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Gyasi Ross: Interview with founder of Defenders of Water School

Filed Under: Education | National
More on: alayna eagle shield, dakota access pipeline, gyasi ross, languges, north dakota, standing rock sioux, youth
     
   

Students and teachers at the Defenders of the Water School in North Dakota. Photo from Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa

As part of a "Voices From the Front Lines in Standing Rock" series for Indian Country Today, Gyasi Ross interviews Alayna Eagle Shield, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who helped establish Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa, the Defenders of the Water School that emphasizes indigenous language, culture and history at the #NoDAPL encampment in North Daota:
Q: I know you are from here, so you were kinda here. But why set up a school at the camp?

A: 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.

Q: Were you raised with the Lakota language? How did it become a passion for you?

A: 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.

Read More:
Gyasi Ross: Voices from The Front Lines in Standing Rock V.2: Alayna Eagle Shield and Educating a New Generation of Revolutionaries (Indian Country Today 10/7)

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