ALUM | Steven Wilson, 2017

Steve Wilson

Thrust into the national spotlight for his powerful performances of the national anthem in Lakota, Steven Wilson suddenly found himself with a platform for expressing the complexity of being proud to be both Native and American. Many, many people were interested in hearing his story. Navigating life during and after this sudden burst of media attention has given Steven the opportunity to reflect on his approach to college studies and making important decisions. Here, he explains how his Red Cloud community continues to support and encourage him as he moves through young adulthood.

Thank you for speaking with us today! Can you tell me about your early life, and how your family came to choose Red Cloud for your education?

I was born and raised in Pine Ridge, SD and I’ve lived here on the Pine Ridge Reservation almost all of my life. My family chose a Red Cloud education because my mom and dad knew that it was probably the best education you could get in terms of support, especially after you graduate, and also because of the opportunities that are available. Both of my grandmothers and my father went to Red Cloud and graduated from there. I have two brothers, but one has passed away now. He was also an alumnus of Red Cloud, in the class of 2010. My little brother is in third grade at Red Cloud right now.

What made a lasting impression on you during your years as a student at Red Cloud?

The most memorable thing for me was having the volunteers as teachers. Interacting with them got my interest going about college, because they were fresh out of college. It gave me an idea of what I wanted to do and what the possibilities were.

Another thing that made an impression on me was the Lakota language and culture classes. Those classes teach you about who you are. That really helped me in my first year of college at the University of South Dakota (USD), because when you go away to college, you have a big deprivation of culture. It’s almost a really big shock because you’re going into a completely different environment. You’re learning how to stay true to yourself, but also learning to thrive and grow in a different environment. The thing that helped me a lot was knowing about who I am culture-wise, and what I’m capable of on an academic level.

During your freshman year at USD, you began gaining national attention for singing the Star Spangled Banner in Lakota. Can you tell me about how the opportunity to sing the national anthem in Lakota came about?

The thing that got the ball rolling was my singing during the Class A State Basketball Tournament in Rapid City, SD when Red Cloud played Crow Creek, which are two Native American teams. That was in March of 2018. I was asked the week before if I was going to be at the tournament and if I would sing. I said yes. From there, a video that Kevin Phillips posted of that performance got well over 1 million views, just on Facebook. That’s not including what other media outlets have posted on their own sites. From there, it went viral, and I started getting more interviews, and people asking me about it. That’s when I got in touch with about 14 different media outlets, and that led me to sing at the University of South Dakota. From there it was just a whole lot of explaining myself, and talking about the song. It was very good, and I’m thankful to be able to do it.

Why do you think people became so interested in it?

I think it was because it was something different. To me, this is a very fragile topic. To me, singing the national anthem in Lakota is about is claiming Native American identity, and it’s also claiming an identity of being American and Native American. The relationship between the two has never really been a good one historically, but I think the beautiful message in it is of healing and moving on, being able to celebrate who you are, freely within our nation.

What kind of reaction do you get from the crowd when you perform? Is it always all positive?

There are a few who don’t stand and don’t participate, but that’s completely fine because I’m very open-minded to what their thoughts are on the national anthem. Whenever I’m not in a Native American-based environment, the reaction is very positive. There are a few people who have thoughts otherwise, but for the most part it’s very positive and very welcoming.

At the moment, you are taking some time away from college life. Can you share with us how you made this decision, and what your future plans are?

Going into my freshman year at USD, it was very easy for me. I had all of the background and programs to help me succeed in college, but throughout that time, I was battling depression and anxiety. Right before all of the national anthem business went down, I was doing pretty well. I was getting into the groove of things and getting my schedule down. I was managing my depression and anxiety by working out, taking vitamins, and meditating.

When the media attention and demands related to my singing began to grow in March and April of 2018, my schedule got very out of hand. I was behind in my school work, but I also didn’t have the energy or the motivation to really do anything. The whole experience was very draining for me. A typical day for me would be to get up at 6:30 am, get ready, get to class at 8:00 am, rush over to another building for an interview, squeeze in lunch, go to another class, write up another thing for another interview, and then do all of my homework. It was just very hard to do all of that, especially if you’re battling depression and anxiety.

I see now why people in my position get managers, because I had a really hard time balancing my schedule and fitting in all of the interviews. It was a whole job in itself, in addition to my being a full-time student, and being active in my community. I was the American Indian Science and Engineering Society secretary and I was also in different programs too, so to keep up on all of those things was very hard for me.

I decided to take time away from school and come home. Today, I feel that I am overcoming it. It is a cycle, and it is an ongoing thing, but I think taking that break is very important. The best advice that I was given was that you don’t want a quantity semester, you want a quality semester. I felt bad for not going back. Dealing with depression and anxiety, it really does a number on you to know that you’re not actively pursuing your goals. At the same time, it was very enlightening to know that it’s helpful to take that break so that you’re not just barely passing, you’re exceeding the expectations that are placed on you.

What has this time of reflection allowed you to realize about your future goals?

I needed this break to regain the motivation that I had when I first started school. I think that it was very important to be home for this amount of time because it reminded me why I wanted to go to school and better myself in the first place—to help my people, to be able to come back, to better myself so that I may one day better the people around me. That was probably the hardest thing to grasp because I felt like everyone else was moving on and I wasn’t. In order to be competitive in the field of study that I’ve chosen, the medical field, it’s important to stay on top of your grades and be competent in your work.

Do you still have a relationship with the Red Cloud community?

Oh, yes! It’s almost like nothing has really changed since I left, in terms of how the staff are so welcoming and open to helping me, just as if I was still a student. Through all the things I’ve been through and things I’ve experienced in life, Red Cloud has always found a way to make things more comfortable and easier for me, personally. There’s always staff there that have been so helpful. The advice I would give to other young adults in my generation is that it’s important to utilize any resources that are given to you at any moment, especially if you question whether or not you are capable of doing something. It’s okay to ask for help and use those resources. It’s one thing I’m thankful that Red Cloud gave me, the continuous use of their resources, even after I graduated.




Photos © University of South Dakota 


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