Tyra Akers, a junior at Pine Ridge High School, said she's only been writing poems for a year. Her literary hero?
"Tupac," she says, smiling after a short pause.
In the first round of Thursday afternoon's poetry slam in Rushmore Room G at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, Akers with her dark hair in a double French braid, denim, and tall boots walked to the mic at the front of the room. DJ Micah Prairie Chicken's turntable stopped — and 70 people stared at her.
"Get it, poet!" yelled a spectator.
And she began.
"I poison my body because my mind was racing," recites Akers. "You want to yell because you love me."
The 12 readers in Thursday's Dances with Words poetry slam, sponsored by First Peoples Fund, a women-run nonprofit, and run in conjunction with the Lakota Nation Invitational, ran the gamut from teenage fears to suicide and alcoholism. The first poet opened by reading a poem from her smartphone about the murder of her aunt on Skyline Drive in 1981.
"No more stolen sisters," she ended.
The competition — though emcee Marcus Red Shirt repeatedly wanted to de-emphasize the "competition" and followed up many poets' performances by saying, "You're brave, poet" — had a few rules: no hate speech, three rounds with dwindling time limits, and there were to be content warnings.
"Self-harm." "Addiction." "Lust." Red Shirt presaged one poem saying, "This poem contains intense emotions."
One by one, the poets spoke — on learning to ride a horse from a cousin, on seasonal depression, on heartbreak.
"I see a warrior in the battlefield of self-infliction," said one student.
"I want to drown myself in liquor and bury myself in smoke," said Akers.
A child in the audience played with a Rubik's cube as parents, teachers and loved ones watched. One mother, wiping eyes with Kleenex, met her son on the sidelines, after he said it was poetry that kept him from "living in some other person's poem."
"Here's some advice from ourselves," read one student. "It's OK to change directions because in the end we're all picture perfect reflections of imperfection."
"I must speak my truth as if I'm running," read another.
"I can't trust nostaliga," said another young woman. "Because nostalgia isn't honest about how much I've grown."
"It's their own words," said Autumn White Eyes, wearing a T-shirt that read "de-colonize." White Eyes is a writer and an alum of the poetry slam who now lives in New Jersey but works remotely for First Peoples Fund.
"So often, indigenous people are used to others telling their story. But here, we get to share our stories in our own words," she said.
On Thursday — as many poets do monthly at open mics hosted by Dances with Words — young, indigenous writers had the floor.
When Akers finished her second poem, the lightning round, she left a warning: "You'll be looking up at me looking down on you."
She walked back, a shy smile coming over her face, as her family stood in applause for her.
"I want to keep writing poems," said Akers, afterward, wearing the medal she'd won for a top performer around her neck, her family smiling on. "I like the feeling of my own words, to get them out of me."
In the hallway, basketball teams prepared to enter the separate arenas for the next game. Children rode the escalators up and down as the young poets mingled, sharing stories and listening to a flute player practicing in the hallway.