The Leo Yankton Award for Indigenous Justice is named for Leo Yankton, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a social justice warrior par excellence. The longtime Lincoln resident passed away August 26th, 2021, leaving an outstanding legacy of service to local, national, and international Native communities.
Leo was well known to Lincolnites as a DJ for KZUM's Native radio program "Intertribal Beats" and as the scene-stealing Kicking Bear in a local production of Sitting Bull's Last Waltz. But his social activism really came to the fore in 2016, when he led a protest that forced a local Halloween store to remove its dehumanizing "Indian" costumes from its shelves. That same year found Leo testifying before the Lincoln City Council against Columbus Day—and in favor of proclaiming the day Indigenous Peoples' Day instead. Lincoln promptly became one of the first cities in the U.S. to do so.
Leo's social activism soon extended beyond the local with his support of the protests of the water protectors against the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. He made a number of car trips to provide the Sacred Stone Camp with much-needed basic necessities, and just as importantly, his public speaking appearances kept the movement's message of "mni wiconi" in the public consciousness. One of Leo's refrains in such talks was that "people need to understand that they are a part of nature." He believed that such an attitude adjustment could "solve issues of cruelty and disconnection between humans, animals and the environment."
His role in the DAPL protest movement also led to Leo's social activism on an international scale, including speaking engagements in Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Italy. His friendship with UNL Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies Lory Dance resulted in an invitation to Sweden in 2016, where he talked about DAPL and sang Lakota songs on a hand drum. His impact is epitomized in one news item title: "Gothenburg SWEDEN Stands with Standing Rock!" This visit included discussions with the tribal people of Sweden, the Sami, expanding Leo's appreciation of Native sovereignty as a truly international concept.
Leo's activism included that of Lakota culture bearer. A motivational speaker and educator, he was dedicated to imparting the knowledge of his Lakota elders—from traditional ecological knowledge and Lakota drum songs to the burning of sage and tipi-making. In 2017, he became the star of his own YouTube series, "Not A Medicine Man," aimed at educating a whitestream audience about Lakota cultural traditions.
Finally, Leo was no stranger to UNL. He was a guest speaker in a number of Native American literature courses, and in 2017, he gave the keynote lecture for the Institute for Ethnic Studies' Spring Celebration. Then, in January of 2021, Leo received the Fulfilling the Dream Award at UNL's MLK Commemorative Celebration, "for his efforts to break down the stigmatization of indigenous people."
Along with Sami activist Timimie Märak, Leo spoke at the Multicultural Center in Stockholm, Sweden, in December 2016. The topic was "Is it A Good Day to Be Indigenous?" Because of people like Leo Yankton, the answer to that question is a resounding "Yes."