Tribal Retreat Provides Creative Space for Oceti Sakowin Writers

Last month, the Oak Lake Writers’ Society continued a 28-year tradition of bringing together Oceti Sakowin writers to explore and express issues and ideas relevant to their tribal communities.

First Nations is honored to be one of the sponsors of the annual Oak Lake Writers’ Society Tribal Writing Retreat, an intellectual and creative space for tribal writers to discuss and write about Oceti Sakowin cultures, languages, literatures, histories, politics, and sovereignty. This year, in response to COVID-19, the event shifted to a virtual format, welcoming even more writers to the retreat and expanding the reach of this first-of-its-kind writers’ platform.

About the Society

Established in 1993, the Oak Lake Writers’ Society is a supportive community of more than 30 Oceti Sakowin writers and scholars committed to preserving and perpetuating Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota cultures, oral traditions, and histories through the development of culture-based writing. The Society’s name stems from the Oak Lake Field Station located amidst short-grass prairie and glacial lakes near Astoria, South Dakota.

The mission of the Oak Lake Writers’ Society is to increase the number of Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota writers publishing and presenting in the Northern Great Plains region. Over the past five years, Society members have published a number of books and essays, and presented at many different in-person and virtual events.

Going Virtual

The Society’s Executive Director Tasiyagnunpa Livermont Barondeau and family mail packets to participants before this year’s virtual retreat.

Co-founded by Dakota writer and scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn and South Dakota State University Professors Charles Woodard and Lowell Amiotte, the Society’s annual writing retreats have historically provided an intellectual and creative space for Oceti Sakowin writers to openly discuss culture and writing in ways that might not be understood or appreciated by mainstream writers, editors, and publishers. Every summer, tribal writers gather at the rustic field station for the week-long retreat. Over the 28 years, prominent Native authors and poets such as Cook-Lynn, N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Roberta Hill, Laura Tohe, LeAnee Howe, and Kimberly Blaeser have served as writing mentors at the retreat. As mentors, published writers work with emerging and experienced tribal writers to help them draft, proofread, and polish their written work.

Due to COVID-19, and to protect the health and well-being of Oceti Sakowin elders and community members, this year the event was recast as a virtual retreat, which made it more possible for Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota writers from South Dakota and many other states to participate to discuss and share their work, which ranges from poetry, short stories, memoirs, fiction and non-fiction, and children’s literature.

At this year’s virtual retreat, Sicangu Lakota author Joseph Marshall III served as the Society’s mentor for the third time since the group was established. Marshall led group sessions on “Decolonizing Our Stories,” “Writing Fiction and Non-Fiction,” and “How to Write a Book Proposal.” He also led one-on-one sessions with writers to review their manuscripts and offered publishing advice. Several members of the Society are nearing completion on manuscripts, and are preparing to send them off to publishers. Marshall’s knowledge and expertise will help them achieve their publishing goals.

“Sharing my writing, especially throughout college, was a struggle,” says Dakota poet Mabel Picotte, who has been a member of the Society for more than 15 years. “Sometimes editing with non-Native writers and standing up against colonial perspectives can just suck the energy from your being.  These retreats have been a safe place for me to express myself honestly as an Oceti Sakowin writer/poet.”

Emerging Tribal Writers

Nick and Mabel Estes (left) and Mabel Picotte (right) in 2019 at the Society’s last in-person retreat.

“The Society’s annual retreats ensure that the wisdom of our past storytellers and story keepers remain with us, and continue to be celebrated in the work of our contemporary writers and the mindful discoveries of new voices,” says Lakota poet Lanniko Lee, who is a charter member of the Society. “We are inspiring a new generation of emerging Oceti Sakowin writers.”

Prior to this year’s retreat, the Society hosted a special session for Native American high school and college students and non-Native allies. As part of this special session, Native high school and college students discussed how to write for their tribes in ways that are respectful and responsible to their families and communities.

Picotte, a high school principal at Tiospaye Zina Tribal School, attended this special event with her 13-year-old-daughter Evangeline Picotte. In fact, she asked her daughter to stay and join her throughout the entire retreat so that Evangeline could share and discuss her own written work.

It is important for Native youth to “have access to an intellectually supportive society at a young age,” says Picotte. “It helps feed my daughter’s spirit and confidence, both as a person and as a writer.”

The Society looks forward to hosting more events for tribal youth in the future. Such events are intended to teach Oceti Sakowin youth about their rich and complex literary traditions, and help instill pride in their culture and communities.

Publications: Past and Present

From these retreats, Society members have originated and published multiple anthologies as well as individual books, poems, short stories, and essays. Collectively, the Society has published This Stretch of the River and He Sapa Woihanble/Black Hills Dream, which focus on the cultural/historical/political importance of the Missouri River and Black Hills respectively

Over the years, these edited collections inspired several members of the Society to publish individual books. Since 2019, Oak Lake writers have published the following books:

  • Nick Estes’s Our History is the Future (February 2019)
  • Lydia Whirlwind Soldier’s Survival Songs (April 2020)
  • Edward Valandra’s Colorizing Restorative Justice (July 2020)
  • Diane Wilson’s The Seed Keeper (March 2021)
  • Nick Estes’s The Red Deal (April 2021)
  • Diane Wilson’s Ella Cara Deloria: Dakota Language Protector (June 2021)
  • Nick Estes’s Red Nation Rising (June 2021)

Estes, who has published three of the books on this list, says, “Oak Lake has been foundational to my success. Nowhere else can you find the expertise and mentorship from respected and accomplished Oceti Sakowin writers.”

After this year’s retreat, Estes donated $10,000 to the Society to support the organization’s continued growth and commitment to protecting and defending Oceti Sakowin cultures, histories, oral traditions, and literatures. To make a donation to the Oak Lake Writer’s Society, please visit their website at


First Nations and a number of other Native and non-Native organizations sponsored the 28th Annual Oak Lake Writers’ Society Tribal Writing Retreat. Additional sponsors included: NDN Collective, UNM’s Institute for American Indian Research (IFAIR), UNM’s Department of English Language and Literature, Living Justice Press, Brookings Reconciliation Council, and the South Dakota Art Museum.

In addition to providing financial support for this year’s retreat, these generous donors also donated all of the books and supplies for this year’s retreat.

“To the sponsors of the 28th Annual Oak Lake Writers Society Retreat, we thank you kindly for your generous support of this treasured event,” says Lee. “We are grateful. Pilamayaye!”

To learn more about the Society, including how to purchase their books or apply for membership, visit their website at