Mary Annette Pember
Steve Tamayo, a Lakota artist from Milks Camp, South Dakota, teaches children at the Oceti Sakowin camp school how to make a traditional hand drum.

Standing Ground on NoDAPL: Oceti Sakowin School Educates Next Generation

Mary Annette Pember

The children currently camped out at Standing Rock are the generation that will grow up knowing that their parents, and by extension they, stood up for the water—and thus themselves—and that it is their story to tell.

“We aren’t just sitting around out here talking bad about the pipeline,” said Tashubi B., an 11-year-old Sicangu Lakota girl attending school at the Oceti Sakowin camp of water protectors near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. “We have resources.”

Those resources consist of a fully operational school that is combining conventional classes with real-world experience for a unique educational opportunity. For instance, Tashubi and her classmates are putting their education to immediate use by creating documentaries about their experiences and perspectives at the camp as part of a school project.

“They said they were tired of reporters coming to the camp and telling stories about them and the school,” said Teresa Dzieglewicz, a teacher at Oceti Sakowin School. “They decided they wanted to tell their own stories.”

Using donated tablets, Dzieglewicz and her colleagues are working with students as they first create written proposals and later gather interviews and information to tell their stories.

“Our plan is to have all the documentaries online for everybody to see,” Dzieglewicz said.

Started by Standing Rock schoolteacher Alayna Eagle Shield, the camp school has attracted a core group of committed teachers and support staff such as Dzieglewicz and colleagues Blaze Starkey and Jose Zagney. Although Dzieglewicz initially planned to stay only two days when she arrived more than a month ago, she has since decided to put her Master of Fine Arts studies in St. Louis on hold and stay on at the camp. Previously she had taught elementary school on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.

“I believe deeply in environmental and indigenous rights issues,” Dzieglewicz said. “I decided that I needed to care about them here rather than from far away in St. Louis.”

Parents and students are very engaged with the home schooling curriculum offered by teachers at the school. For instance, after realizing that the kids wanted to tell their own stories about the camp and share their feelings about the pipeline, Dzieglewicz helped get tablets donated with the help of attorney Eric DeWeese of Portland, Oregon, who also volunteered at the Oceti Sakowin as legal council for several days.

“I saw the elders in a tipi talking and I thought, Wow, they must have amazing stories to tell,” said DeWeese, who ended up donating 15 tablets along with solar chargers. “I thought it was an incredible opportunity for kids to hear and document their stories.”

Students at Oceti Sakowin school were a little weary from several days of media attention when an ICTMN reporter arrived. This made Tashubi initially reluctant to discuss her project, until she learned that one of her teachers had said she was a very sharp girl.

“Well, of course,” she quickly agreed, and went on to describe her work. “My project is about the resources that we have here at camp. I want people to see that we have lots of things here and that we can take care of ourselves in a good way. We have a school, a kitchen, security and supplies.”

She was also keen for people to know that the camp school is a serious place.

“We don’t just sit around and talk. We study serious subjects like math and science,” Tashubi said. “We also get to learn about Lakota values and language. Mostly I want people to know that we are unarmed; we are humble and peaceful people who are praying for a new way to live on the Earth.”

Not everyone agrees, however, that the school is a good thing. North Dakota Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Kirsten Baesler has told the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council that the Oceti Sakowin camp school is operating illegally and does not fit the official definition of a home-schooling operation, the Bismarck Tribune reported. She offered to bus students to Mandan public schools, the newspaper said.

Dzieglewicz, however, said the school adheres strictly to the state’s home schooling requirements and standards, and helps parents work on completing home-school paperwork. But according to Baesler, North Dakota regulations governing home schooling require that parents must be the primary educators for students.

Dzieglewicz is a former certified teacher, and Blaze Starkey, one of the main teachers at the camp, has a bachelor’s degree in language arts. Neither has ever made any pretense of operating the school as an accredited institution, they told the Bismark Tribune. Moreover, North Dakota law is not precise about stating that parents must be the educators in home schooling students, said Dan Beasley, a staff attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association.

While the grown-ups debate, the schooling goes on.

“Since this documentary is created by an 11-year-old girl, you know of course that there will be some fun and comedy too!” said a smiling Tashubi of her project.

The students at Oceti Sakowin camp do have lots of fun. Embedded in the fun and games, however, are important lessons about Lakota values and traditional skills such as making drums, putting up a tipi, and learning traditional songs and dances.

Fortunately, Dzieglewicz and her colleagues have been able to draw from some of the most talented and skilled Native teachers and artists in Indian country, as they cycle regularly through the camp.

Steve Tamayo of the Milk’s Camp community on the Rosebud Sioux reservation is spending several days with the children, teaching traditional skills such as tipi and drum making. He’s the artist who painted the tipi for the Cowboy and Indian Alliance that was gifted to President Obama in 2014 to help raise awareness about the Keystone XL pipeline.

Tamayo integrates sacred Lakota symbolism and spirituality as well as knowledge of plants and their uses in his lessons. For instance he integrates the spiritual Lakota significance of the numbers four, seven and 13 into teaching about tipi building. At the same time, he creates a valuable lesson in math and problem solving. The students are working with Tamayo to create a winter count using Lakota symbols that will tell the story of their experience at camp.

Currently Tamayo works as manager and cultural arts specialist with the Native American Advocacy Program (NAAP) in Herrick, South Dakota. NAAP is a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk youth build a cultural identity based on the traditional Lakota way of life. NAAP Executive Director Marla Bull Bear also worked with children at the camp, teaching them a Lakota morning song every day.

“Your prayers count,” she told the group as they sat in a circle around her. She led the students in song, quietly at first, then building to a crescendo that silenced the surrounding camp conversations.

With the help of teachers at Oceti Sakowin, the Sacred Stone camp has also started a school of its own just across the Cannonball River. Mary Paniscus of Berlin, as well as other volunteers, had just finished organizing the huge number of donated books and school supplies when ICTMN visited.

“I was just telling my mother this morning that I was thinking I might return to teaching,” Paniscus said with a laugh. “Now, this afternoon, I find that I’m the principal of the Sacred Stone Camp school.”

Paniscus, who teaches genetics in Germany, had just arrived with her mother. After teachers and students posed for their first-day-of-school photo, Paniscus shooed parents and visitors out.

“You’ll have to excuse us now,” she said. “It’s time for class.”

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