Shivalo Soldier Wolf has found his voice in the words of others. The high school junior came late to the oral interpretation team at Little Wound School, but he immediately impressed his coach.
"It was all about his delivery," Dan Snethen, a biology teacher who also teaches drama and coaches oral interp at Little Wound High School, said. "He engages the audience. He invites you in for the ride. He's not yelling at you, he's talking with you."
That conversational style won Soldier Wolf a superior in oral interp at his first state meet. But he wasn't finished learning and winning.
Just two months ago, Soldier Wolf barely knew what poetry was. Now it's taking him all the way to Washington, D.C. Soldier Wolf finished first in the recent state Poetry Out Loud competition. That earned him $300 and another $500 for his school to buy poetry books.
Snethen was named co-winner of the poetry teacher of the year award for South Dakota and got $300.
But now the best part: Soldier Wolf qualified for the Poetry Out Loud National Finals in late April. He's excited about that, but more excited about poetry.
"Honestly, it makes me feel alive," Soldeir Wolf said. "I can really feel it sometimes when I really have that strong understand of what the authors are saying about it, about what they're feeling. About what they're saying and thinking."
With a soft-but-powerful delivery, Soldier Wolf reflects the oral traditions of his Lakota and Northern Arapaho ancestry. He also shows the spirit of a young man who understands the power of the spoken word.
Snethen says Soldier Wolf benefits from having a captivating natural delivery, a sharp memory and a cultural tradition that puts value on spoken language.
"I really do think the oral tradition, just that whole thing, is something that works in their advantage," Snethen says.
Soldier Wolf says he remembers his mother and aunts telling him stories about his people and culture and that also included some poetry, even though he didn't recognize it as poetry at the time.
"I really didn't know what poetry was until I asked Dan Snethen about it," Soldier Wolf said. "I heard it when I was little, but didn't know what it was until now."
He knew it, perhaps, intuitively. Now, he knows it by name and is reading it well enough for a trip to the nation's capital and maybe another honor.
"I think it has had a pretty positive impact on me," Soldier Wolf said. "Especially since I'm going to D.C."
Snethen says the best part could still be coming. As the second Little Wound school in five years to qualify for the Poetry Out Loud nationals, Soldier Wolf may be helping nudge along a tradition at the school -- especially if he does well.
Snethen expects him to get into the final round.
"We're going to try to go beyond that. We're going to try to get No. 1," Snethen said. "But I know he will do well. And we'll just have to see how well. And he's just a junior."