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Pine Ridge Summer Art Program Expands Life Colors

Kaitlyn Wayman-Dodd

Artists from as far away as India are on the Pine Ridge Reservation as part of a 2-week program to teach Lakota youth alternative ways to express themselves. The initiative is intended as a way to combat the continuing suicide epidemic that has plagued one of the country’s poorest areas.

The Mitakupi – or “My People” Foundation – is hosting the "I am Sending a Voice" Summer Arts program. Organizers say the goal is to help lift Lakota youth out of the daily task of survival.

“You know, I grew up in a real difficult situation and art saved my life. It gave me tools to express myself. It gave me ways to deal with some difficult things I was going through."

Credit Brittanie Sterner
Lakota students working on assignments in writing class during Pine Ridge Summer Art Program.

That's Mitakupi founder Jennifer Jessum.

“I wanted to share that with the kids out here,” Jessum continues. “Because every young person goes through difficulties. And out here on Pine Ridge…they’re dealing with some additional difficulties.” 

So many additional difficulties, notes Jessum, that the reservation has had more than 25 youth suicides this year with 150 attempts per month.

The summer arts program offers Lakota youth aged 6 to 21 instruction in film, dance, music, visual arts and writing.

Brittanie Sterner is a Philadelphia-based writer. Sterner says since the kids are really into rap, she’s been using instruction in poetry and spoken-word to teach self-expression and claiming identity. 

Credit Brittanie Sterner
Adam James Watters shares his work with writing class during Pine Ridge Summer Art Program.

“We’re just trying to give them the tools to share their voices and tell their stories,” Sterner explains. “And we talk a lot about how, you know, they’re the only ones who can represent themselves accurately…and using poetry as a self-empowerment tool. And been really amazing.”

Los Angeles artist Jess Minckley is offering instruction 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,” observes Minckley. “But…I tell them about my life and my experiences and show them ways that contemporary artists tackle cultural and political issues.”

Mitakupi founder Jennifer Jessum tells the 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 palette of their lives to bring into their art.

Note: The Mitakupi Summer Arts Program will culminate with a public presentation/performance of work by the students involved in the project on Saturday, July 16 at the Oglala Lakota College Campus in Kyle, S.D. – 605.455.6000