On Saturday, Mar. 18, the Cheyenne River Youth Project welcomed 42 young women and two-spirit youth to its eagerly anticipated Wačhípí kta Iglúwiŋyeyapi (Youth Get Ready for the Dance) event. Better known as Passion for Fashion, the pre-prom event commemorated its 20th anniversary this year. 

When the young people entered Čhokáta Wičhoni (Center of Life) on Mar. 18, they entered a vibrant world of “Emergence.” Not only did CRYP staff transform the teen center into a physical journey through sacred Lakota sites such as Wind Cave, the site of Lakota emergence in the people’s creation story, they created a safe, inclusive environment in which the youth could be fully themselves. 

Award-winning two-spirit storyteller Taté Walker delivered a thought-provoking and heartfelt keynote speech at the gathering. Walker, who is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, has more than 15 years of experience working for daily newspapers, social justice organizations and tribal education systems; their first full-length poetry book, “The Trickster Riots,” was published last year by Abalone Mountain Press.

“I’ve never seen the kids more attentive,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “I think many of them can see themselves in Taté.”

Walker said they are always grateful to connect with the next generation of Cheyenne River youth, and they had a wonderful time participating in Wačhípí kta Iglúwiŋyeyapi.

“Meeting the young people and experiencing this event with them meant so much to me,” Walker said. “The ‘Emergence’ theme was particularly powerful, and I hope the idea of inclusion continues to resonate throughout the community beyond the event. Ask an enrolled CRST citizen, and as someone who is queer and recognized as two spirit, it fills me with joy to know there is a space like CRYP to embrace all of our community youth, regardless of their gender identity and/or gender expression.

“Our young Lakota people deserve respect and acceptance,” they continued. “They deserve to be uplifted. They deserve to thrive. Events like Passion for Fashion give youth those opportunities, and I look forward to seeing this event and its participants grow.” 

Participants enjoyed luncheon and a stunning Emergence-themed cake that Executive Director Julie Garreau painstakingly hand-crafted down to the last detail, from Wind Cave and the Black Hills to a flowing river and a herd of bison. Afterward, they gathered in the gymnasium to find all the formalwear, jewelry and accessories they would need for the upcoming high school prom.

As always, the festivities included some pampering. CRYP Internship Manager Morgan Robinson, long-term volunteer Mariel Bernnat, community volunteers Ahanni Knight and Reed Two Bulls, and Sacred Heart Center staff treated the young people to makeovers, manicures, pedicures and hair styling.

“That was my favorite part of the event,” Robinson said. “The kids really opened up. They were smiling and giggling… it was just so comfortable.” 

The evening concluded with a fashion show, with the young people walking the runway and celebrating their ensembles. After three years of modified youth programming due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Garreau said this Wačhípí kta Iglúwiŋyeyapi seemed to be especially joyful.

“The young women were twirling their dresses, just having a good time,” she recalled. “It’s like they were young girls again, their burdens lifted. And our two-spirit youth were excited to find their outfits, and they expressed the safety they felt in our space. I loved witnessing their sense of freedom.” 

As the youth were leaving Čhokáta Wičhoni with their swag bags filled with goodies, they expressed both joy and gratitude to the CRYP staff. 

“The teens were so vocal about how much fun they had,” said Jerica Widow, CRYP’s programs director. “They thanked us and hugged us. One young woman said she was so glad she came, because she did things she never thought she could do. And, now she wants to do more.”

“That idea lies at the heart of everything we do at CRYP,” Garreau said. “We want to give our youth the opportunities and resources they need to build a future in which they do more than survive — they thrive.”

Although the next Wačhípí kta Iglúwiŋyeyapi event is a year away, the youth project already is gathering donations for 2024. 

“Spring is prom season across America, and we’re encouraging our supporters to consider sending gently used dresses, shoes, jewelry, and other accessories if they are no longer needed,” Garreau said. “Spring and fall are the best times for these donations, due to prom and homecoming. We’re also happy to take bath sets, makeup and other self-care items.” 

To make in-kind or financial contributions to CRYP’s Wačhípí kta Iglúwiŋyeyapi program, visit lakotayouth.org/give. 

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.