. That's a start. Showing people that you care about their safety and health as well as your own is a great step toward empowerment and improving life for your community. Not wearing a mask doesn't make you cool. It just shows that you're a person who doesn’t think of others. You could take an even bigger step by helping to make lunches for those who don’t have access to a good meal. Or, do something as simple as check on your family and friends, which could make somebody's day a bit better. Also, try not to expect so much from those who aren't able to do more at this moment in time. Some are taking this harder than others. Always be supportive… from a distance, because it is corona time. 

K: I think the young generation can feel empowered by knowing they have to protect our sacred elders from the virus. Our elders teach us their sacred ways so we can pass on the knowledge to our next generation. We must protect them. The young generation also can feel empowered by knowing that they have a voice. They can stand up for what they believe in, and help protect this reservation and our communities.


What kind of additional support do youth need right now? How can the community support you?

R: I think some young people are being hit harder than others. On the Cheyenne River reservation, they might not have much of a support system, food, or protection at home. They might get those things from school or friends, or they lack all of those things. Some are really not comfortable being at home most of the time, but with social distancing, it’s something they just have to deal with. For some youth, the only time they feel peace is with their friends, but Covid has stripped that privilege from us. Something as easy as going to play basketball, hanging out with your friends, or just going for a walk or a drive, could put you at risk. Check in on those you know who might be taking it hard; it could be the reassurance they need so they know they aren't going crazy. Whether you’re a role model or just a friend, show them that even if they are alone physically, they aren't alone mentally and emotionally. 

K: The youth need support from the older generations. Let them know that they are strong, and we fight and stand together for their sakes, because of how strong we can become as a nation. The community can support me by staying strong together.


Has the pandemic changed your sense of what you can control in the world, and how does that make you feel about the future?

K: This pandemic has helped me, because I know I have a voice both as a member of the younger generation and as an artist. That makes me feel excited and ready for the future. I know I have my community and reservation with me, so I can share my people's voices through beautiful artwork.

R: Something I have realized about myself during this time is that I look toward the future — and what could be — more often than I did before Covid-19 came to CRST. It gives me some hope for the experiences I could make happen for me. I think often about a better future; it’s a mystery, but it’s something good to think about. This pandemic has made me prepare for the worst while also making the best of what I have, because some people don’t have that. I remember to be thankful, and to be prepared. Believe in what you believe in, be strong, and make good choices — for the pandemic, and especially for the future.