#ThrowbackThursday: Art Talk with Cheyenne River Youth Project Founder Julie Garreau

By Rebecca Sutton
Woman standing in front of rows of spray paint cans

Julie Garreau, founder of the Cheyenne River Youth Project, at the organization's RedCan Graffiti Jam, which has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Photo courtesy of the Cheyenne River Youth Project

If you were only to look at statistics, you’d get a grim picture of South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Reservation. The Cheyenne River Sioux have an 88 percent unemployment rate. Nearly 60 percent of children on the reservation live in poverty, and suicide and drug use run high.

But as Julie Garreau said, “Don’t let that be all you see.” Garreau is the founder of the Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP), which she launched in 1988 as a way to give children and their families the tools and opportunities to create pathways toward success. Originally headquartered in a defunct bar, CRYP—a frequent National Endowment for the Arts grantee—now boasts a teen center, a youth center, the Waniyetu Wowapi Lakota Youth Arts and Culture Institute, a five-acre graffiti art park, organic community garden, computer lab, dance and art studios, and more. We recently spoke with Garreau about her organization, and how it has flourished side-by-side the community it serves.

NEA: I wanted to kick things off by talking about what your own experience was like growing up and how this may have led you to found the Cheyenne River Youth Project?

JULIE GARREAU: I was born and raised on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, so this has been my home for all of my life. I had two amazing parents who were both public servants. My father was a police officer and my mother was the director of an elderly nutrition program. So I had great examples for life, and it was really instilled in me that helping your people, being part of the solution, is what we're supposed to do, is what we're charged with.

So I grew up with that message and I really understood it. Then I began working with kids, and that's when my mentoring and my teaching really began. I always recommend everybody spend some time with kids if they want to get the story of a community in terms of what's happening there, how people are feeling, the struggles. Because it plays out in your kids, and they're very honest and not always nice about telling you how things are. They tell you in their body language or [simply by] telling you or something shouted in anger. But kids are amazing, and that's where I found my place and never regretted it. It's been the best journey for sure.

NEA: Can you tell me about the origin of the Cheyenne River Youth Project and how the idea for it first developed?

GARREAU: The Cheyenne River Youth Project came to be through this old bar called the Little Brown Jug. It was a building that was owned by tribal government. After they opened it up to the community for proposals, the idea of turning it into a youth center was accepted. That's where Cheyenne River Youth Project’s life began, in this little tiny bar. The dance floor would've been our activity room. The refrigeration area would have been our library. We just made do. That's where we fed our kids. They played. There was an office space. It was our home for 12 years.

NEA: As the organization has evolved, how have you seen the community evolve as well?

GARREAU: What has happened in the community is that they've come to see us as a place where kids are safe. We have tons of kids who come here every single day. They know that we have great programming. There's a lot of respect that the community has for us.

I've seen the community change in terms of how they're really lifting themselves up. I think the misunderstanding is that impoverished communities just need money. But what's as important to poverty reduction is making sure that the humanity of the people that you serve is also blended into your programming. It's just not a service where you get in line and you go up and you're greeted by somebody who's not very nice to you and maybe they’re abrupt to you or whatever. In our situation, these are our friends and our family. There's no “You’re a client,” and I go away at the end of the day. We live in our community.

[We also work] in combination with all the other things happening here. There's CDFI [Community Development Financial Institutions]. There's a community college. There's our youth programming. There are emergency services. There's a housing program that is doing their part. So the nonprofit piece has played a big role in how our community has evolved, whereas I think the expectation is always that tribal government must do everything. But I think [community members] are really beginning to see the value of organizations like ours and the work that we're doing. That's really changed since starting out.

Change takes time. Having 30 years invested in this organization and watching the community in the way that I have, I think in some ways things have gotten tougher. Politics plays a role in what happens here. People are always attacking our sovereignty and wanting to take that away. But when I became involved, people used to talk about marijuana as the gateway drug. Now we're combating meth. Marijuana is nothing compared to what meth does to a community. And it’s cheap and it's easy to get and it's so highly addictive. So it's even more important that the work that we do with youth is more innovative and more available, because kids have to know that there is something else. I tell kids all the time, “The world is yours. Go out and find it, explore it. If you want to come home, great. Come back and be part of the solution, because your people need you.” That's a very much a Lakota value, to take care of each other.

NEA: What are some of the other challenges that kids served by the Cheyenne River Youth Project might be facing?

GARREAU: I think what anybody needs, whether it's a grownup in an inner city or it's a young person in an inner city or it’s a young person here, is access to opportunity. That's often something that's lacking in impoverished communities—something that will help them grow; an opportunity to go to college; the opportunity to start their own business; the opportunity to buy your own house. I think the one thing that we have to do is to make sure that they understand what opportunities are there, and how you can create your own opportunities.

NEA: What are some of the most important tools the Cheyenne River Youth Project offers young people?

GARREAU: You don't have anything if you don't have your health. That's why I think [our programming around] Native wellness is so important because it’s about emotional health, physical health, mental health. Conversations, good relationships, interpersonal communications—those are things that you learn as you grow, so that type of thing really is empowering. People need grownups that help grow them. So, our job as grownups and our jobs as Lakota people is to do that. We're all a part of this and when you see kids do something wrong, maybe then just talk to them about it and remind them. Some kids don't want to hear you because they're just so angry. But I think it's about us doing our jobs as adults. Don't put them in a room and say, “Hey, go play with the computer.” Actually do things with them, [have] conversations with them, remember their name. You are helping people grow.

NEA: A lot of CRYP’s activities revolve around the arts. What role have the arts traditionally played within Lakota culture?

GARREAU: For us, there is no word for “art” and for that process. Everything that we do that other people would see as artistic is really just an expression of ourselves as Lakota people or indigenous people. That's how we’ve always expressed ourselves.

For us, art is culture, culture is art. That means that when we're painting or whatever we're doing, it's really just the continued telling of our story. It's the story of Lakota people. It's the pain. It's the history. It's the growth and the changes all being told in different ways. So whether that’s painting in an art park or kids painting in the art studio on paper or making jewelry, it's all really just storytelling and expression of an indigenous group. It's really quite beautiful.

NEA: Why do you think the arts or cultural expression is such an important component of youth and community wellness?

GARREAU: For indigenous peoples, culture is probably the most important thing. I think people have trouble understanding that. I think the colonized viewpoint is wealth and money and growing [are most important]. Whereas for us, ceremony and family and sovereignty are more important things. Art is just a part of that. Culture is important. Language is important. Ceremonies are important. I think that it's a healthy community when we're expressing ourselves in our cultural way, whether it's music and a drum or singing or dancing at a powwow.

For so long, there was such an effort to assimilate us and then exterminate us and then, “You can't pray this way. You can't look this way. You can't dress this way.” Now it's different. You can't tell us how to pray anymore. You can't just take our kids and send them to boarding school and cut their hair and change their clothes. It's very different now and it's empowering. We are raising a generation of kids who have not had to live through that era. They are being raised from day one that it is okay and good and empowering to be Lakota and good to practice your religion and to speak your language and to wear your hair long. In our community, about 50 percent of the population is under the age of 18. Now, me, I see that as an incredible, incredible opportunity of power for learning, for rebuilding our nation.

NEA: I wanted to talk about the graffiti art park. Why is it important for CRYP to offer both traditional Lakota arts as well as street art and graffiti?

GARREAU: One of the things that CRYP is known for is its innovative approach to programming. You’ve got to keep kids engaged in whatever way that looks like. So we use graffiti. It’s very appealing to them. I think people often think that reservations don't have access to TV, but we do. Our kids know what the world's all about and they've seen graffiti before. They're building their abilities to express, and we're doing it in a really traditional way in terms of painting big walls. So when you come to our community and you drive through town, you're going to see all these amazing murals. I think since 2013, we've probably had in excess of 75 large, big building murals in our community.

NEA: You mentioned that CRYP is known for innovative programming. How do you come up with ideas for new programs?

GARREAU: Well, that's the beauty of being from a community. We know our community. We were born and raised here. We were kids once. We have nephews and nieces who are kids here. You pay attention. I think that's the one thing that I became really good at: listening to kids about what they're thinking and what they're saying. We may not sit down and have this really well-articulated conversation, but kids tell you in different ways. You have to be ready to listen to their excitement or their body language or even their anger.

NEA: What’s the most important thing you've learned from the kids that you work with?

GARREAU: In 30 years, I've never given up hope that we can change the trajectory of what's been happening here. I feel like we're on that path. The most important thing that I have learned is what we can do as a nation, what we can do as a people for ourselves by relying on culture, relying on our history—that will make us stronger for sure. I have seen what we can do for ourselves. People still to this day say the most horrible things about reservations. I think what they see is poverty. But like I tell everybody, don't let that be all you see. Be open to the fact that there is this thriving culture. Be open to the idea that there's language preservation efforts. I would also say that for funders, for donors, for supporters, when you're investing in a program of ours, you are investing in the future of a nation. You are investing in cultural reclamation. You’re investing in helping a community find its way.