A Native American Activist Speaks Candidly About What It’s Like

Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi

An increasing number of young people are identifying as activists, but to call this a new trend would not only be naive, it would also be a missed opportunity. Older generations offer an important perspective on what it means to be politically and socially active. In an effort to soak up their knowledge, we’re speaking to activists who have been doing this work for decades. We’ve previously learned from 74-year-old Sally Roesch Wagner, 66-year-old Jackie Warren-Moore, and 71-year-old Felicia Elizondo. Today, we speak with 68-year-old Faith Spotted Eagle.

When I asked Faith Spotted Eagle about her day-to-day life as a 68-year-old elder of the Yankton Sioux Nation in Lake Andes, South Dakota, she told me she “keeps busy.” That’s a humble understatement. In addition to her well-documented leadership in the Keystone XL Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Spotted Eagle works to combat sexual violence and assault and serves as a post-traumatic stress disorder therapist. (She has her MA in Educational Psychology and Counseling from the University of South Dakota).

She is also a founding member and leader of Brave Heart Society, a group that’s responsible for safekeeping the environment and sacred sites, in addition to reviving traditional Native American language, culture and ceremonies. We spoke as she was en route to a treaty meeting — she’s also Chairperson of the Ihanktonwan Treaty Steering Committee, where she works to protect the people on treaty lands. On top of that, she’s a mother to two children and a grandmother.

Last year, Spotted Eagle made history. When a faithless elector wrote-in her name on his ballot during the presidential election, she became the first ever Native American to win an electoral college vote for president.

Below, a conversation with Spotted Eagle on environmental activism, intergenerational challenges, Native and non-Native collaborations, and what it’s like to work tirelessly for rights and respect.

What was your experience growing up in Lake Andes, South Dakota?

It was about community. The way we’re raised is that when you introduce yourself, you introduce your nation first: where you’re from, where you live, your family, and lastly, yourself. We are also place-based societies. When we’re indigenous to a place, a lot of our knowledge is intricate and long-standing. We know these lands, and that gives us, I believe, moral authority in a pre-colonial sense. Throughout the years, I’ve been involved in a number of efforts to defend our lands. It’s a lifelong process.

I didn’t wake up one day and decide I was going to be an activist. Actually, growing up we didn’t even have the word activist in our vocabulary. That’s an English word. We just had a word that means to help people in our family systems.

What aspects of your work are you most proud of?

In 1977, I was a founding member and president of White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, the first Native American women’s shelter in the nation. I realized the need for this shelter when I was a community college instructor. I saw girls come to class with black eyes and injuries, and they said that they just fell down the stairs.

I’m also a survivor of violence. I know what it takes to recover and to fight for your wellness. The statistic now is that three out of five Native American women will be assaulted in their lifetime. So I talked to two women who worked for Indian Health Service and I said, “This is not okay. We need to start some kind of society or something to stop this violence by our own people against our own people.” The shelter still exists today on the Rosebud Reservation.

Some of your work has focused on the connection between violence and oil, relating to pipelines that attempt to cross through your land. Can you explain that connection?

When a pipeline is created, temporary construction camps, known as “man camps,” are built. They’re large groups of men who are without their wives and families, and they often prey on Native American women. This has happened before, and it’s similar to what happens in any war. It’s sexual colonization, and it has an impact.

I spoke with somebody in one of the pipeline companies, and I said, “This is unconscionable to hold this threat to our people when it’s happened before.” He replied, “We’re only going to be there about six months or a year.” But if someone gets raped, it doesn’t affect them for six months — it affects them for life. It’s also a downstream effect in reservations because our men have been colonized to do what white men have done to us. When you have a culture that is bombarded and everything is taken, pretty soon the patterns of the oppressor begin to appear in that dehumanized population too, because the culture is eroding.

The pipelines also affect your land, water and sacred sites. How has your community come together to protest that destruction?

The protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at Standing Rock last year was a unifying call for all tribal people to come together as nations and talk to each other. The pipeline threatened our lifeline, which is the Missouri River. We’re a community that takes water from that river, so if that water is polluted, it will be like what happened with Flint, Michigan. It’s a human rights issue. Standing Rock was an opportunity for 12,000 people to stand up and say, “We don’t want this development.” It was an amazing social experience.

But even though it was beautiful to have so many people come together with the intent to stop the pipeline, there were also some issues that arose. By the end of the camp, probably 90 percent of the protestors were non-Natives. A lot of the white people who came to protest put themselves at the center rather than respecting our culture first. Eventually, the protests sucked the resources from the community. The roads were blocked, so businesses were suffering. When the community said, “It’s time to go home now,” most of the Native people of other communities respected that decision and left, but a lot of the non-Native people stayed.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When I debriefed with people afterwards, the majority said they learned about themselves. They learned about being challenged. They learned about how they could withstand cold weather. They learned about their own discipline or lack of it. They learned about cultural sensitivity or lack of it. They learned about what happens when violence and injury come. I think many people underwent a process of healing while learning to work with all different types of people.

There were also a lot of young people at the protests at Standing Rock. What was that like?

I think it was a learning experience for them. There were some young people that actually said they wouldn’t listen to elders, which was a big shock for us, culturally. To manage the intersection between elders and youth, my daughter Brook and I facilitated women’s groups. We asked questions: Do you feel safe here? Did you come here for a role — what is your role? How can women support each other? We also tried to culturally sensitize some of the white women and women from other races, and we talked about why the elders didn’t want violence because it was a ceremony.

In December, we were joined by U.S. military veterans — estimates of 2,000 to 4,000 — and many of them were young. I was very involved in the facilitation with the veterans as an elder because I’m also a post-traumatic stress disorder therapist and know how to work with soldiers. I relished that opportunity to work with younger veterans because I know that when you are a soldier, you have had to attain a certain amount of discipline. In a time of conflict, which we were in with DAPL, it was like veterans’ sixth sense came into play, and I really appreciated that. A lot of the young soldiers respected my role as an elder, and they looked to me for guidance and were willing to do whatever needed to be done to make the situation safe. I truly believe the veterans had an influence on the Department of Justice.

How did you spend your time after the long protest at Standing Rock was over?

When it got violent on the other side, we said, “They aren’t going to kill us. We’re going to continue in court and in ceremony and in prayers because there are other battles beyond DAPL.” I always call it “the list of 100.” So when the DAPL camp closed and everyone asked me what I was going to do now, I told them, “I’m going to go back to the list of 99 other things that are equally important that we need to stand up for.”

There are so many other issues: sexual violence happening all over because of colonization, continued pollution of the Missouri River, our healthcare rights, the state government continually infringing on our tribal jurisdiction — we have every right to live and have human rights, but they constantly push us and try to take our rights. Our country honors treaties with other governments, but it won’t honor treaties with its own nation. We have given up millions of acres of land in agreements, and they’ve polluted it, they’ve treated us badly, and they’ve denied that they made those agreements.

The Trump administration has exacerbated the already high amount of racism and bigotry that exists for Native people. A lot of white males are afraid of losing their identity, which is their power. An animal is most dangerous when it’s dying, and that’s how a lot of white males feel and are behaving in this country. It is a very dangerous time for everybody.

Because of your work as an activist, you received an electoral vote for president from a faithless elector. What was your reaction to that?

When I first heard about it, I was taking my daughter to the airport. I got a phone call, and it was the Los Angeles Times asking me what I thought about my electoral vote. I said, “Let me call you back.” My daughter checked online and found out it was true. Within those first three hours, I got about 25 calls from media all over asking me what I felt. I told the Los Angeles Times that after all the years of standing up for the water and land and all my people, it felt like I got a bouquet of roses.

I called the faithless elector [Democratic Washington state elector Robert Satiacum], and I asked, “Why did you do that?” He said that he had heard me talk at Standing Rock and how I didn’t talk about me, I talked about we. He said, “I heard you as a voice of the people.”

What advice do you have for non-Native people who want to work with you to protect your land and people?

I think our alliances that we’ve created with non-Native people need to grow because when they heal, we heal. They have to realize that they’re impacting this land they’ve taken through violation of treaties and that they can give back. A lot of white people we work with have a sense of guilt, and the way to overcome that guilt of their ancestors is to accept that this happened and that they need to take accountability for their ancestors. Now it’s a different era, and we can stand together as partners in defending the earth that we live on — it’s all we have.

Jackie Homan

Jackie Homan

Jackie Homan is a journalist, writer, and proud owner of an indoor s’mores maker for the rainy days.

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