First Nations News – April is National Poetry Month! Read Oglala Lakota Poet’s Blog

Through Mentorship, A Writers’ Society Flourishes

April is National Poetry Month and First Nations Development Institute is delighted to feature a blog and poetry by Joel Waters, who is an Oglala Lakota poet. His works have appeared in the book Shedding Skin: Four Sioux Poets edited by the late Adrian C. Louis. His works have also appeared in several Native American literature journals and anthologies. He is also a proud member of the Oak Lake Writers’ Society (OLWS).
The OLWS is a network of tribal writers committed to preserving and defending Oceti Ŝakowiŋ (Dakota, Lakota and Nakota) cultures, oral traditions and histories; to reaffirm their peoples’ political statuses; and to challenge representations that are inaccurate and damaging. Over the past 26 years, the OLWS has originated or published several volumes, including He Sapa Woihanble, Black Hills Dream (Living Justice Press, 2011), This Stretch of the River (Oak Lake Writers’ Society, 2006) and Shaping Survival (Scarecrow Press, 2006) to name a few.

By Joel Waters

I joined the Oak Lake Writers’ Society in the summer of 2002 at the suggestion of my amazing professor Norma Wilson at the University of South Dakota. Oak Lake has the distinction of being the only writers’ group out there for Lakota/Nakota/Dakota writers. It was originally founded in 1993. Great writers mentor emerging writers at their annual retreats, including Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday. The retreats take place every year outside of Astoria, South Dakota.

In 2002, I was just beginning my endeavors to write poetry, and also meeting Native writers, including some of my idols like Joy Harjo and Susan Power, to name a few. At the time I joined Oak Lake, I was the youngest writer of the group and felt out of my league, but listening to more of the established members of the group speak about Native American politics, society and all the struggles we face really helped me open up and made me feel like I was at home. It was a kindred feeling knowing that even though we all came from different backgrounds and writing styles, we all had the common connection of what it is to be Native in a predominantly white world.

On the final day of the retreat I found myself wanting to know more about our history, and get more input on not only their writing styles, but also input on my own to help improve it. It’s on this experience alone that I believe that these retreats are something every young Native writer should experience. At the retreat, I learned what I could from the other writers and walked away feeling more enlightened, confident and better at my writing. The retreat made me realize that I was not alone in my struggles. Each member of the group had valuable advice, important stories, and have come to mean so much to me.  I will never forget that experience and will treasure those retreats until my dying day.

It is interesting how exclusive and inclusive Oak Lake is – that is both its greatest strength and its weakness.  Though we are inclusive of all Lakota/Dakota/Nakota writers, I often wish we could invite outside writers from other tribes to attend. Although we have outside mentors, it pains me because I know that I cannot bring other Native writer friends from different tribes into the group. However, with that being said, I understand the importance of the group being tribally exclusive. It’s so that we can pay more attention to our needs as Sioux writers. We often get lost in the shuffle of Native American fiction. It’s good to have a place to come together to focus on our writings and our communities. This helps us become stronger and more established in our creativity.

Oak Lake is so important because it allows us to come together and share our stories and our experiences so that we can share that knowledge with the outside world. During my time with the Oak Lake writers, I’ve learned that every one of our stories is important because every life is important. I learned this lesson in 2006 while working on This Stretch of the River: Dakota, Lakota and Nakota Responses to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Bicentennial.  Sixteen writers contributed to this collection including me. I had the pleasure of writing a poem for this collection. I still have people contacting me and telling me how much my poems mean to them as they struggle with their identities, racism and other abuses that occurred in their young lives. Those responses amaze me and let me know I’m on the right path. I need to keep writing because it does impact people out there.

Hopefully, I will be a part of Oak Lake for years to come. I hope other Native writers will find us and join us because there aren’t a lot of groups out there that will help you improve your writing and instill cultural pride and spirituality.  Pilamaya Oak Lake Writers’ Society!

Joel Waters, 2012 Oak Lake Writers’ Society retreat

(For Adrian)

What is night
You treat like the day
This is the heyoka way
Work your way backwards
Only to come to your end
faster than you can say what needs to be said
quicker than the heart has time to harden

I thought you would stay around
Long enough to see death drag those
Psuedo-Christians into the apocalypse
They prematurely ejaculate for
But you went unexpectedly
before you could see it to the end
This was your way
This was the only way

When I see tragedy
My first instinct is to laugh
To make the sorrowful happy
It is within me
Yet it is not up to me
And when I cry
I don’t want others to see

The clown
Without expression
Is irrelevant
To his passion
Take my words
Anyway you want to
These are my own personal truths
This is my way
This is what I’m used to

As I try to move forward
While still looking back
The joker is willing
When no one wants to laugh

Heyoka hey!
Hey yo haha!
still waiting for the punchline
still hoping for a next time


Every Indian has a silver lining
I thought to myself
As I saw a young skin
Trying to fly
through downtown Pine Ridge
Amidst all the dirt clouds
He had speckles of silver paint
Around his mouth
And zeppelins
That were his fingertips
Making zig zags
Across the air
But he was going nowhere
I’d thought had the spray paint
Been gold
He’d be Icarus
Befittingly burnt by the sun

What mangy wings we have
Unable to get off the ground
Without a wicked substance
We are the meek
But we will not inherent a thing
Even if we could rise
With our degenerated bones
Most of us around here know
It’s a no-fly zone
How amazing
Those golden gates must be
But I cannot imagine standing
On a white cloud
Tracking mud into heaven
I would never be let in
Perhaps I should’ve ran to
That Gabriel Indian
Blowing into his plastic
Bag trumpet
Perhaps I should’ve rose up and joined him
It’d be the closest I’d ever get
in the sweet chariot, the sweet vapors
of a heaven

Attendees at the Oak Lake Writers’ Society 2015 retreat. Retreats are held annually and are the backbone of the society.