MORRIS, Minn. — Kylen Running Hawk's passion for theater started with a commercial.

Every summer, he would see television ads promoting the quirky, western-themed Medora Musical hundreds of miles from his home on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Running Hawk said he grew up singing and dancing with his father and brothers in his hometown of Fort Yates, N.D., and after seeing the ads he knew he wanted to perform. Years later, with his dedication and passion for the arts, Running Hawk's affection for theater and expression earned him national recognition.

On Tuesday, March 16, he was awarded the National High School Heart of the Arts Award, which is given to one student in the U.S. each year for their exemplary art, sportsmanship, assistance to others and ability to overcome adversity or challenging circumstances.

As a 19-year-old senior at the Morris Area High School in Morris, Minn., Running Hawk has overcome many obstacles and hopes he can act as an inspiration for children living on Native American reservations who think they cannot achieve their dreams.

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"For my reservation, we kids who live there never get this opportunity, so I'm one of the lucky kids from our reservation to actually get this award," Running Hawk said.

Kylen Running Hawk pictured at the On-A-Slant Village located at the Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near Mandan, North Dakota for his senior pictures. Special to The Forum.
Kylen Running Hawk pictured at the On-A-Slant Village located at the Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near Mandan, North Dakota for his senior pictures. Special to The Forum.

While growing up on the Standing Rock Reservation, Running Hawk learned and spoke both English and Lakota. His family moved to Morris in 2013, and he said he learned more English with his grandparents' help on the weekends. Practicing and speaking English and Lakota was especially difficult because he is deaf in one ear.

Practicing and memorizing lines for plays takes extra work, but Running Hawk said while he's on stage he always concentrates on the next scene.

Last month, he won the Minnesota Heart of the Arts Award, and in a ceremony in front of his friends and family on Tuesday, where he thought he was only being awarded with the Minnesota award, faculty surprised him with the national Heart of the Arts Award.

While holding back tears, Running Hawk thanked his ancestors for helping him get to where he is today.

"I stand proud for my family — all my family members who've passed before me," he said at the ceremony. "Those at the battle of Greasy Grass or known as Custer's Last Stand, to the Wounded Knee Massacre. I stand proud for all of them. Winning this award for my family shows that I have a great legacy from here and on."

Running Hawk said few schools on Native American reservations, including Standing Rock, have a theater program for students. When he is older, he hopes to return to Standing Rock to begin a theater program for kids growing up on the reservation.

"He is incredibly respectful and has a great humor about everything," said Seth Kelly, an English teacher and drama club advisor at the Morris Area High School. "I'm just super excited for what his plans are next year and how he will continue inspiring other people."

Running Hawk, who is still an enrolled citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, is the president of the Morris Area High School Drama Club. He also sings in the school's choir and participates in the speech team and mock trial. He plays sports and is on the school's golf team. He has 12 siblings, all of whom are proud of their brother for his accomplishments.

Running Hawk plans to attend the University of Minnesota, Morris in the fall.

Early this week, he auditioned virtually for a role in the Medora Musical, coming full circle to the very show that sparked his interest in theater.

Kylen Running Hawk with two of his younger siblings. Special to The Forum.
Kylen Running Hawk with two of his younger siblings. Special to The Forum.

Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.