On Friday, Apr. 26, the Cheyenne River Youth Project held a private Lakota dedication ceremony for its new property, a nearly 40-acre organic parcel adjacent to Mato Paha (Bear Butte), a sacred site for the Lakota people. The dedication ceremony kicked off a memorable camping weekend for its most treasured guests — young people from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.

Despite the inclement weather, an intergenerational group of approximately 50 people gathered for the dedication. Among them were Cheyenne River elder Wakinyan Peta and the Wakinyan Maza drum group, and Cheyenne River elders and cultural educators Manny and Renee Iron Hawk.

“I was really happy to see all the unčís (grandmothers) there to celebrate the ultimate unci — Unčí Makhá (Grandmother Earth),” said Wambli Gleska Quintana, 18, who participated in the weekend event.

The land received its Lakota name during the ceremony. It is Wakanyeja Kin Wana Ku Pi, which means “the children are coming home.” 

“Becoming the stewards of this land restores our access as Lakota people, and not just to Bear Butte,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s founder and chief executive officer. “When our children camp here, they are close to the Paha Sapa (Black Hills), where they can spend valuable time learning about and connecting with other sacred places in our traditional homelands.” 

The 35-year-old, Native-led nonprofit organization demonstrated the significance of that access after the dedication ceremony concluded. In addition to hiking to the Mato Paha summit on Friday, the young people visited Maka Oniye (Breathing Earth) at Wind Cave National Park on Saturday and Mato Tipila (Bear Lodge) at Devils Tower National Monument on Sunday.

After each day’s outing, young people returned to Wakanyeja Kin Wana Ku Pi for games, stories and bonding with CRYP staff. On site for the weekend were Jerica Widow, programs director; Wakinyan Chief, arts manager; Danielle Reynolds, youth center manager; and Wambli Gleska Quintana, 18, and Nation Cowins, 17, programs assistants. 

Both Quintana and Cowins are currently participating in CRYP’s Growing Into Wowachinyepi leadership program, and they previously took part in the youth project’s internships, youth advisory council, and workforce development training. They were familiar faces, but their peers soon came to view them in an entirely new light.

“I was in a van with all the boys that weekend, and they had never seen Nation and Wambli working with us as part of the CRYP team,” Widow said. “Nation and Wambli helped keep them in line, inspired them, and set a good example. By the end of the trip, I heard some of the boys saying things like, ‘I want to be like them,’‘I want to be part of this,’ and ‘I want to work there, too.’

“This was our vision when we first established the internship program more than 10 years ago,” she continued. “We wanted to give our kids opportunities to build their job and life skills so they would be prepared to join the workforce and serve as culture bearers, leaders and peer mentors. To see that process unfolding during this important weekend was incredibly rewarding.” 

While the relentless rain and wind proved to be challenging for the campers, they brought a positive attitude to the weekend’s activities. Widow noted they also expressed great enthusiasm for what the future might hold.

“The land has two prominent hills, and the kids thought it would be cool to do a boys’ camp and a girls’ camp on the two hills,” she said. “They also talked about learning to fish — and how to clean and prepare the fish once you’ve caught them! They had a lot of ideas.”

For Garreau, this is as it should be. Now that the land belongs to CRYP, the young people are looking forward to what is possible with excitement and hope.

“This our job,” she said. “Our kids have been separated from these sacred lands by nearly 150 miles and 150 years. We know that restoring their connection to sacred places like Bear Butte and the Black Hills is an essential part of their healing and healthy development, so becoming the permanent caretakers of this land was a step we had to take. We did it for them.

“The timing was right,” she added, “and it speaks to the potential of what can be done. Places like Bear Butte are our churches, and given the explosive growth of metro areas and skyrocketing land prices, we must act now.”

To learn more about the Cheyenne River Youth Project and its programs, and for information about making donations and volunteering, call (605) 964-8200 or visit www.lakotayouth.org. And, to stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, follow the youth project on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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.