Dressed to Dance: Fostering Dakota Culture and Pride

The Wikosa/Wiciyenna Dance Regalia Project builds on Dakota Wichoan's established youth outreach efforts, including the Koska Boys Leadership Program and the Wikosa & Wiciyenna Girls Leadership Program.

The Wikosa/Wiciyenna Dance Regalia Project builds on Dakota Wichoan’s established youth outreach efforts, including the Koska Boys Leadership Program and the Wikosa & Wiciyenna Girls Leadership Program.

For one Dakota community in Minnesota, where youth are prone to low self-esteem, bad influences and suicide, something great is happening. Young people are designing and making their own regalia, reconnecting with their culture and an art form at risk of vanishing. Through funding from First Nations, Dakota Wicohan is providing kids opportunities to regain pride in who they are, and in doing so, changing health outcomes and transforming lives.

Building on progress

Dakota Wicohan is a cultural resource center focused on the celebration and transmission of Dakota cultural lifeways, arts, and language. The center brings together artists, activists, supporters, teachers, and learners, including elders and youth, in preserving Dakota traditions, providing a source of healing, and uniting people. 

Founded in 2002, the organization is a long-term grantee of First Nations through both the Native Arts Initiative and the Native Youth and Culture Fund. Through one of its most recent First Nations-funded projects, Dakota Wicohan expanded its arts programming with the Growing Dakota Artists Program. Now, with the latest grant from First Nations, the organization is again building on the power of art, this time with a purpose to further engage youth and provide new opportunities.

The need for Wicozani

For years, Dakota Wicohan has had success reaching youth. Through the Itancanpi Youth Leadership (Itancanpi) Program, which includes the Koska Boys Leadership Program and Wikoska & Wiciyena Girls Leadership Program, youth are learning Dakota ways as a foundation to make healthy lifestyle choices that will lead to high school graduation, college, and opportunities in which they’ll grow up to serve the community.

It is programming that is essential for these young people. According to Dakota Wicohan Program and Finance Director Eileen O’Keefe, Dakota have the state’s highest incidence of diabetes and the highest mortality rates, next to infants. Throughout the whole state of Minnesota, Native ninth-graders have the highest obesity rates among all other ninth-graders. And, Minnesota’s Native youth also have the lowest graduation rate in the state – the second-lowest in the United States.

Further, many of the youth living on or near the Lower and Upper Sioux Dakota communities in southwest Minnesota are in the foster care system and lack access and exposure to their Dakota heritage. As a result, their sense of culture and belonging is diminished, which can lead to poor academic, behavioral, and health outcomes.

To counter this, all youth programming of Dakota Wicohan is designed to improve decision-making skills and increase “Wicozani,” meaning mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Dakota Wicohan has found that the poorer youth rate their Wicozani, the greater their suicide ideation; and the greater their suicide ideation, the less important they viewed their Wicozani to be to their quality of life. Dakota Wicohan’s approach is based on the Dakota belief that strong Wicozani and suicidal ideation cannot coexist. Dakota Wicohan youth programming has been found to increase Wicozani, which has resulted in more youth graduating from high school, and fewer youth – only 1% – ending up in the juvenile justice system.

While these leadership programs have been effective at improving overall well-being and improving outcomes, Dakota Wicohan knew more could be done. The organization has a robust Tawokaga arts program for adults, and through it, some of the youth had some exposure to Native art forms. Still, there wasn’t an opportunity to reach more youth and to truly hone their artistic skills. And the power of art to further increase Wicozani was untapped.

Through the project, each girl learns artistry from a Dakota Wichohan artist, including textiles and the making of ribbon skirts.

Through the project, each girl learns artistry from a Dakota Wichohan artist, including textiles and the making of ribbon skirts.

Investing in regalia

Even more significant: The youth wanted to learn and were looking to take their involvement in traditional Dakota arts to a new level, says O’Keefe. In response, the organization sought to combine their expertise in arts programming for adults and leadership programming for youth and launch the Wikoska/Wiciyenna Dance Regalia Project.

 Initially formed as part of the Wikoska/Wiciyenna girls’ program, the project set out to recruit and train 10 young women from the Upper and Lower Sioux communities of Minnesota to design and construct their own Dakota dance regalia to wear at powwows. Through the project, each girl would learn from a Dakota Wicohan artist about textiles, beading, parfleche, and quilling, while being empowered to create something unique to them.

The benefits of this are twofold.

One, the program teaches artistry. Many of these girls have had exposure to crafts, dancing, and singing as individual activities, but they haven’t been empowered to bring all acts of culture together. Through this project, they’re able to make their own decisions regarding style and theme, get support and guidance from adult artists, and practice what they learn through a hands-on project. They learn textiles, which can include ribbon skirts and shawls; beading of moccasins, barrettes or hair ties; parfleche for other accessories like a purse, belt or knife sheath; and quilling for earrings or bracelets. Further what they create is personalized regalia that they can show to their community at powwows, school events, and the Prairie Days Festival at the Gibbs Farm in the Twin Cities.

Second, completing the project gives these girls a sense of accomplishment. And the ability to be part of Dakota ceremonial dance and wear the regalia gives them a chance to celebrate their Native heritage, which increases self-esteem and that important Wicozani.

Project Assistant Gianna Eastman, who grew up dancing in her own regalia, explains its power in promoting belonging and pride. Further, she says, not having the regalia can actually be a showstopper.

“Most times, having regalia is a requirement for powwow participation,” she says. “Through this project, these girls can be a part of it now, rather than just being spectators. And it’s even more special because they’re the ones who designed it and made it.”

Having regalia is not something that’s automatic in Native communities, especially in places like Morton, Minnesota, where many youths have little exposure to and are not connected with their Native heritage. “50% of these youth have some sort of barrier to being able to participate at this level,” says Eastman.

For many girls doing the project, dance is a lost art for their families and the older generations no longer have the knowledge to pass down. For others, there is the expense of the materials or lack of access to sewing machines. Others are in the foster care system and have no one in their lives who is invested in their cultural well-being. Others are at-risk youth who benefit from not only making the regalia but also having a safe place to come and meet with their peers and create something together.

Program Assistant Dory Stands says she can already see the confidence and pride in the girls. “They are so ambitious,” she says. “A big piece of this is that it’s so personal. The colors, all the symbols, design, yolk/skirt – everything is what they chose. So, they’re excited to be able to showcase it. Some of them even say, ‘I can’t wait to tell everyone that I did this myself.’”

Eastman adds, “In the area that we live in, it’s rural, and there’s still a division between Native and non-Native. For these girls, the regalia reinforces who they are, and lets them know it’s something to be proud of.”

Completed ribbon skirts and proud smiles for work well done!

Completed ribbon skirts and proud smiles for work well done!



















Dancing into the future

Going forward, Dakota Wicohan hopes to expand the program beyond the initial 10 students and make it a long-term focus for the organization, one that continues the knowledge and practice of Native art and that adds to the outcomes-based approach of its youth programming. The Dance project will be evaluated to determine its impact on increasing Wicozani, and how it indeed transforms the future of Dakota youth, their academics, health, and pride. Optimism is high based on initial feedback and the girls’ desire to meet more often and for longer.

Already, plans are underway to expand the program to bring on experienced dancers and to add more classes and participants. “People have lost these skills, but we’re slowly bringing them back,” says O’Keefe. “Now the younger ones can keep this lifeway alive. It’s an amazing opportunity right now.”

 By Amy Jakober

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