Saving Lakota Culture through Song Wanbli Cheya and the Good Red Road

Juq, Wanbli Cheya, Jacob Helvick Photo by James Giago Davies

Published April 19, 2017

Editor’s Note: This article was first published by Native Sun News Today. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

PINE RIDGE, SOUTH DAKOTA — History is full of stirring tales of lost heroes returned home to their people in a desperate hour. These heroes have been transformed by some crucible of fire, given sacred strength and gifts and wisdom to combat great evil.

Actually, graphic novels and comic books are also full of such heroes, and somewhere between the ordinary historic reality and the fantastic tales, actual people accomplish amazing things by just applying their human abilities, dedicating themselves to a purpose, a vision, greater than themselves.

Just over two decades ago Jacob Helvick was born to an adopted Lakota mother and raised in Humboldt, Iowa. Raised in that Wasicu world, away from his people and his culture, Jacob ran into some issues. His mother became an alcoholic, he was raised by his grandparents, he had a rocky relationship with his siblings. That sounds a lot like the dysfunctional Pine Ridge environment his mother and twin sister were adopted out of about a half century back, but what was different is this wasn’t Pine Ridge, so a support system emerged to rescue Jacob from a descending spiral of self destruction.

“Identity is really such a sketchy place,” Jacob says. “Imagine your mind being a perfect smooth piece of dough. It’s all good. When this experience happens, when that experience happens, you shift away from that. You deviate from what you were, what you are, with each hit.”

When Jacob talks about his life, his vision, like many Lakota, his face and hands are very expressive, and there is a sincerity, a gentleness, a spiritually vital sense of self that radiates from him. He would be the last Lakota boy in the room you would think had any internal issues.

“I did develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from all the things I had gone through,” Jacobs says. “I literally ended up in the mental health unit of hospitals. What happened was the process of unlearning, of snapping out of (childhood trauma), of seeing the darkness I had learned there.”

When he talks about that past, you do not see the scars left by it; he seems to have totally found peace with whatever went before, and he then brings it back to the reservation reality so many fellow Lakota have suffered through: “It’s the same mentality that can be tried on the reservation—‘I can flip that dark, psychotic script.’”

Jacob had a plan: “I need to focus on myself, and heal what has been done to me, and then gradually become a part of the process, and help other people. You need to be in a constant state of growth. I know I can be better. I know I can help my people. You have to create new things, you can’t exist in that realm when you were a child.”

Healed from his past trauma, compelled by a clear vision, Jacob left Iowa and came to stay with relatives at Pine Ridge. Back in Iowa he had started singing in high school, and admits he wasn’t very good. But he stuck with it, creating songs in his head, developing the right singing style to express himself. He didn’t want to be hip-hop, that was the signature expression of another culture, as alien to his Lakota culture as the Wasicu culture had been. So Jacob fused pop music with a chanting Lakota style producing a unique sound that brought the universal Lakota journey in his lyrics to life.

As he became familiar with the Lakota people at Pine Ridge, and the vision he had developed back in Iowa deepened and fine tuned itself to the reality of the reservation world, Jacob Helvick became Wanbli Cheya, Crying Eagle, and that is who he is today.

Wanbli Cheya became involved with Native Hope, an organization out of Chamberlain, South Dakota, dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage, identity and vitality of the Native peoples across this country, but mainly here in Lakota Country. As an ambassador, he networks with other like-minded Lakota and speaks to people. He is featured in a You Tube video along with Lakota magician, Reuben Fast Horse, and Native Hope Social Media and Community Coordinator, Kansas Middletent, and the three speak about the land and the people, and the historic and timeless connection as caretakers of “Turtle Island.”

Wanbli Cheya talks about the Lakota life before the 19th Century scuffle with the Wasicu, and the end of the hunter-gatherer horse culture: “The reality is it was not necessarily perfect, but it was better, it was just wholeheartedly real. We have reached the state of distinct cultural difference, but there is no reason we have to be this way, tear each other down, kill each other off. I honestly believe it’s just about redeveloping what was once there. Deconditioning the divisiveness that was the result of the Whiteman.”

“We need our language back,” Wanbli Cheya says. “We need our school systems not to be set up the way they are. It has to be at the core of what we are doing, it can’t be just some random, accumulated thing. I want these kids to realize their dreams.”

Realizing his dream, means music. Back in Iowa, when he was a boy, Wanbli Cheya created more than just music: “As a way of coping, while I was going through a lot of things, I would sort of make up characters. They were extensions of the kind of person I could be. Julie and Quincy, they were sort of like a duo.”

That was how Wanbli Cheya created his third name, Juq (Juke), by combining those names together. Juq met Brandis Knudsen, or B. A member of the Yankton Tribe, B is a hip-hop performer and record producer. And now Juq has an album of nine songs entitled “tempo”, he wrote himself, that was released last November on B’s record label Dakota South Records.

Juq stands in front of classrooms in places like Rocky Ford, and he talks about his vision, his hopes and dreams: he talks about Lakota identity, about discovering who you are as a Lakota, and he sings for them, no backup, no instruments, just the power of his voice, the weight of his lyrics, fill the room. When he sings he somehow transcends his appearance; a slim young man in faded jeans and tread-worn boots, wearing basic black glasses, his raven hair swept back, the artistic whiskers of an artist on his face and neck.

He becomes an expression of the Lakota that once were, but have never really gone away, that await a new generation to rediscover and embrace their integrity, honor and values.

Juq wants to make a mark as a musician, a singer, and his songs are very personal, and yet universal, speaking viscerally to deeply compelling Lakota experiences and passions. He has that rare gift in an artist, not just an ability to be polished and professional, not just an ability to deliver a type of music an audience craves—like every gifted songwriter, Juq creates imagery and stories and melodies from nothing.

He makes them real, and he is determined to help his people, to make his vision real, to create an internal strength in each individual Lakota that can transform the reservation reality into the harmonious tiospaye it once was, and not by going back to the blanket, but by empowering traditional Lakota culture to carve out a realm in this modern world.

Jacob Helvick, Wanbli Cheya, Juq, like the characters he invented to cope as a child, all existing harmoniously in the same person, but in this case, each is a healthy, positive adult role models for the next generation of Lakota.

Juq sums it up in simple words: “Everybody has this distinct need to box things, to put a label on something. I’m just a Lakota man trying to be true to our ways.”

Hear his music at:


July (a song by juQ)

You know I haven’t been the same since July,
figured you wouldn’t stay after Independence Day,
but here you are, with those big brown eyes, cute red face, a
Winyan so Wakan never falls from grace,
but you do anyways, for me, for me

So what do we say?
To colonies so delusional,
So what do we say?
Our council’s so dysfunctional.

We’re the real freedom. our way’s that freedom,
they may never know a thing but we still gotta sing,
we’re the real freedom. our way’s that freedom.. yeah.

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