2015 Retreat: Keeping with Tradition, Welcoming Change

by Nick Estes (Kul Wicasa Sicangu Tintonwan)

As a new member, first-time attendee, and young Native scholar of the Oak Lake Writers’ Society annual retreat, I came to this group influenced by these writers’ works and vision. These are my insights and takeaways from the retreat, being in the presence of colleagues and accomplished senior writers.

Tucked away in quiet, relative isolation along the southern shore of Oak Lake in northeastern South Dakota, the Oak Lake Writers' Society (OLWS) met early this August for its 22nd annual retreat. Each year, Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota writers of all ages attend for four days of writing workshops and meetings.

A solid group of fifteen writers attended the first three days of writing workshops, including this year's invited co-mentors, Oglala Lakota writer and scholar Delphine Red Shirt and Ojibwe writer and poet Heid Erdrich.

Red Shirt, author of Bead on an Anthill: A Lakota Childhood and Turtle Lung Woman's Granddaughter, led three writing sessions: journalism on contemporary issues and memoir and biography writing. A regular columnist for Native Sun News, she demonstrated how to develop and write compelling column-length pieces for newspaper publication.

Participants also practiced writing memoir chapters and using description and metaphor to tell family and personal histories. Recording and recounting family history through the Lakota oral tradition and language, the subjects of her two books, played central roles for Red Shirt in developing strong characters and culturally authentic stories for memoir and biography writing. Unlike autobiography, she reminded, memoir writing is structured like fiction, where real people are the characters and real stories are the plot; and memoir is about pivotal moments in life, not complete histories.

Erdrich, the second co-mentor, is the author of six books, including National Monuments and Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest. She led several playful writing exercises where participants made lists to describe what characters used or did not use in poem form. Lighthearted discussions followed about the widespread use of nicknames in tribal life that tell stories about character and demeanor.

Erdrich also illustrated, food as recipe for storytelling—its preparation and centrality to tribal life—holds a certain wisdom and knowledge. It connects people to place. As Native writers, how do we maintain connection to certain places, landscapes, and historical practices through telling about the harvesting and preparation of certain foods? How does this demonstrate change when some plants and animals are no longer staples in diets or become inedible due to contamination or extinct? What kinds of knowledges are embodied in Native foods? What stories do they tell? These were the questions participants were left pondering.

[caption id="attachment_44" align="alignright" width="225"] Heid Erdrich read poetry at Thursday's potluck.[/caption]

On the third night, OLWS hosted South Dakota State University (SDSU) faculty and Brookings area community members for a potluck, a showing of the OLWS retreat documentary, and readings by co-mentors and OLWS members.

The last day marked a transition OLWS will be undergoing. OLWS co-founder Dr. Charles Woodard announced his resignation from the leadership role of organizing the retreat. Woodard, a distinguished professor of English at SDSU and former South Dakota Author of the Year, has been a longtime advocate and supporter of Native peoples. His commitments include serving on the South Dakota Governor's Reconciliation Council, founding the Brookings Area Reconciliation Council and SDSU’s annual Consider the Century Conference, co-founding SDSU’s annual wacipi and the American Indian Histories and Cultures Conference, serving as faculty adviser for the SDSU Native American Club, and chairing the Native American Advisory Committee. His character and quiet strength has served an invaluable role in keeping alive the spirit and purpose of OLWS through his persistent leadership and involvement in major OLWS publications. Although stepping aside to make room for OLWS’s first tribal coordinator, an effort itself that Woodard has devoted his career to seeing, tribal people in academics, Chuck will maintain involvement with OLWS during the transition.

Delphine Red Shirt will organize the Oak Lake Writers’ Society 2016 Retreat. Delphine is a distinguished Lakota writer, scholar, and language advocate. She served as Chairperson of the United Nations NGO Committee on the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, 1995–96, and as the United Nations Representative for the Four Directions Council: International Indigenous Organization. She has also served as an Adjunct Professor of American Studies and English at Yale University and Connecticut College, and is now teaching Lakota language and Native literature at Stanford University.

With new leadership in organizing, the focus and purpose of OLWS will remain the same, if not strengthen, a manifestation of a tribal literary nationalism and intellectual sovereignty for the Oceti Sakowin. The principal purpose of OLWS is to transform and defend culture-based writing, oral traditions, histories, and political statuses of the Oceti Sakowin. The future of OLWS is promising, as we greet the rise of younger generations of Native writers and intellectuals who have much to offer our tribal nations and much to learn from the generations who have paved the way.

[Editor's Note: Delphine Red Shirt organized the 2016 retreat while considering a faculty position at South Dakota State University. She ultimately chose not to take the position at SDSU. Red Shirt is an OLWS member, and we thank her for her contributions.]