Earlier this month, the Cheyenne River Youth Project® hosted its 2nd annual RedCan graffiti jam, and by all accounts, the second incarnation was even more successful than the first. If last year’s inaugural RedCan was all about introducing the Lakota and graffiti art communities to each other, then this year was about taking the entire experience to the next level.
“You could feel the energy in town,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “Everyone knew what RedCan was about, and the atmosphere was buzzing.”
New headliners included Scribe from Kansas City, Missouri; Serval from Switzerland; Cyfi from Minnesota’s Twin Cities; and ER from Austin, Texas. Returning for a second year were East, from Denver; Kazilla, from Miami; and Biafra Inc., Daesk and Wundr, all from the Twin Cities.
Native artists joined the visiting artists in the art park and around town. Focus and Rehst, both members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, traveled to Eagle Butte from Rapid City, while Leland Benoist and Annie Chasing Hawk call the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation home. (In an interesting footnote, two of the headlining guest artists also have native roots: East has Cherokee heritage, and Cyfi has Yaqui heritage.)
“Being able to paint with the likes of Serval and East, artists I grew up admiring, was a highlight for me,” Focus said.
And the creativity they unleashed together in Eagle Butte was simply astounding.
“After RedCan ended, East said to me, ‘I’ve rarely seen so many quality murals get done in one single event,’” Garreau said. “But he acknowledged that RedCan was about so much more than art. All the artists expressed similar sentiments—they were deeply moved by what they experienced here on our reservation.”
That’s because, at its heart, RedCan is more than a graffiti jam. This merging of native and graffiti cultures celebrates individuality, positive self-expression, healthy creativity and, perhaps most of all, the healing and empowerment of native communities.
“The merging of traditional Lakota culture with graffiti culture helps solidify a modern identity and gives the youth a powerful voice that emerges from the colorful intersection of history and future,” wrote John Haworth, senior executive of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York City, in an Argus Leader op-ed piece earlier this month. It’s why, he commented, a festival like RedCan is so important.
Haworth, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, also observed that CRYP listened to its young people to learn what resonated most strongly with them. It’s what the nearly 28-year-old, grassroots, nonprofit youth project has always done, according to Garreau.
“We let our kids lead the way,” she said simply.
RedCan has proven to be a powerful tool for strengthening the connection young people feel with their Lakota culture and heritage. And that provides the healing the Cheyenne River community seeks.
“For indigenous peoples, art and culture are inseparable, and art is not an individual pursuit; rather, it taps into something more meaningful within our indigenous communities,” Garreau wrote in the Americans for the Arts’ ArtsBlog. “At the Cheyenne River Youth Project, we changed the hearts and minds of the Lakota Nation when we opened our Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park and launched our revolutionary RedCan graffiti jam, a first in Indian country. The enthusiasm we saw in our community convinced us we were onto something. It was the inspiration we needed to create teen art internships, ongoing arts programming and our 2nd annual RedCan event.
“We’re creating spaces, literally and figuratively, so others may have a voice,” she continued. “We’re giving our young people a safe place to explore their identities and share their stories, just as Lakota people have done for generations. It’s in our DNA.”
A wide variety of supporters pulled together to help CRYP bring RedCan to the Cheyenne River community once again this year. That included national partners like First Peoples Fund’s 2016 Our Nation’s Spaces grant program and NEA’s Art Works grant program, local funders such as Tribal Ventures and the Dairy Queen Grill & Chill, and art-world partners that included Sprayfinger, the Cypher Shop and Ironlak (AVT Paints), which donated a whopping 300 cans of sugar paint.
“We cannot possibly express the depth of our gratitude to these organizations—and to countless individual donors—for their support, without which we would not have been able to bring RedCan to life,” Garreau said. “We also offer our heartfelt thanks to our volunteers, including SWAMP-IN from St. Louis, who prepared the art park and the rest of our public spaces, helped staff the event, and supported the artists while they worked in the hot summer sun. You were essential members of our team, and we were impressed each day with your dedication and hard work. Pilamaye.”
The CRYP staff is already planning the 3rd annual RedCan graffiti jam. This year’s artists have expressed their desire to return, and many property owners in Eagle Butte have contacted the youth project to offer their buildings for painting. “I think everyone senses the importance of re-establishing and strengthening connections to traditions, stories, values and authentic culture identity,” Garreau said. “As I wrote in the art blog, RedCan is about more than art, because life is art. We must give our young people as many opportunities as possible to explore their identities and share their truths, from their own deeply personal struggles to their nation’s experiences with conflict. That’s the only way to give them 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.