The Rockyford School gymnasium is filled with parents, teachers, students and visitors as a group of fourth graders takes to the stage to recite a poem they wrote about Badlands National Park.
This presentation is part of the “Through the Voices of Our Youth” program. Retired educator Hank Fridell created and coordinated the program for the National Park Service’s centennial celebration.
“I thought that we could probably incorporate a project that we’ve been doing for the last 16 years in Spearfish and 11 years in Custer,” explains Fridell, “where 4th and 5th graders interview elders from the community and then with the help of a local songwriter…they write a song about what’s in that person’s heart. And…so…my thought was why don’t we have the kids go to the parks and then write a song about what’s in the heart of that park.”
Sequoia Crosswhite is the Native songwriter who worked with the students
“It involved…first of all…what kind of song do we want to write,” observes Crosswhite. “What kind of music do the kids like. Kind of had the feeling that the kids really liked hip-hop and so then we went with some hip-hop background with it.”
As for the kids, even though 4th grader Makana just praised the Badlands in a poem…
“Wind Cave was better?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Makana replies, “Because even when we went into the cave it was fun…just like whenever they turned off the lights.”
An added benefit of the program was having non-Native 4th graders from the Custer School visit Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks with the Lakota students from Rockyford…who’ve now become their pen pals.
Sequoia Crosswhite sees the interaction between the students as “a beautiful thing”. He says the more we can build bridges between races and cultures, the stronger we’ll be as a state and as a nation.