VERMILLION — Steven Wilson Jr. sang "The Star Spangled Banner" at Sunday’s 46th annual University of South Dakota Wacipi (powwow) in a way that has gained worldwide attention.
The University of South Dakota freshman sang the national anthem in Lakota, his traditional Native American language. His performance followed the grand entrance of Native dancers into the Sanford Coyote Sports Center.
"This is the first time that I’ve sung it at a powwow," he told the Press & Dakotan. "It’s a good place to be. I feel at home and at peace (at the powwow). It’s amazing to see people from my reservation and all around. I feel welcome."
Wilson has sung mostly at local meetings and sporting events. Then came the Facebook video of last month’s performance at the State "A" boys basketball tournament in Rapid City. The video went viral, gaining an instant massive following.
"It just blew up. So far, my video has gotten 520,000 views, and that’s not counting any other ones," Wilson said.
The video and subsequent media attention drew the attention of USD President James Abbott, who wanted Wilson to sing on campus. Wilson performed before the Coyotes’ home game against Michigan State in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT).
"I received applause and a standing ovation. I was told the applause was 10 times longer than normal for the national anthem," Wilson said. "I was shocked. It was an emotional moment and very welcoming, the way the crowd reacted."
When he sings, Wilson wants his audience to hear more than words and music. He wants people to hear the heart and soul of the Native American culture. He also wants his Native language entwined with the American national anthem, even though the U.S. government and American Indian tribes have been at odds throughout history.
The past month has shown him that he has a huge platform in cyberspace. He wants to send a message of combining different races and cultures.
"I hope people don’t hear just another language but also another message," he said.
That message and its impact can take unexpected paths, Wilson admitted.
"One person said the song helped with mourning the loss of a step-daughter," he said. "The person was really thankful to hear my song and start the healing process."
A DIFFERENT SONG
Wilson, an Oglala Lakota Sioux, first sang the national anthem in English during his sophomore year at Red Cloud High School on the Pine Ridge reservation.
During his junior year, Wilson developed interest in singing "The Star Spangled Banner" in Lakota.
"At Red Cloud, they teach Lakota as a foreign language," he said. "I knew how to pronounce the alphabet, and I could enunciate the words."
Wilson received a major break when he found Lorna Her Many Horses’ translation. She recorded the "Star Spangled Banner" into Lakota and Dakota so Native American military and veterans could hear the anthem in their Native language.
Her effort gained national attention, as then-President Barack Obama designated her as a "Champion of Change."
"I took a copy of (Her Many Horse’s) song to my Lakota teacher, who said it was as close as you can get. Some (English) words are hard to translate to Lakota," Wilson said. "I thought I was up to the challenge, so I started singing it at Red Cloud school events."
When the Red Cloud team qualified for last month’s State "A" tournament, Crusader athletic director and coach Christian McGhee invited Wilson to sing his Lakota version at the state tourney.
"I was honored to ask to sing," Wilson said. "For Native American communities, seeing your young people make it to state is a major honor and accomplishment. And three Native teams made it to this year’s State ‘A’ tournament."
Then came the video that hit cyberspace, according to the USD Volante campus newspaper.
Kevin Phillips, a Sioux Falls morning radio host and public address announcer, was at the game and filmed Wilson’s performance. Phillips said he enjoyed hearing Wilson sing in Lakota and was happy to share his video with thousands of people.
"I am a huge fan of the Lakota language, and I’m a huge fan of the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’" Phillips told the Volante. "In fact, with no band that night, I sang it at the tournament. But when Steven started singing, I could tell this was special. It was beautiful and about made me cry."
Although he hadn’t met Wilson prior to his performance, Phillips said he was impressed with the young man and excited to see what comes next for him.
"When he finished the anthem, the crowd gave him a very nice ovation," Phillips said. "It became a positive topic for the rest of the weekend. Steven is a special young man, with a great talent and a giant heart. I predict good things for him, starting with a college education."
Wilson considers it an honor to sing the national anthem, especially in Lakota. Native Americans have a long and distinguished history as a warrior culture.
"Serving in the military is a big honor," he said. "Native Americans have more active service members and veterans than any other ethnic or national group."
The military presence was evident Sunday in many ways. During the grand entry march, Native veterans carried the U.S. flag, missing-in-action/killed-in-action flag and the traditional eagle staff. The Lakota Women Warriors, a group of Native women veterans from South Dakota tribes, served as Color Guard.
One entrant carried a solemn reminder of the Native soldiers’ sacrifices.
William Underbagge of Kyle held up a poster with the photo of his nephew, Cpl. Brett Lundstrom, a Lakota Sioux from Kyle who was killed in Fallujah, Iraq, on Jan. 7, 2006.
Wilson literally carries his own military salute wherever he goes.
"I have a tattoo devoted to my brother, Tyrell Wilson, who died in an accident (in May 2016) along with two friends," he said. "My brother was traveling with Tevin Tyon, who was on active duty in the military, and Juan Lamont. They weren’t found for 16 days, and our three families came really close together."
Given the history of conflict with the U.S. government, not all tribal members support Native Americans serving in the U.S. military, Wilson said. "But others say to bury the hatchet and honor our veterans," he added.
Wilson said he has received mostly support for his song.
"Ninety-nine of 100 responses have been positive. There have been a few naysayers, especially those that are racist or discriminatory. But there are also some Native Americans who question it," he said. "But that’s good, too, when people question the language and culture. It’s good to have those discussions. It makes people question the identity of our relationship, of all colored people with the United States. We need to be more open and curious about the world and how things are."
The Lakota version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" reflects the Native Americans’ tightrope that they walk each day, Wilson said.
"There’s a bigger message, one of reconciliation," he said. "We’re proud of our identity. We’re people living in two different worlds. This song shows I’m proud to be American and also a member of my tribe."
And that can be difficult, especially for Native American college students finding themselves in an unfamiliar world, Wilson said.
"When you’re at home (on the reservation), you can be immersed in your culture without judgment," he said. "When we’re off the reservation and going to school, we’re in a community where people think differently than you. And you face racism and discrimination."
A BALANCING ACT
The Tiospaye Student Council promoted that supportive effort with this year’s wacipi theme, "Where ever you walk, you are not alone."
"This year’s theme reflects the importance of support to our Indigenous students while they are in college," council president Jessi Bean said in a news release. "It also acknowledges those who came before us and the connection that we have with all our relations."
This year’s wacipi was hosted in coordination with the 21st annual Building Bridges Conference. The event sought to provide opportunities for students and faculty to learn effective ways to make higher education a positive experience for all students.
The weekend included a traditional meal from Brian Yazzie, chef de cuisine at the Sioux Chef in the Twin Cities. The annual Native American alumni banquet celebrated past and present Native students, honoring those who have made a positive impact on the USD community. Abbott served as the keynote speaker.
THE NEXT GENERATION
During Sunday’s powwow, Wilson said he believes his Lakota version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" can continue to provide benefits for all people.
"I am super thankful the video took off. It will be part of expressing the message about Native Americans and it represents the history of how, more than ever, we are claiming our identity," he said. "My generation is mostly English speaking. We now have the initiative to learn more about our language and participate in our culture."
The next generation was represented Sunday by a number of young dancers.
Eight-year-old Tawi Star Comes Out of Wagner wore the traditional regalia. Her aunt, Leah Owen, helped her with finishing touches before the grand entry. Both are members of the Santee Sioux, and Tawi has danced in other powwows.
Down the line, 10-year-old Patrick Burtt of Winnebago, Nebraska, also wore full regalia as he took part in the dancing.
"These powwows are very important," said his mother, Bridgette Galloway. "Back home, they have the Ho-Chunk Renaissance that teaches traditional songs and language."
Wilson said he was glad to see such pride, and he thinks his song can lead to greater bonds among all races.
"This helps create more reconciliation," he said. "Sometimes, people are infuriated. But that’s good, because we’re finally talking and creating conversation."
Wilson, a medical biology major, dreams of attending medical school and becoming a doctor.
"I want to go back and help my people," he said. "I don’t know a Native American student who doesn’t want to go back and help his or her people. We hope to better ourselves and our community."
But first, Wilson has a message to spread.
"I have been invited to speak at a church and a couple of middle schools back home," he said. "It’s all a work in progress."
For now, Wilson’s singing already sends a powerful message that anything remains possible.
"I never imagined that I would be doing this music and getting this response," he said. "It shows anything can happen."
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