Sarah Eagle Heart has held many titles—co-founder of Indigenous Women Rise, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy, Women’s March board member—but her most important may simply be storyteller.
Eagle Heart, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota as a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, uses storytelling—through writing, film, public speaking and organizing—to help enact social, environmental and Indigenous justice. In 2019, she won an Emmy Award for her work on the animated short Crow: The Legend, which used virtual reality and music to visualize the Native American legend of how the crow turned black. More recently, Eagle Heart co-founded the Return to the Heart Foundation, which gives micro-grants to Indigenous Women—so they can tell their own stories.
Eagle Heart spoke with us about some ways non-Indigenous people can practice good allyship and help support Native communities.
Often it’s hard to get people to care about things that are happening far away from them. How do you reach out to non-Indigenous people who think that tribal issues don’t affect them?
People need to understand that so many of the issues we face in tribal communities are amplified throughout the whole country, and vice versa. One perfect example is COVID. The fact that many rural states didn’t take COVID seriously from the beginning led to Indigenous people on reservations—especially Indigenous elders—being at risk for losing their culture and their language. But it also created these bubbles of the virus that spread out to other states. And now 500,000 people have died from COVID in the United States.
Another example is the reality that Native Americans are overrepresented in jails and prison systems, just as Black Americans and other people of color are. I was so grateful that during the George Floyd protests, many movement leaders were very intentional about saying Black and Indigenous, over and over. To fix these huge issues, we have to start caring about each other and supporting one another.
How can non-Indigenous people help protect and support sacred lands and sites?
By giving them back to Indigenous people, if they’re able. I think that churches have an opportunity to return land. People, after they pass on, can return their land to Indigenous peoples. This is part of restorative justice. But also taking care of sacred sites is as simple as everyday people stepping up and having a voice when it comes to making sure sites are protected on a state level and ensuring that they are overseen by Indigenous communities—that tribes get a say.
What does being a good ally to Native communities look like?
Spending time in the community and getting to know the people. There is no other way around it. You have to spend time in a community and you have to learn the issues and the history. If everyone did that in their own backyard, and learned who the Indigenous peoples were in their community, that would go a long way toward healing the pain of the past—simply by acknowledging their presence. That’s why things like land acknowledgements are important. And that’s why it’s important to tell an accurate history to our children. It’s important not to perpetuate stereotypes and discriminatory practices.
Find out more about the Return to Heart Foundation.