My name is Elliot Bannister (I’m pictured at left in the photo). I’m 29 now, but I was 23 when I first got involved with the Cheyenne River Youth Project. I had just moved from London, where I went to college, but my family roots are in the United Kingdom’s West Midlands — as it turns out, my parents live only a short drive from where Cheyenne River elder Marcella LeBeau was stationed during World War II! I always enjoyed visiting with her at CRYP.
Most of my community work up to that point had been with sustainable food and anti-waste organizations, so I was excited to be helping out at CRYP’s Keya Café. I also have a lifelong interest in languages, and for months before I arrived, I was doing my best to learn Lakota. The audio course I used features the voice of Iris Eagle Chasing, among other speakers, so I was honored to meet her when I finally arrived on the Cheyenne River reservation.
I first heard about CRYP through social media, because I was following the work of various grassroots projects around the world. What’s so impressive about CRYP is that they not only provide a healthy and bright future for the young people of Cheyenne River, but they are doing this against all the odds that have been stacked against them throughout hundreds of years of colonization.
My volunteer service with CRYP started with a two-month stay in 2015. There was only one other residential volunteer at that point, so I was working closely with staff on summer programming. I couldn’t stay for the launch of the RedCan invitational graffiti jam, but I came back with friends in 2017 and saw it thriving, alongside all the other awesome initiatives. CRYP will continue to be part of my life; most recently, I did a birthday fundraiser that brought in approximately $1,700 for the Wo Otúh’an Wi Toy Drive.
One of my most memorable activities was working with a group of kids in the Winyan Toka Win Garden. We went from row to row, watering and tending the vegetables and learning the Lakota names for each plant. Later, when we were taking a break in the shade, the kids were still bouncing the words off each other. It was a joy to hear them have fun with their language.
I love getting to know the young people and their worlds. They’re respectful and kind-hearted. Sometimes they like to tease and ask tough questions. This is their wit and curiosity shining through. I loved learning from such a talented staff, too.
CRYP provides such important, safe spaces for young people. Unlike school, the kids choose to spend time there, and I think that nurtures their sense of community ownership and stewardship. The facilities, of course, are excellent. I saw some phenomenal talent on the basketball court. Likewise in the art studio and library, which is where I would have been hanging out at that age. Whoever you are and whoever you’re becoming, I feel like CRYP is a place where young people can just be themselves.
My two-month stint at CRYP was my first visit to North America. I had a few American friends back home and almost none of them had heard of Cheyenne River. One hot night early in my stay, I witnessed a thunderstorm unlike anything I’d experienced before, and I watched it roll in over hundreds of miles from the horizon. A new friend with whom I was watching this explained that this is not just open prairie — it’s his homeland, abundant with traditional medicines and animal relatives. That isn’t just thunder. It’s his ancestors coming back to visit. Sure, South Dakota is the “middle of nowhere,” but during my stay, I began to appreciate it as the center of a people’s entire universe.
It was a privilege to help out an awesome project that is led by and for the Lakota people. Volunteers coming in from the outside, like myself, should be prepared to grapple with and unlearn feelings of saviorism that we don’t even realize we carry in ourselves. Locals know what’s best for their people, and beautiful things happen when we follow their lead.
I wanted to keep learning Lakota, so I took advantage of the weekends to have coffee or potlucks with the fluent speakers living nearby, including Harry Little Thunder, Marlene Bear Stops, Dewey Bad Warrior, Manny Redbear, and Manny and Renee Iron Hawk. These folks work hard to keep the language alive, and they delight in helping people learn. A few speakers I got to know there have since walked on, and I want to thank them for what they shared with me too: Paulette High Elk, Bob Chasing Hawk, and Ken Little Thunder among them. Čhíksuyapi kte.
All across Lakota Country, there is a flourishing movement of people revitalizing their language. Because of my background in learning and teaching languages, I’ve been able to help out where needed on Lakota projects too. Usually this means helping plan classes, make recordings, or organize events. Most recently I’ve been working with the Standing Rock Tribal Education Department, so I’m usually based in Fort Yates, North Dakota. That’s only 100 miles up the road – a quick trip on the rez, but this would be halfway across my own country!
In February 2018, I came back to CRYP with a crew of language teachers from Standing Rock. Together we put on a language-learning weekend for the community. We use a lot of games and group work in our classes rather than teaching from a book, and by the end of the weekend, folks were holding short conversations with each other in Lakota. A few participants even traveled up to Sitting Bull College for the more intensive Dakota/Lakota Summer Institute to keep learning. This year, we’re holding the institute online, so maybe I’ll see some familiar faces there!
For more information about the Standing Rock Language and Culture Institute: https://www.facebook.com/SRSTLCI/