Lakota in America

For a hundred years, it was virtually illegal to be Lakota. Now, Julie Garreau and her Cheyenne River Youth Project are working with a determined generation of young Lakota to create a stronger economic and cultural future — and they’re using their Lakota heritage to get there.
Apr 16, 2024 — 5 min read



Julie Garreau is the founder of the Cheyenne River Youth Project working to create a stronger economic and cultural future for Lakota gererations to come.

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Genevieve Iron Lightning: I was probably 11 or 12 at the time, and my Uncle Emmet passed away. My mom got really depressed. She started drinking really bad and she started treating us different. There was this guy, he was just some kind of stranger. All of a sudden he started staying around more and she left me and my two brothers at home alone for days on end. One day, that man, he was in the back room with my mom. I heard them talking about shooting up something. So I texted my grandma and I told her what was going on. She said, hold on, we'll come get you. So I got up my brother's really, really fast. I just put any clothes on I could find. I packed a bag and we left. 

Oh, look at that fly. I'm lightning speed. That's why my name's Lightning. 

Grandma: I don't know how to work these. 

Genevieve Iron Lightning: You just click play. 

Grandma: Okay, cool. 

Genevieve Iron Lightning: I'm offbeat. 

Grandma: You always have to turn when the double beats come. 

Genevieve Iron Lightning: My name is Genevieve Iron Lightning. My Lakota name is Tȟokáhe Nážiŋ Wiŋ or Stands First Woman, and I'm the descendant of Chief Iron Lightning. I kinda was born dancing. It makes me feel connected, like I'm in touch with my ancestors and my culture. 

Grandma: And this was when she first got Mini Miss. Oh, you look like me in there. 2006. It says Mini me 2006. This is her picture from last year. Was this last year's? 

Genevieve Iron Lightning: Yeah. My freshman year didn't turn out good. 
It's difficult living in Eagle Butte. It's difficult living on a reservation. The houses aren't very nice. There's trash in the yard, broken and busted cars in the driveways. Parents don't really take care of their kids unless, I don't know, unless they have a job. 

Julie Garreau: Cheyenne River has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the poorest counties in the nation. That's overwhelming when you think about it. How do we get by? Many of our people turn to alcohol. Most recently, meth has become a really big issue in our community, but we didn't create the situation here. They've put us on these reservations to contain us, to control us, to keep us segregated, and so as a result, we have a population of people who don't have access to economic resources. When you have poverty and addiction, it's very easy to forget that there's little kids sitting next to you that need to be acknowledged and hugged and talked to. Children are a reflection of the surroundings that they're in. Children need to be seen. They need people guiding them, loving them, and they need opportunity. 

Genevieve Iron Lightning: My first summer here, my grandma was reading the newspaper and she saw something about internships at the Cheyenne River Youth Project. They were looking for people to work in the cafe that just opened that same summer, so my grandma was like, “Hey, I'm going to get you into that.” 

Julie Garreau: The Cheyenne River Youth Project is 100% about being a positive influence on the kids of our community. Within our facilities, we offer internships, wellness programs, the arts. We have a teen center, a gymnasium, dance studio, computer lab. We also have the Winyan Toka Win Garden. 

Speaker: These are the wax beans, yellow beans. 

Julie Garreau: We're talking about their mental health, their physical health, their education, all these different pieces that help them grow. When CYP first started, there wasn't a youth organization here, and then over the years as we've evolved, we've learned from our kids and from our community about what the needs are. It's important that we help them understand our history and who we are as a people, as Lakota people. Moving us to the reservations and the assimilation of our people. All these things still impact us today. 

Speaker: Every other nationality in America, we're free to practice their culture in any way they saw fit, but not us as Native Americans. It was against the law, killed the Indian and saved a man. We're still dealing with that today. [Speaking Lakota] Always remember that you're Lakota first. 

Julie Garreau: It's important for our young people to remember where they come from. That's what our ancestors would want. We want them to impart that onto their children. When the next generation comes. When you have poverty added to the historical trauma, it's just a kind of big mess. A problem with a lot of our kids is that you just reach a breaking point when you don't know what to do and if there's nobody there to support you to get you through these tough times. Then sometimes things happen. In the last month, we had at least two completed suicides. There was something like 10 attempts. It's like we have room for death, but we don't have room for life. You have to step into places that are uncomfortable in order to do the work that we're trying to do with our kids. They deserve more. The picture I want to paint is that we have our challenges, but we are lifting ourselves up. Our internships at COYP provide a way out for our young people. 

We're teaching them about the business. They're learning their interpersonal communication skills and how to manage money. They also learn about writing resumes, all those pieces that help a kid to prepare for the future. 

Genevieve Iron Lightning: Job opportunities are limited on the reservation, so Kea Cafe and the other internships set you up for different job experiences. 

Julie Garreau: We're giving them confidence in how to go find a job or maybe they can have their own business. We want them to imagine the possibilities. 

Genevieve Iron Lightning: Oh my gosh, I'm spilling in. I would come over here at seven and then I get done at two, and that was tiring for me. But earning your own money, it makes you feel like you're growing up. It makes you feel independent. The internships help you prepare for life after high school, I am definitely going to go to college and I will come back and help my community in any way I can because it's a struggle here, but it's my home. My grandma, her dad is Grant Iron Lightning Junior. Her grandpa's Grant Iron Lightning Sr., and then I can't remember his dad's name, but it's five generations back is Chief Iron Lightning. He could walk anywhere and he could just come back with horses, and that made him a leader to the Lakota people. 

Grandma: This is where my great-grandpa Iron Nighting was buried. This is Dale Iron Lightning. He is one of my uncles. Yes, that's who I was named after. 

Genevieve Iron Lightning: Knowing that I come from these great people, I feel like I have to do big things. You know?

[Singing in Lakota]
I want to set a good example for the younger generations to show them that I did struggle here, but I did the youth internships at CRYP. I did anything in my power to make something of myself. I like that feeling of doing something right. It makes my people proud, and I like making my people proud. 

Julie Garreau: Our dream and our idea of success and wealth is just different. I think we see family and culture and tradition and singing and dancing as wealth. Being Lakota, we've had this oppressive weight for all these years, but this generation of kids is different. They're proud of who we are. They're proud to be Lakota. They're not afraid to speak up, to change what's happening for us and let the world know that we are still here. They are the next culture bearers, the next leaders. They're a powerful new generation. There's so much they have overcome. Imagine the possibilities if we can help them grow and give them the skills to go out into the world and thrive.


Square premieres a short film about the CRYP's inspiring work to protect Lakota culture and educate youth.

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