Learning on a Lakota Reservation
Social Innovation Fellow Elizabeth Schweizer 19 TX loves connecting with kids on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota.
For Elizabeth Schweizer 19 TX art education and studio practice are connected by their ability to both nurture self-expression and build strong communities. A knitter since early childhood, the NYC native started to consciously explore fine art as a 12-year-old—when her aunt was diagnosed with cancer. “Making expressive art felt really important at that moment,” recalls the junior in Textiles, who also considered a career in medicine before deciding to come to RISD.
As a high school student, Schweizer also discovered a real passion for working with children. Volunteering with the nonprofit organization Simply Smiles, she worked with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (CRST) and “absolutely fell in love with the kids” during the first of several trips to the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. The experience inspired her to think about translating her artistic talents into meaningful programs for education and community empowerment.
Thanks to a 2017 Social Innovation Fellowship (SIF), Schweizer returned to the CRST reservation last summer to establish the La Plant [SD] Art Camp, a program that encourages Lakota children to explore their culture through visual art. Observing how federal policies continue to erode traditional craft, foodways and other forms of indigenous knowledge, she designed a curriculum that connects children—from preschool to high-school age—with artists, cultural experts and other members of the CRST community. “I thought about how art could create relationships between [Lakota] youth and elders,” says Schweizer, who hopes that her efforts will spark ongoing intergenerational conversations about how to preserve tribal traditions.
RISD Careers was instrumental in connecting Schweizer with the SIF and providing funding for the experience, which is administered by Brown University’s Swearer Center. Each year the fellowship program provides up to 18 Brown and RISD undergrads with $4,000 each to launch projects that address a range of social issues. Throughout the yearlong fellowship, recipients participate in skills workshops, take related courses and learn from mentors able to help them take their ideas from concept to initial execution.
Schweizer also designed a number of horticultural programs at La Plant. In collaboration with Marcella Gilbert, a nutritionist and member of the Lakota nation, she led children on foraging expeditions, taught them how to harvest natural dyes for art projects and invited them to appreciate local food traditions. She has since begun creating interactive textiles that promote horticultural education as a means of supporting efforts of First Nations activists for food sovereignty—the right to food that is healthy, sustainable and reflects their cultures.
Ultimately, Schweizer hopes that her fellowship experience set the stage for work that can continue well into the future. “I saw my role as creating a space where the kids I taught could develop local connections and relationships,” she says. In addition, the fellowship encouraged her to translate what she has learned at RISD about collaboration and resourcefulness to further a clearly defined social enterprise. “RISD has taught me to be adaptable and to work with others, and not just rely on my own knowledge and resources,” she says, adding that the SIF program reinforces the same lessons.
Going forward Schweizer hopes to continue working with Simply Smiles on the La Plant curriculum while pursuing new avenues in art and social engagement. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the tension between making work for oneself,” she says, “and creating something [intangible] like a curriculum that is intended for others.” And although she admits that combining her passions isn’t always easy, the SIF experience has renewed her excitement about continuing to explore the possibilities.
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