The woman setting the record straight on Native American history

Sarah Eagle Heart, storyteller and award-winning producer, wants to heal her people through telling Indigenous stories.

An illustration of Sarah Eagle Heart.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

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Sarah Eagle Heart is a storyteller.

The Emmy Award-winning producer is also a mother, daughter, sister, activist and CEO.

But none of these accolades has come easily to Eagle Heart who, like many Native Americans, is familiar with adversity.

The 44-year-old Oglala Sioux woman from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is on a mission to revolutionise the way Indigenous narratives are portrayed in the mainstream.

She is determined to help set the record straight on Native American history and, through storytelling, bring healing to her people.

“I think sometimes people look at the history and maybe they’re afraid to face it or ashamed,” Eagle Heart contemplates on a February morning via Zoom from her home in Los Angeles. “And we can’t live in the shame of our history anymore. We have to be able to address it and find a way forward because if we don’t, we’re going to keep continuing these patterns that are killing us.”

She is referring to the brutality of colonisation that nearly wiped out the Native American population over the last few centuries.

Stolen lands, the attempted genocide by the United States and the resolve of her people to stay alive through ongoing oppression have been stifled by mainstream history, and contribute to racism, poverty and adverse statistics for Native Americans, she says.

Today, American Indian and Alaska Native households are more likely to face homelessness, while Indigenous women are murdered at a rate that is 10 times higher than other ethnicities.

“We’re having to recover from those harms, but not only are we having to recover from those harms, the non-Native people have been lied to too. So, I think it’s important to be able to just acknowledge the truth and stand in the truth – confront it and also heal from it,” says Eagle Heart.

“And the storytelling that I do today, there is an actionable component to it,” she says, adding that a lot of times people are expected to know what action to take. “But I don’t think they know. And so, you have to spell it out.”

A photo of Sarah Eagle Heart.
Sarah Eagle Heart is determined to bring healing to her people through storytelling [Photo courtesy of Sarah Eagle Heart]

An Indigenous woman’s perspective

Eagle Heart has lived on and off in Los Angeles for several years pursuing a career in the film industry.

She has worked with big-name stars like Anne Hathaway and John Legend and fondly recalls meeting Oprah Winfrey at a red-carpet event.

In 2019, she won an Emmy Award for her role as a consultant producer on Crow: The Legend, an animated short film exploring self-discovery, inspired by Native American lore.

Right now, she is working with award-winning actor and environmental rights activist Mark Ruffalo to bring the story of the fight to reclaim the Black Hills in South Dakota to the big screen in a documentary titled Lakota Nation vs. the United States.

For the Lakota people, which includes the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Black Hills has long been considered sacred land.

“It was never ceded to the United States government. It [the documentary] is about the [land’s meaning] and the fight for it and the fight to continue to have a say over this land that our people have considered sacred since the beginning of time. It’s where our creation stories are from,” Eagle Heart explains.

Her work is guided by prayer, an ancestral practice. Every day she sets aside time to pray and meditate – it is an integral part of her life and creative process. She takes long walks by the ocean which for her provides a sense of comfort. And although she is hundreds of miles away from her home in South Dakota, she feels she is exactly where she needs to be right now, in Hollywood, an epicentre of storytelling through cinema.

“There are so many Native American stories that need to be told and from an Indigenous woman’s perspective,” she says. “And we need to be able to be free to tell that perspective and to bring healing, not only to our people, but I feel like the Native American story, our history, is not just our history [but everyone’s].”

A photo of two children sitting in chairs next to each other.
Twins Sarah (R) and Emma Eagle Heart grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation and from a young age, were raised by their mother’s family [Photo courtesy of Sarah Eagle Heart]

Epidemics of violence, poverty

Eagle Heart grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of the poorest communities in the US.

“It’s really common for somebody to have experienced or been close to or seen death. It’s really common for everybody to be growing up in poverty. It’s really common to have witnessed or been a victim of violence and it’s really common to know somebody close to you that is addicted to something,” she says. “I mean, we’ve seen somebody die in our kitchen from knife wounds because the ambulance didn’t come for 45 minutes from a town that’s like a mile away.”

Behind these horrific stories are systemic issues, says Eagle Heart. “There is a reason why these are epidemics in our community and, you know, it’s not of our own making either.”

Her homelands are a vast, beautiful prairie landscape surrounded by rolling badlands where medicines like sweet grass, used for healing various ailments and for ceremonial purposes, grow wild and free.

It is also where the massacre of hundreds of Eagle Heart’s ancestors took place in 1890 near Wounded Knee Creek by US soldiers seeking to eradicate them and clear the land to make way for settlers.

Growing up, Eagle Heart’s family was poor, and she and her siblings endured trauma from a young age.

Eagle Heart is 14 minutes older than her identical twin sister, Emma, and the two have a brother, Troy, who is two years younger than them.

When Eagle Heart was seven years old, a drunk driver drove their mother, a police officer, off the road. Although she survived the accident, she sustained severe head injuries and was never able to work again, eventually turning to drugs and alcohol to dull her physical and mental pain. Eagle Heart’s father was absent her whole life. So, her mother’s family stepped in to help raise her children.

A photo of the Badlands from the road on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Eagle Heart’s homelands are filled with prairies and rolling badlands [Stephanie Keith/Reuters]

Taking a stand against racism

Eagle Heart’s usually long, dark hair is cut to her shoulders – a symbol of mourning in Lakota culture. She pauses as tears roll down her cheeks and her voice breaks explaining how her Aunt Mabel, a mother figure to her, passed away in November.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know I would cry,” she says, wiping away fresh tears. “She was a schoolteacher. I miss her a lot.”

The sisters attended Bennett County High School in Martin, about 97km (60 miles) by bus, where Indigenous students were a minority.

In high school, they were bullied simply because they were Native American. As teenagers, the Eagle Heart twins faced threats of rocks being thrown at them during sporting events and Sarah, due to be the cheerleading captain in her senior year, was informed that there would not be one that year, a decision Eagle Heart puts down to racism.

On a particularly bad day in 1994, the 17-year-old sisters found each other in the toilet.

“I saw her [Emma] in the bathroom and we both cried,” says Eagle Heart.

But that day was a turning point. They reminded themselves of what they had learned from a Native American counsellor about where they came from and the strength this represented.

“Chris Eagle Hawk [the counsellor] told Emma a story about the great leaders that have come before, you know, like Crazy Horse and [said] that all of this is happening for a reason and told us to stay strong,” says Eagle Heart.

Famed warriors and medicine men like Chief Red Cloud, Black Elk and Crazy Horse live on, say the Lakota, through the spirits of those who survived colonial violence near Pine Ridge.

Wiping their tears, they told themselves “OK, we’re going to make it, we can do this”, recalls Eagle Heart. “And we got our courage back together; I could go back and face all of the racism that we were dealing with.”

But the sisters also decided that they had had enough and that they would take a stand against the racism and cultural appropriation around them.

A photo of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation entrance.
While growing up in the Pine Ridge Reservation, Eagle Heart and her sister attended a high school in the town of Martin where they faced bullying and racism before one day deciding to take a stand [File: Kristi Eaton/AP Photo]

‘Rocking the boat’

The two spearheaded a protest against their school’s Indian mascots and homecoming ceremony with a chief, medicine man and warrior princess titles that students vied for by imitating these roles in a mocking way in front of an audience and judges. Contestants would dress in mock Native American regalia yelping war cries and dancing to win the coveted homecoming titles.

The sisters made posters and showed up at the parody of their Lakota culture to demand a boycott. The backlash from fellow students was brutal.

They endured threats of violence, name-calling and intimidation along the way.

“It was tough,” says Emma Eagle Heart, who describes herself as the introvert and her sister as the outspoken one of the two. “We felt like everybody hated us. We were verbally attacked on the streets, called prairie n*****s. It was a scary time,” she says, speaking over the phone in February.

“I think that was one of the first times that we were doing something that was definitely rocking the boat. And we were standing up for our people and how we’re portrayed,” says Eagle Heart.

But they received support and advice from the local chapter of the American Indian Movement and other community members.

Their determination eventually paid off. Four years later, the figures from the homecoming ceremony were removed.

A photo of Sarah Eagle Heart using a bullhorn with a crowd of people behind her.
As an activist and leader, Eagle Heart’s work has taken her to the Episcopal Church, seen her support Indigenous women in the business world and help found an organisation to cultivate healing for survivors and families of the Indian boarding school era [Photo courtesy of Sarah Eagle Heart]

Storytelling rooted in ceremony

Eagle Heart became a mother at age 18 and raised two boys while attending university to study marketing and communications.

Living in cities across the US, she exposed her sons to the world off the reservation. But she also made sure they stayed connected to their culture in Pine Ridge.

Both became Sun Dancers at a young age by participating in the sacred, multiday ceremony of fasting, praying and garnering strength of mind, body and spirit known as the Sun Dance.

Eagle Heart credits Lakota ceremonies for equipping her with lifelong lessons which help her stay grounded.

“The first people that showed me about healing were the medicine people at the Sun Dance ceremony. But they show it to you. They don’t tell it. And so, when you think about Indigenous worldviews and our storytelling, you know, non-Native people have these very specific ways that you’re supposed to tell a linear story … ours is rooted in ceremony and it’s not linear.”

For about a decade, she was team leader for diversity and social justice for the Indigenous Ministry at the Episcopal Church in New York City.

It was at the church that she developed her leadership skills and advocated for Indigenous inclusion. She helped the church become the first major Christian denomination in 2009 to repudiate the “Doctrine of Discovery”, laws founded on papal decree, which Europeans used to legitimise their brutal colonisation.

“That was a weird thing that also came out of nowhere,” she says of the period working at the church. But it was a “calling”. Her time there taught her how to give herself time and space to reflect.

“I learned to turn off all the different distractions and then just sort of be with myself and my thoughts and then think about the connections. Then I could see, asking the Creator, OK, what am I supposed to say? Like, what am I supposed to do?”

The experience helped her to tap into her intuition, something that guides her daily through professional and personal life. It has not let her down yet, she says, although not everyone understands it.

“There are people out there that don’t understand that you’re following your intuition and your spirituality. They’d be like, ‘What the heck is she doing? Like, she is running all over the place. It doesn’t make sense.’ And so, if they’re coming from that space of not understanding, it can look chaotic,” she says, laughing.

After some time, Eagle Heart found herself wanting to work in a space of her own choosing and one that was closer to her roots. “We’re all living in these Western colonised spaces that are kind of ruled by patriarchy, and we’re not really allowing ourselves to move from like a feminine, grounded space.”

A photo of Sarah Eagle Heart holding an award.
The Emmy Award-winning producer says her storytelling is driven by impact and seeing a change in her communities on the reservations [Photo courtesy of Sarah Eagle Heart]

‘Change for my communities’

Then she found her current heart’s calling – storytelling.

“In Hollywood, we’re just having the conversations of what does it look like to empower a native leader in filmmaking, a native creative and empower them when we’re dealing with a sector that hasn’t necessarily had to work within our cultures and our protocols or our worldview, or the way that we story tell …,” she says. “I am somebody who is very driven by impact and wanting to see a change for my communities on the reservations and my grandma’s life, my auntie’s life and my children.”

For Eagle Heart, storytelling is in large part about tackling stereotypes and creating space for Indigenous narratives.

Whether through filmmaking, public speaking or empowering Indigenous women in the business world through the Return to the Heart Foundation, a social justice enterprise where Eagle Heart is a CEO, she wants to challenge how Native Americans are depicted in the media and in Hollywood.

“My storytelling is about telling the truth, whether it’s about accurate history, social justice issues or our creation stories,” says Eagle Heart, who apart from producing Lakota Nation vs. the United States is currently executive producing a docuseries, a horror film and writing a drama film script.

“It may look super easy to people,” she says of her success, but she has still had to contend with “a lot of different power structures and gatekeeping”.

She is also working with her sister Emma to co-publish a memoir that has been four years in the making. The process of writing Warrior Princesses Strike Back: How Lakota Twins Fight Oppression and Heal through Connectedness, due out in June 2022, has been healing, says Emma, a psychotherapist working to help children recover from trauma. “We are bearing our souls talking about these things,” she says.

By sharing their story, the sisters hope to help other women find a way through the barriers they face.

Eagle Heart has also tried to foster healing as a founding member of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. The organisation is working towards a national strategy to increase public awareness and cultivate healing for the profound trauma experienced by survivors and families of the Indian boarding school era.

Native American children from across the US were rounded up by boxcar, boat, wagons and on foot starting in 1879 to attend government-run Indian education schools. The goal was forced assimilation. Malnourishment and neglect were common at boarding schools. Tuberculosis, trachoma and other diseases ran rampant.

By 1926, nearly 83 percent of school-aged Indigenous children were at boarding schools, also known as Indian residential schools. Over almost a century, a total of 367 boarding schools operated in the US, run by 14 different Christian denominations. As of 2021, the US government has opened an investigation into the schools where many children died. The fallout of the abuse continues in the form of intergenerational trauma on many reservations.

Sarah Eagle Heart with her two sons
Eagle Heart wants her sons Branden, 22, and Aaron, 25, and future generations of her people to grow up feeling loved and respected for who they are [Courtesy of Sarah Eagle Heart]

‘Whole and healthy’

It is the healing and restoration of her people that drives Eagle Heart.

“I want our people to get back to a place where we just feel kind of whole and healthy and loved and respected for who we are. I really want us to get to that place of understanding,” she says. “I really want my son’s children and their children and their children to grow up in a place that allows them to be everything of who they are and who they’re meant to be.

“Lots of people didn’t expect for us to still be here in this world.”

Her partner Kevin Killer, the current president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, says he is proud of Eagle Heart.

“I value what she has to offer the world,” says Killer, speaking from the Pine Ridge Reservation where he is based. “She is authentic and the perspective she has as a native woman is needed. She can talk from a place of wisdom about a lot of things. She’s a good role model to other women and has a determination to do right by others. We need to make room, make space and honour women’s voices.”

Eagle Heart is currently juggling multiple projects but stands ready to shake up the entertainment world with whatever new opportunities come her way.

“So many times, things have come up, and I’m like ‘I’ve never done this before. I don’t know anything about it, but you know, we’re just gonna follow our heart’. And I think that when you trust in the Creator and you feel like the Creator is guiding you, it gives you a lot of courage to do things that maybe most people wouldn’t do because they don’t feel like they have it in them. It takes faith and courage.”

From the Afghan woman who fought patriarchy and the Soviets to the mother who taught her daughter what it means to survive and the art of care, we are telling the stories of women – contemporary, historical, in the public eye and overlooked – who are shaping other women’s lives. In 2022, starting from Women’s History Month in March, these are the stories of women who are making a difference to other women.

Source: Al Jazeera