Earlier this month, Cheyenne River Youth Project® staff members traveled from South Dakota to Bryan, Texas, for the 7th annual HGSO/PAT History Conference at Texas A&M University. The theme for this year’s conference was “Community. Culture. Conflict,” and CRYP Executive Director Julie Garreau was a featured speaker during the two-day event.

Designed for undergraduate and graduate students to present their research, the conference drew nearly 70 participants from universities in and outside of Texas, according to Brooke Linsenbardt, Texas A&M PhD student and conference co-organizer. She said the organizers sought to do something a little different this year, and that’s where CRYP came in.

“We specifically wanted to be more interdisciplinary and bring in a third speaker who is not part of the academy — not a historian at a university,” she explained. “We all believe that history is important to people in the present, and sometimes, historians forget this. People who engage with communities in the present time are doing very important work, and we wanted to create that bridge between the academy and the communities.”

The three organizers applied for, and won, an Aggie Commit grant that allowed them to add the third speaker. Linsenbardt, who once volunteered for CRYP at its Eagle Butte campus, and her colleagues chose the nonprofit youth project’s executive director.

For Garreau, the conference presented an important opportunity.

“Not only did the conference give us an extraordinary opportunity to share who we are and what we do, it allowed us to help raise awareness about Indian Country in general,” Garreau explained. “So many people in this country have never set foot on an Indian reservation, and they don’t know about the issues we face. In a way, it’s like we don’t exist; the mainstream treats Indian people as if we’re only part of history, part of an academic discussion. But we still exist. We’re still here.”

During her talk, Garreau briefly discussed the history of North America’s indigenous peoples, the Lakota Nation and her own family — including her great-grandmother, Jenny In-The-Lead, who survived the Wounded Knee massacre in December 1890. She provided an overview of life on South Dakota’s remote 2.8-million-acre Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, and she demonstrated how strengthening a community’s connection to its culture can provide much-needed healing and reconciliation.

“Within our reservation’s boundaries lie two of the poorest counties in the nation, and our tribal members struggle with 88 percent unemployment,” she explained. “At CRYP, we serve more 1,800 youth and 500 families who are facing daunting social, economic and historically traumatic obstacles on a daily basis.”

Yet, she shared how CRYP has become a thriving and impactful youth organization — in many ways, against all odds. Staff members are committed to implementing innovative, culturally infused programming that is designed to meet the evolving needs of Cheyenne River’s young people and their families. 

One example is the dedicated arts program, which includes groundbreaking Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park. In Lakota, “Waniyetu Wowapi” means an accounting of a one-year period, from snow to snow, written on something flat; this is how the Lakota nation traditionally recorded its history. Waniyetu Wowapi is non-permit, free public space where community members can express their own unique voices and life experiences in positive, healthy ways.

Discovering that graffiti art resonates with Lakota youth, who recognize the organic connection between graffiti culture and their own traditional culture, CRYP also created its edgy youth arts programming, teen arts internships and the revolutionary RedCan graffiti jam. And, it has developed extensive youth programming dedicated to Lakota culture, holistic wellness, diabetes prevention, literacy, job and life skills, and so much more.

“Through our arts, wellness and cultural initiatives, we’re giving our young people a variety of opportunities to explore their identities and share their truths, from their own deeply personal struggles to their nation’s experiences with conflict,” she said. “We’re honored to have been invited to Texas A&M University for this year’s history conference. We deeply appreciate having such a powerful opportunity to share our history, our contemporary experience, and our perspectives on healing historical trauma so our communities can have the vibrant, more secure future they so richly deserve.”

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The Cheyenne River Youth Project, founded in 1988, is a grassroots, not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing the youth of the Cheyenne River reservation with access to a vibrant and secure future through a wide variety of culturally sensitive and enduring programs, projects and facilities that ensure strong, self-sufficient families and communities.