By Michael Nare, Rapid City Journal
PINE RIDGE, SD (AP) – When Tristiana Brewer studies Lakota language and culture at Pine Ridge High School with her teacher Will Peters, she examines the small details. Then, before long, larger worlds begin to open up.
“My favorite part is learning the language and then seeing all the stories that come from behind the language,” she said.
Brewer is a junior at Pine Ridge High School and a registered member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, like Peters. The Rapid City Journal reports that her love for the smallest parts of language and her appreciation for the worlds that lie beyond words are qualities Peters also described in an afternoon in high school.
Peters, who grew up in the Pine Ridge Preserve, is a Lakota studies teacher at Pine Ridge High School and patron of the Pine Ridge Flute Association.
“I don’t start with stories,” he said, referring to the Lakota language and culture class. “I begin with a basic knowledge of the Lakota language.”
This includes, he said, looking closely at vowel sounds, consonant sounds, and sounds indicated by accent marks. His students pick up the finer analysis using words like “ring” easily in conversation.
“We are progressing in the original stories of the Lakota people while still integrating the Lakota language,” he said. “From there, there is a story to almost everything I teach.”
Drums, flutes, songs—each with origin stories, the types of narration behind the individual words that Pryor described. And for Peters, student engagement like Brewer is vital.
“In my classes, I encourage students to express themselves, whether it is in the form of a question or a statement,” he said. “Young people’s voices matter — so much. They matter to me, they must matter to my people, they must matter to this country. Unless we all plan to live forever and be responsible for everything, these young people will be them.”
Peters teaches Lakota language and culture, as well as Lakota arts. He said the Lakota art class includes beadwork, music, and many other topics and activities.
“Everything is tightly intertwined,” he said, “just like the web in a dream catcher.”
Cycle activities create emotional responses, often closely related to intellectual responses. John Henry Long, a student at Pine Ridge High School and one of Peters’ students, said he was drawn to the beading process for its calming effect.
“This keeps my mind off things and makes me feel relaxed,” said Long, a registered member of the Ujala Lakota Nation. “And there is no stress associated with that.”
Breuer noted the richness of the process, too, including learning the “four colors of direction” and the meanings behind them.
Peters began teaching at Pine Ridge High School in 1996 and paused in 2004 when he was elected as a representative of the tribal council. He returned to high school in 2008 and has been teaching there ever since.
“I couldn’t come back fast enough,” he said. “Young people are much easier to work with than adults.”
The theme and importance of youth sends Peters’ mind deep into Lakota language and history, and far into the future.
“I say to these young people, when we learn the language, there is a word that says where they are in this life now,” he said. For young women, they are called ‘kuskalaka’, which means young women. Young men are known as ‘kuskalaka.’
He said the elders call the young women and men “wakaniga.”
“Wakanega means ‘holy beings,’” he said. “I always remind them of that. They are sacred beings.”
Peters stressed the importance of teaching Lakota language and culture.
“There were things like colonization and forced assimilation,” he said. “These things have resulted in a lot of families not knowing the Lakota culture.”
As Peters spoke, he constantly gravitated toward thinking and celebrating youth. He has noted a few of his own accomplishments, stating that he is a “NAMMY Award-winning singer-songwriter,” referring to the Native American Music Awards. But he soon returned to his students, describing the Pine Ridge Flute Society, which he advised and helped launch several years ago.
“My students are NAMMY award winning flutists,” he said. “The Pine Ridge Flute Society, with its first recording, won the NAMMY Award for Best Flute Player of the Year (2018). Nine members of the Flute Society were comfortable enough to record.”
He explained that other members of the community have also produced powerful music, but with the downfall of COVID-19, the opportunity to perform and promote music has suddenly vanished — at least for a while.
Peters said he grew up with music, especially with traditional Lakota songs that include the drum.
“Later in my youth, one of my older brothers had a rock band,” he said. “He was a singer, and I kind of gravitated toward that kind of music and taught myself to drums, and my older brother was learning.
At the age of fourteen, he learned to play the guitar with the help of his brother and other musicians, “while maintaining my involvement in Lakota music”.
Peters said he has long felt drawn to a range of music, from traditional Lakota to contemporary rock.
“I am convinced that every form of music allows expression – self-expression,” he said. “And I dare say that this is why people listen to music, no matter what kind, because the artist expresses something relevant.”
Peters grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation and enjoys his decision to stay there and continue to call it home.
“I’m a resident of this place for life,” he said, “and I’m going to be buried here.” “The world has nothing to offer me I don’t really have here. Some people mistakenly believe that those of us who live here are trapped here. We can’t make it there. I live here by choice.”
“I have three college degrees, and I know I can make it anywhere,” continued Peters, who is also a state-certified Lakota teacher. “I know I can compete with anyone out there. But my choice is to stay here with my people – specifically these young people, and to help empower them.”
Peters doesn’t object when the youngsters decide to move away to other places, but he expresses a deep conviction that Pine Ridge is his home. He remembers advice from the elders he knew as a child.
“When I grew up, they asked us to learn and help our people,” he said. “So I am following what the elders of my time have passed on to me.”
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