On Tuesday, Jan. 30, the Cheyenne River Youth Project participated in a groundbreaking arts summit in Washington, D.C. Co-hosted by the White House Domestic Policy Council and National Endowment for the Arts, “Healing, Bridging, Thriving: A Summit on Arts and Culture in our Communities” brought government officials and policymakers together with artists, arts leaders, advocates and academics.

During the summit, the participants shared insights and explored opportunities for collaboration, with the understanding that arts and culture are essential for the long-term health and well-being of individuals and communities. NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, PhD, invited CRYP Chief Executive Officer Julie Garreau to take part in a panel discussing how the arts can address today’s most pressing community health challenges. 

“For my entire career, my sincere belief has been that the things we aspire to as a nation of opportunity and justice are not possible without the integration of arts and culture throughout society,” Jackson said in a statement, adding that the summit was “an extraordinary demonstration of what is possible when the arts, culture and humanities are at the intersections of other areas of policy and practice.” 

Garreau’s fellow panelists included Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, executive director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, and Clyde Valentin, co-artistic director of One Nation/One Project, a national arts and health initiative. Admiral Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, moderated the discussion. Garreau said she was deeply grateful to be included.

“Not only was it an honor for me personally, I think it’s vital to include Native voices and perspectives in these discussions at this level,” she said. “Consider our history. Colonization severely damaged our connections to our cultures through forced removal, forced assimilation, language eradication, and the criminalization of our traditional life ways. Healing can only be possible through the rebuilding and strengthening of those connections.

“For Native people, art is culture, and culture is art,” she continued. “There is no separation, which makes art a powerful tool for healing. If colonization is the ‘why,’ then art is the ‘how.’ Our Native youth are born with trauma, so at CRYP, we see our work as medicine.” 

CRYP has served Lakota youth on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, home to four bands of the Lakota people, for more than 35 years. The Native-led, grassroots, nonprofit organization grounds its work in the idea that young people need safe spaces as well as access to cultural resources, positive mentors and role models. 

“In that sense, our whole history has been one of creative placemaking and cultural reclamation,” Garreau said. “We’re creative, resourceful and flexible in everything we do, and we are risk-takers. We have to be, so we can meet the kids where they are.” 

Four of those young people were in the audience, accompanied by CRYP Arts Manager Wakinyan Chief: Emma Berndt, 14; Sarah Berndt, 16; Nathan Metcalf, 17; and Hazen Moran, 13. All four are 2023-24 Lakota Art Fellows at the youth project.

“Going to the summit gave me the opportunity to learn more about and about art in different communities around the United States, and about their stories,” Nathan Metcalf said.

“Watching all those amazing people share their ideas and views as truly an inspiring and valuable learning experience,” Sarah Berndt said. Her sister Emma added, “It was an eye-opening experience for me.” 

During the panel discussion, Garreau had the opportunity to share information about the youth project’s award-winning RedCan invitational graffiti jam, a four-day arts and culture festival that takes place in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, every summer. She also shared several stories about local children that resonated with the audience.

“All of the stories reflected the role of art in building connections, processing difficult life events, healing from trauma, and building a vibrant future,” Garreau said. “It really makes a noticeable difference in the lives of our children.” 

The U.S. government has made it clear that arts and culture are priorities. In 2022, President Joe Biden issued an executive order on promoting the arts, the humanities, and museum and library services, and now HHS and the NEA are launching the “Interagency Working Group on Arts, Health, and Civic Infrastructure.” 

Chaired by Jackson and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, this group will work with federal agencies to find ways to include the arts and humanities in those key areas. Garreau said this is an important step forward for communities like hers. 

“Whether it involves transportation, health care or economic development, any initiative has to involve working with the community to appropriately integrate arts and culture,” she explained. “That’s the healing part of it, especially when you incorporate our language, our stories and our traditional values, which provide a cultural toolbox for healthy living. And, we must start with our youth. Investing in them is community development work because they are the future.” 

When it comes to bringing arts-integration practices into wide adoption by the public health field, Garreau said she is optimistic.

“Today, I think there is a greater understanding of what it means to have trust-based, heart-centered, low-touch giving,” she said. “When it comes to effecting lasting, transformative change in Indian Country, let our communities lead the way. We know what we need to do to heal, and ultimately, to thrive.”

To hear Garreau speak during the panel discussion, visit https://youtu.be/9WC4xCKdkbM?si=r0znZmj7c4w86ob6 (she begins at 1:02:03).

For more information about the summit and the new actions that will further this work, visit https://www.arts.gov/news/press-releases/2024/groundbreaking-arts-summit-healing-bridging-thriving. 

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.