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Kids and Family

Wicoti Tiwahe - Family Camp

image from family camp in gregory county
Brian Gevik

A non-profit organization on the Rosebud Indian Reservation hopes that a revival of traditional Lakota life skills and values will give kids with an alternative to alcohol, drugs and gangs.

The Native American Advocacy Program offers outdoor experiences designed to help preserve Lakota culture and language. In today's Dakota Digest, SDPB's Brian Gevik reports from a Gregory County youth camp where young people learn the old ways.

It's a warm June morning at Wicote Tiwahe, - that means Family Camp. There's a short break between breakfast and the day's camp activities. A group of young singers uses the time to practice and perform.

A thunderstorm rolled over the prairie and through the camp last night. This morning campers are staying warm by a fire a safe distance from the teepees where they rode out the storm. But the teepees and the morning songs aren't meant to be quaint and they're not just for show. They're part of Lakota culture. And even though most of the kids here ARE Lakota… a lot of what they're experiencing here is completely new.

"Where I live, we really don't establish our culture."

Allen Stead is a boy's mentor at the camp. He was one of the first campers in the program back in 2006. He says where he lives…

"We rarely even talk about it. I mean, we live on a reservation but nobody speaks Lakota, nobody does crafts or sets up teepees like we do. I mean it's just really boring you know?"

There's more than enough to do here at camp. Here's what's going at camp just today:

"The first time that the Lakota People were able to see a horse was in 1709 and 1710."

Camp staffer Steve Tamayo leads a horse workshop.

"And I know this because I've been studying winter counts. You guys know what winter counts are?"

There's a class in making sharp stone tools out of local rock. Camp aide Marshall Burnett shows the boys how to hold a striking tool and he tells them how and where to hit the big stone being flaked into sharp chips. But the boys have to do it themselves.


"There you go. Man! Look at that! This will suffice for butchering. Right now."

At the edge of a marsh about a half mile away, camp organizer Marla Bull Bear stands before a group of girls looking at the tall grass and water. They're about to wade in looking for wild bitterroot.

'It's a medicine and it helps out singers. And what we do for our singers is, we shave it into little slivers. And when they're at the pow-wow and they're singing songs - and sometimes those songs are really long if they're memorial songs or if a family asks them - and so we want their voices to stay strong. And so they'll chew on that bitter root and it'll keep their voices clear."

The traditional skills being taught and learned at the camp are old but they aren't getting passed along in the way they used to be.

"A lot of kids… even me, growing up… I didn't learn anything like this at home. There really wasn't a place to go on the reservation to learn these kinds of things."

Gabrielle Iron Shell is a girls' mentor. Part of a mentor's job is to share their own knowledge.

"So when they come here they're able to get a feel for their culture; learn stuff that maybe they've never experienced, even that their parents or grandparents don't know because of the acculturation and stuff."

The camp is organized and run by the Native American Advocacy Program. The group has several focus areas but in terms of their camp, the mission is two-fold.

"Particularly, our focus is on being a Lakota. Being a relative - a word that is used now is "wo-lakota." "

Marla Bull Bear is the organization's Executive Director.

"Understanding what it is to be a Lakota person, from a cultural perspective. And in that, we're able to address a lot of issues that youth have today. One of those being underage drinking. And so this is really our prevention program to address underage drinking. And for the youth that have been in the camp and continue to come to the camp, they themselves have told us that it's made a considerable contribution to helping them live a healthy lifestyle.

"It's kind of special here. 'Cause back at home, you don't really do much. A lot of people just smoke, sit down and get drunk. Nothing else to do."

Fred Fast Horse an experienced, returning camper and he has a lot of responsibilities. He does a lot of work at the camp and helps look after the younger kids.

"It helps a lot, like young kids, to understand how life really is. That it's not that easy but if you keep working at it, pretty soon it becomes a habit and your life becomes a lot more easy with each step you take."

Fast Horse is a member of a Youth Society here at the camp. A society is just a group of people with a shared interest. And person can belong to more than one.

"Historically, we've always had societies."

Marla Bull Bear.

"Men's societies, women's societies, elder group societies, hunting societies, quillwork societies - or guilds. And so this is something we've taken to now. We've taken something from the past and we're utilizing that resource. Because what we've found is that with the gang involvement, our youth are looking for something to belong to. It's not enough to just know who you are as a Lakota person. You need to belong to something."

Long time camper Allen Stead says it works for him.

"I don't know. I feel safe. I feel like this is home. I feel more in tune with my culture and to know more every year and every day."

For South Dakota Public Broadcasting, I'm Brian Gevik on Family Camp – Wicoti Tiwahe - in Gregory County.

If you'd like to learn more about the Native American Advocacy Program's camp series there's a Web site that explains camp dates, costs and scholarship options - www.lakotanaap.org. The camps are open to anyone - native and non-native alike.