The RedCan graffiti jam connects kids on South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Reservation with major street artists—and their own traditions

As you drive down a certain desolate stretch of U.S. Route 212 in South Dakota, you eventually come to a town with a weather-beaten water tower, a single woebegone grocery, and a sign for Main Street. Turn onto this one-mile thoroughfare and the built environment soon transforms from drab to dramatic. In place of the squat, nondescript buildings that dotted the horizon earlier you see structures awash in brilliant tones of red, yellow, and white. Painted animals ten feet high dash, swim, and swoop. In the center of the business district, a colossal eagle greets passersby, next to the bold proclamation, in graceful graffiti lettering, “Wičháȟpi Oyate: The People of the Stars.”

Welcome to Eagle Butte, South Dakota, population 1,318, the tribal seat of the Cheyenne River Reservation, heart of the Lakota nation, and—for the past three years—the home of RedCan: an annual event melding graffiti culture with tribal renewal.

RedCan is a “graffiti jam” spearheaded by the Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP), a local, grassroots nonprofit with a mission to provide indigenous youth “access to a vibrant and secure future,” as the group’s website puts it. RedCan is also the proving ground for one of the most recent experiments in creative placemaking, a burgeoning discipline examining how arts and culture can help communities thrive, especially when artists are embedded in the planning process. I visited RedCan on behalf of ArtPlace America, one of three organizations—along with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)—that had provided CRYP with placemaking grants.

For several days each summer since 2015, CRYP has brought together internationally renowned artists—from as far away as Hawaii and Sweden—to work with local youth in beautifying numerous locations throughout town, from derelict trailers to official government buildings to CRYP’s Waniyetu Wowapi art park, where art classes, ceremonies, and other events are held during RedCan. CRYP has also used the occasion to highlight Lakota song, dance, and regalia; and it cohosts several skateboard-painting workshops with First Peoples Fund, a Rapid City–based nonprofit supporting Native artists nationwide.

“The idea is fantastic…and crazy,” says “Scape” Martinez, an artist-activist from California and one of more than a dozen artists, educators, evaluators, and Native culture bearers participating in this year’s RedCan. We’re standing off a side road as he and a local intern from CRYP transform an abandoned storage container from a drab gray oblong into a writhing explosion of bold reds and deep purples. On this vibrant palette is line work that evokes the playful canvases of Wassily Kandinsky. The bold splotches coalesce into squiggly “wildstyle” lettering that spells out wakanyeja, Lakota for “sacred little ones”—an homage to CRYP’s mission and graffiti’s inherently youthful spirit.

Graffiti Jam Meets Tribal Pow-wow

Graffiti jams are essentially showcase events for the movement’s stars and strivers, centered on “battles” that allude to the art form’s roots in the hip-hop “style wars” of the early 1980s. According to Scape—and most of the other participants I spoke with—many jams are ego-driven vehicles for self-promotion, in which throngs of onlookers join hyper-competitive upstart artists eager to establish a name for themselves. RedCan, in contrast, is intimate and collaborative, focused more on the broader Lakota community than on individuals. This isn’t a natural fit for most of the medium’s practitioners: “You have to leave your ego at the door…and for graffiti artists [ego is] often the fuel that fires you,” says Scape.

The term pow-wow has been trivialized—today it can stand for any informal gathering—but RedCan participants quickly grasp its true meaning: a sacred occasion filled with ceremonies that honor American Indian traditions. Artists arrive several days early to attend orientation sessions on Lakota culture, interacting with residents, visiting buffalo ranches, and discussing appropriate ways to incorporate Native beliefs into their art pieces. The days are bookended by healing circles, with drummers, chanting, and smudging ceremonies—complete with burning cedar and tobacco offerings—to give thanks and foster connection.

“I’ve been to a number of street festivals and graffiti jams,” says Rebecca Chan, a program officer and evaluator for LISC, “and what blew me away about RedCan is how thoughtful and deep their orientation process is for visiting artists, which sets the tone for the whole event. We talk a lot about process and product in creative placemaking…the leadership at [CRYP] does such a fantastic job of digging into that process to ensure that the results—in this case the murals and art park—are responsive to and really capture the spirit of Lakota culture.” Both Chan and Scape single out the visionary leadership of Julie Garreau, CRYP’s founder and executive director, in steering this process.

Changing the Trajectory

One of the first things you notice about Garreau, aside from her violet-tipped hair and embroidered accessories, is her expansive smile. Whether she’s announcing the day’s activities in the morning drum circle or gifting visitors with wasna—a Lakota snack of buffalo meat, cranberries, and grains—there’s a brightness in her eyes that suggests good news to come. For nearly three decades, she’s shared that spirited optimism with an entire generation of Cheyenne River’s youth, guiding CRYP’s transformation from an after-school “safe space” to a pioneering nonprofit, recognized with numerous awards, including the Presidential Points of Light Award and the South Dakota Coalition for Children’s “Champion for Children” honor.

These commendations are hard-earned, and a reflection of the efforts of the organization’s small but passionate staff. Many of the people who help with CRYP’s summer programing are volunteers, some of whom travel across the country each year, and nearly all credit Garreau with engendering a family-like atmosphere. Garreau herself spent her first 12 years at CRYP as a volunteer, and she’s quick to dismiss this praise as par for the tribe, just one aspect of tiospaye—the Lakota notion of extended family.

“We’re changing the game, changing the trajectory of our children’s lives,” she says. “Everything CRYP has done is about planting seeds.”

That planting began in a converted bar off Main Street, as the organization established itself as one of the few places offering support services for Cheyenne River’s many struggling families. Garreau credits that period as being integral to CRYP’s “organizational DNA,” instilling the importance of engaging all stakeholders—kids, allies, and donors—and granting them the dignity befitting kin.

Reconciling with the Past, Readying for the Future

The Lakota are certainly no strangers to large-scale indignities. Their story is just one episode in an ongoing litany of historic injustices, from the erosion of treaty rights in the nineteenth century to catastrophic damming projects along the Missouri River in the twentieth to the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in the twenty-first. (The DAPL resisters’ Sacred Stone Camp, on the neighboring Standing Rock Reservation, is just a two-hour drive from Eagle Butte.)

Garreau has seen the lasting impact of these struggles firsthand. Cheyenne River is the country’s fourth-largest reservation—with a land area roughly equivalent to the state of Connecticut—and it encompasses Dewey and Ziebach Counties, where the poverty rate consistently tops 60 percent. Some households lack functioning infrastructure for basic utilities like water, and the community only gained access to a modern hospital within the last five years.

Some of the locals who took part in RedCan’s daily drum circles shared wrenching personal accounts of their experiences in government-operated boarding schools, where any expression of Native culture—from language to haircuts—was strictly forbidden. The educational philosophy of these schools was encapsulated in the phrase “kill the Indian, save the man.” This is still a raw wound in the Lakota collective memory, and on the Cheyenne River reservation, this intergenerational trauma is evident in rates of suicide and substance abuse dramatically higher than the national norm.

In 2005, the Cheyenne River Tribal Council formulated a strategic plan to address the underlying causes of poverty in the region, an effort that involved multiple agencies and organizations on the reservation, including CRYP. The plan included a renewed focus on preserving cultural values, strengthening families, and promoting learning—all issues that fell squarely within CRYP’s mission.

By that point the organization had grown from a one-room space in that abandoned bar to a site with separate buildings for youth and teens, a recreation center, a commercial kitchen, an outdoor garden, a basketball gymnasium, a library, a “farm-to-table” café, a gift shop, and—most recently—the graffiti art park. In other words, CRYP finally had a space commensurate with its role in the community.

The walls of CRYP’s new center are full of local artwork, historical commemorations, and Native testimonials. “We will never love our history,” Garreau acknowledges, “but we can embrace it for what it is, then find the power to overcome it. We’re trying to create confident and empowered kids so we can have a healthier generation going forward.”

RedCan Rising: From Tags to Riches

In 2014, Garreau took part in a committee reviewing fellowship applications, one of which was from a candidate who wanted to introduce graffiti to rural areas. The idea wasn’t framed with a tribal reservation in mind, but Garreau thought it held promise for Cheyenne River. She was particularly intrigued by the medium’s capacity to engage youth in a new way, though the broader possibilities didn’t sink in until she began researching graffiti jams. Slowly she started to draw connections between graffiti and Lakota culture.

The graffiti movement traces its origin to the urban margins—the subways beneath New York City and the ghettos of Washington Heights and the Bronx. Like hip-hop, its musical counterpart, graffiti epitomized a youthful spirit of public defiance. Its emergence in places of blight and decay offered—in bright, bold lettering—a brash challenge to the status quo, and proclaimed a confident and assertive identity for the urban poor.

CRYP’s early graffiti workshops and the first RedCan, funded by the NEA, finally convinced Garreau that this artistic expression had resonance for South Dakota’s neglected underclass, and the potential to strengthen Lakota values. Crude graffiti tags were already prevalent in much of downtown Eagle Butte—but now there was an opportunity to turn those eyesores into assets. “The government tried to take away what made us Lakota,” Garreau says, but “it’s still here, it’s still present, and our kids experience it.”

The enormous eagle mural in the downtown business district is the work of artist “Estria” Miyashiro, born and based in Hawaii and now an elder statesman of the graffiti movement. If you want to capture the imagination of disaffected youth, he suggests, take to the streets. He argues that “young people gravitate towards art in public [spaces] because it’s what they see. Galleries are dead [and] museums are a thing of the past.” In this framework, graffiti art is more than just an expression of youthful rebellion—it’s an opportunity for healing and catharsis.

For Scape, “graffiti is elastic”: it was pioneered by artists who literally colored outside the lines, so it can be employed as a potent educational tool in different communities. “Wildstyle” graffiti, for example, employs arrows in its lettering, and arrows carry all manner of symbolic meaning for Native Americans. Likewise, the early graffiti artists often had to apprentice under an experienced tagger, a training method, rooted in oral tradition, that closely resembles CRYP’s own approach to mentorship.

Though Garreau had initially expected RedCan to be a one-off event, its popularity with the participating artists convinced her otherwise. By year two the local residents’ curiosity blossomed into quiet pride, and in year three they were genuinely upset when some of the murals were painted over—to make blank canvases for new ones.

At that point Garreau recognized the power of transforming thousands of square feet into colorful mirrors of Lakota identity. “We have spirits who guide us and make us strong, and that’s what we’re building on,” she says. “We might be impoverished, but we’re rich in culture.”

Sustaining Success

In its brief lifespan, RedCan’s rapid growth has expanded the possibilities of graffiti jams and forced CRYP to be intentional about its future. Garreau and her staff have fine-tuned the event with each passing year, even hiring a consulting firm to drill down on where the program is succeeding and where it has room to improve.

Rebecca Chan of LISC praises CRYP’s resourcefulness; she’s convinced that Garreau and her colleagues would find ways to achieve success “on a $400 or $4,000 budget.” Fortunately they have many more resources at their disposal, with ArtPlace’s $325,000 grant arriving just as they’re strategizing ways to sustain RedCan’s success for the long haul.

Garreau is also quick to emphasize that an invitational graffiti jam isn’t CRYP’s end goal. “RedCan is just a way to get [our participating youth] to bring what they’ve learned year-round.… It’s an opportunity to energize the community and bring them together.”

Estria is a strong proponent of this approach. “You can leverage that enthusiasm to segue into life lessons they need to cope with in their struggle.… At the end it’s not the art—it’s just an excuse to have a positive influence on them.”

Creative placemakers often discuss the tricky balance involved in leveraging the skills of visiting artists in order to portray local narratives. CRYP has approached this challenge through its extensive orientation process for the visitors; but they’re also working to train local artists to tell their own stories, and the ArtPlace award will enable them to deepen and formalize programming for their Lakota Youth Arts Institute, which will do just that.

Cultivating artists capable of painting massive murals is a long-term process, but while CRYP’s other plans go forward, RedCan is providing local talent with ongoing opportunities to train alongside graffiti’s best-in-class, giving them plenty of chances, in Estria’s words, “to tell the stories of this place.”

Lessons for Other Placemakers

In running the RedCan graffiti jam, Julie Garreau and her colleagues at the Cheyenne River Youth Project have learned some important lessons that can serve as takeaways for other aspiring placemakers:

  • First, experiment. Originally, Garreau wasn’t convinced that graffiti was the best way to engage youth; after all, it’s associated by many with crime and blight. But the early results look promising, and RedCan nearly doubles in size year to year. Innovative approaches arise from unorthodox thinking.
  • Iterate and adjust, but have a long-term vision and a broader strategy that allows flexibility. Calculated gambles should only be one facet of that strategy. CRYP’s programming includes everything from physical education to sustainable agriculture, with the end goal of empowering youth by strengthening their connection to their heritage and traditional values. Rebecca Chan of LISC, which provides technical assistance to placemaking organizations around the country, urges planners to “have the trust and patience to grow it over time.… When embarking on a big, community-facing project, it’s important to stick to your values and your vision, but also make sure you’re able to be flexible in the moment.”
  • Choose strong, reliable partners. CRYP gained the backing of their tribal council, advancing goals in line with the council’s strategic poverty alleviation plan, and they work closely with the solidly established and forward-thinking First Peoples Fund. The Fund’s Rolling Rez Arts workshops help bring in youth from outside Eagle Butte and contribute to CRYP’s goal of empowering a whole new generation of Native artists.
  • Recruit outside artists with care, and orient them. Creative placemaking is more than well-executed murals in commercial corridors, and artists, however skillful, who don’t or won’t share your wider vision are probably not for you. Choose artists with the right attitude, on the other hand, and you will connect them powerfully to your community’s goals. (As Scape says: “RedCan sharpened my sword [for] social justice.”) CRYP’s placemaking is designed to reinforce Lakota identity, and their robust orientation process for the artists they invite also helps them achieve that goal.
  • Acknowledge problems, but don’t wallow in fatalism. Creative placemaking projects often arise in struggling places under the most desperate of circumstances, but they usually succeed when spearheaded by visionary leaders whose hope and optimism outweigh their anger and sadness.
  • Recognize the power of art. The positive, healing energy of creative approaches can have cathartic benefits, especially for marginalized and alienated groups. Julie Garreau: “We’re remembering where we come from: our roots, our ancestors, even the sad things that happen—the massacres and battles.… We’re finding power through art.”
Justin Chotikul is a freelance writer and photographer based in the Bay Area, where he explores and uncovers stories of creativity and community renewal. An avid traveler and former Marine, Justin discovered art’s healing energy through veterans’ writing workshops.

From Public Art Review #57, where this article appeared as “Wildstyle on the High Plains.”