Students from the Standing Rock Middle School on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota participate in the Turnaround Arts Talent Show in Washington, D.C., on March 11, 2018. Photo by Maxine Hillary
Education | Environment | National

Native Sun News Today: Standing Rock youth are a big hit in D.C.

Standing Rock students big hit in Washington

By Maxine Hillary
Native Sun News Today
Washington, D.C. Correspondent

WASHINGTON - In the beginning of 2016, thousands of people from all over the world stormed the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to participate in protests against the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline.

Many people on the reservation feared that the pipeline and its intended crossing of the Missouri River posed a threat to the region’s clean water and sacred sites. And while it seemed the whole world was rushing to support the tribe or perhaps get a selfie while chained to a bulldozer, life went on as usual at Standing Rock.

Stradling both North and South Dakota, Standing Rock is the sixth largest reservation in the country. It spans over 3,571 miles. Of the 16,000 enrolled members, a little over 8,000 people make their home there. As in many communities in Indian Country, life can be tough. Unemployment nears 50 percent, poverty rates are among the highest in the nation and 30 percent of students don’t graduate high school.

Standing Rock is the birthplace of distinguished scholar, author, and activist, the late Vine Deloria, Jr., acclaimed writer, Susan Power, and it’s the place where Sitting Bull Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake was killed because of fears he would engage in the Ghost Dance. While people outside of Indian Country had never even heard of Standing Rock, despite all of its claims to fame, it seems that every reference to the place from now on will come through the lens of the protests. Except for those involved in a growing cultural movement that impacts children in marginalized communities across the nation.

Two years ago, Turnaround Arts came to the Standing Rock Middle School and made an effort to nurture some creative talent. Run in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts, local partners, and private foundations, Turnaround Arts infuses high-quality arts-based learning through the school day and beyond to boost academic achievement, and increase student engagement in schools facing some of the toughest educational challenges in the country.

The Kennedy Center on YouTube: Turnaround Arts Talent Show

In 2014, First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed Turnaround Arts students into the East Room of the White House for the first-ever Turnaround Arts Talent Show. Succeeding years have sold out the Kennedy Center. As expected, the show on March 11th was no different.

The Turnaround Arts Talent Show brings artists, students, partners, and advocates all the way from Hawai`i to the Canadian border to celebrate the transformation taking place in Turnaround Arts schools as a result of the program’s efforts, which provide arts resources, instruments, and mentors to work with students.

Courtney YellowFat is a Standing Rock Tribal Council member and a teacher of Lakota language, culture, and arts. He not only chaperoned the 11 kids who participated in the talent show, he introduced them to the audience. YellowFat sees compatibility with what Turnaround Arts offers Standing Rock and what has always been there. Says YellowFat, “Native people have always been artistic. It’s in our blood and in our every way of life. It’s in our songs, our words, our prayers. Our prayers are artistic expressions.”

Standing Rock Middle School’s presentation for the talent show reflected not just traditional Lakota culture in song and dance, it included contemporary urban music in an inspiring hip hop number which included rap artist Mic Jordan who mentored the children on the reservation. Jordan, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe visited the school several times to work with the children to develop what was one of the best received offerings of the evening. He shared the stage with Black Eyed Peas artist Taboo who traces his lineage to both the Shoshone and Hopi tribes.

According to Taboo, the arts help to keep Native children away from some of the hazards of reservation life. He also promotes healthier lifestyles in places where diabetes, cancer, and substance abuse averages are extremely high. His partnership with Nike is designed to do just that. “What I’m trying to do with different partners is champion wellness—taking care of your body and your mind.” Taboo says his ten years of sobriety has helped him to be able to speak from experience to Native youth dealing with addiction and to show them the benefits of engaging in creative activities.


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Mentors with recording contracts are one component of the Turnaround Arts equation. But the most important factor in the program is still the educators. Lisa Weippert teaches 6th grade band, choir, and English. Her day-to-day relationship with young tribal members gives her a window into just how important the arts are to keeping kids focused and providing an outlet for their frustrations and perhaps some of the difficult issues they deal with at home. “The arts are vital and very important for our children. Everything we do around [our curriculum] is arts based and it promotes the kid’s creativity—their expression.” She believes the arts has absolutely saved some at risk children from taking destructive directions. “We have a very strong band program. It’s an outlet for the kids. It gives them something to do and it helps them get their feelings out.”

While some may see rap as non-traditional, Courtney YellowFat says that just as Lakota words have to be created to express contemporary items such as computers and cell phones, if the language is to survive, like it or not, rap music is a popular and powerful movement and if it gets young people to engage, it should not be ignored. “We have to create spaces that are culturally appropriate within our tribe, but [rap] is where these kids can express themselves.”

He goes on to count the benefits of Turnaround Arts and working with mentors such as Mic Jordan and Taboo, “This program has done amazing things. Anytime a budget gets cut, the first things that go are the arts and music. We fought hard to keep our music programs and to integrate the arts across the curriculum. Our grades and test scores are rising. Our attendance is improving and our dropout rate is dropping. Art has been a morale booster for our community and students.”

Standing Rock Middle School is among 73 Turnaround Arts schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The program reaches almost 50,000 students.

To view the Standing Rock performance at the talent show, start around 59:41 on

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