Voices from The Front Lines in Standing Rock V.2: Alayna Eagle Shield and Educating a New Generation of Revolutionaries
Standing Rock’s Prayer Camps have become communities.
Communities identify needs. Communities have accountability and responsibilities. Communities have systems within them and structures and institutions. When you go to the Prayer Camps you see those structures and institutions moving and responding. Contrary to what some folks have said, it is not chaotic. In fact, it is very far from chaotic. It is not every person for themselves. It is not litter-filled. There are problems, like in any community—but it is working and beautiful.
Native people taking care of Native people, united by a belief and prayer and a cause. Egos take a backseat to the bigger picture.
There is order. You see people cutting wood; that is their job. You see people patrolling security; that is their job. You see some folks cooking; that is also their job. Needs-based—you see a need, you take care of it. When a person has particular talents—say for example, who is an organizer and who understands that every person should be accounted for within a small community—that person certainly has a place within these Prayer Camps.
Needs based. It’s pretty amazing to watch. That’s what communities do.
An absolutely brilliant example of a needs–based response and solution is the establishment of a school in the Oceti Sakowin Camp. While the rest of the Protectors are literally changing the world’s conversation about oil usage and capitalism, there are still children who need to be taught.
So that’s precisely what a few young sisters did. They just started a school where there had previously been no school. No chaos. Response. Proactivity. Indigenous brilliance.
This “Voices From the Front Lines in Standing Rock” series features a few of the many brilliant, powerful and amazing Native people who are on the front lines on the Cannonball River. All of them are awesome. Below is a short interview with Alayna Eagle Shield about her life, her work, the Lakota language and the Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa (Defenders of the Water School).
Hello Alayna. Could you please tell me where you are from and what you do outside of teaching at the Ocetic Sakowin Camp?
Alayna Eagle Shield emáčiyapi. Čhaŋté wašté napé čhiyúzapi. Íŋyaŋ Woslál Haŋ emátahaŋ. Language and Culture Institute ektá wówaši ečhámuŋ na nakúŋ Language Specialist hemáčha. Mičhíŋča kiŋ num na nuphíŋ thewíčhawakiȟila na nakúŋ hiŋgnáwatȟuŋ.
My name is Alayna Eagle Shield. I shake your hand with a heartfelt handshake. I’m from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. I work for the Language and Culture Institute as the Language Specialist. I have two children that I love very much and I am married.
I know you are from here, so you were kinda here. But why set up a school at the camp?
I first started going into all the individual camps looking for resources. As the Language and Culture Institute for our tribe, my coworkers and I felt that it was important to see who all in the camp had any cultural or traditional knowledge that would be willing to be a resource and step up to share their knowledge with the camp. I ended up going to every individual camp by myself with my husband helping and we would ask if anyone had any kind of traditional knowledge to share. I would ask if they knew how to bead, quill, make dream catchers, cook traditional foods, speak their languages, knew any traditional stories, dances, etc. Literally anything they’d be willing to share with our young people. If they agreed to be a resource I would offer them tobacco as an offering and thanks for their willingness to step up and share their knowledge. From there I was told that we need a school and a place for children to be. So this wasn’t my idea, I’m just an organizer and a doer. Since I had all of the resources from the camp, I just went around to all those same camps with a sign in sheet and told them were starting a school and asked what day’s they’d be willing to come share their knowledge. I also went back out to each camp and told parents to come to a meeting if they’re interested about the school. Some families showed up and the kids there named the school, I just translated it into Lakota with the guidance of elder speakers.
Were you raised with the Lakota language? How did it become a passion for you?
My father is a fluent speaker of Lakota and I was immersed in our traditional ways of life. However, I wasn’t raised in our language. I would go to meetings and ceremonies with my dad all the time and I would hear him speaking Lakota, either to another fluent speaker or as he was offering the prayer for whatever it was that we were at. I grew up knowing that I have this amazing language of my own, but not ever knowing how to speak it. When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, my life changed. I knew that I had to give her more than just a “native last name.” I wanted her to know who she was and be proud of her people. I then began talking with my father more about my heart ache for not knowing my own language and he told me he grew up in a tough time, he was forced to speak English and forced to hide who he was. I forgive my father and I’m so proud of him for holding onto his language and culture the way he did. He told me he wanted to wait until I was ready to learn, but I didn’t want to give my children that option. I decided that my children would speak their language and be immersed in our traditional ways of life the way that I was.
I grew up on the reservation, the “rez” we call it, and I know the struggles our people face. I started drinking when I was 13, had been sexually molested by the time that I was 7, I’ve been in fights, I’ve been in domestically abusive relationships, and I know what it’s like to see family die from suicide. These are not uncommon for our people, but saved my life was my language and culture. When I turned to that, I was always ok, I was always whole. I wanted to give that healing to my children and all children from our communities. They deserve to have that healing, to have that fighting chance. That’s why I’m passionate about my language and culture, because it saved my life.
Do you think that children will do better in all disciplines by gaining a mastery of the Lakota language and/or their own Native language?
That’s my theory. I’m currently in graduate school studying American Indian Public Health. I believe language is public health and public health is language for indigenous people. Our overall well-being has everything to do with how connected we are to our identities, and our languages help bridge that gap. I definitely believe that our people are will do better in all disciplines by gaining a mastery of their languages and cultures. I believe our people are searching for their spirits. In all of our ceremonies there’s a period when we end our ceremonies where we go into sweat to call our spirits back. I full-heartedly believe that’s exactly what our people are doing: searching for their spirits. This is because for 500 years we’ve been told that our ways and our beliefs are that of the devil, so we’ve began to believe that. Our people search for their spirit subconsciously wherever they can, in a bar, in a bad relationship, in gang, anywhere they can. What they’re really looking for is that piece of them that’s their true connection to the Creator, our languages and cultural ways of life.
If you had to make a prediction, what do you think will be the result of this encampment and resistance?
I know we’ll win. We have to. This has been centuries in the making. What I’ve learned in my journey to finding myself and becoming closer to Creator is that he always has a plan for us. He’s been showing us that plan in many of our medicine people and I believe him.
With the outpouring of support from around the world for Standing Rock, the Prayer Camps and the No DAPL movement, do you think there’s a chance that the world might learn some values from Standing Rock and Native people in regards to exploitation of the earth?
They’ve already learned so many values from Standing Rock. How to be a good relative has been by far the best one to me. In being a good relative you take care of your children first and foremost, they know that poisoning our water will harm our babies. This is why so many have stepped forward and have answered our call. We’ve lost so many of our young people to suicide; we have a chance to show them that we’d do anything to make sure that they’re safe.
Thank you Alayna.
Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
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