Sarah Eagle Heart On Indigenous ‘Inclusion At Every Level’

Photo by Martina Fornace

 

WORDS BY JENNI MONET

Indigenous storyteller Sarah Eagle Heart shares her thoughts on winning an Emmy, launching Return to the Heart Foundation, and Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

WORDS BY JENNI MONET

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I first met Sarah Eagle Heart in 2009 on the edge of America in Kivalina, Alaska. The tiny tadpole-shaped island 100 miles above the Arctic Circle is home to around 400 Inupiat villagers living on the frontlines of climate change; their island is disappearing to a rising sea. For Sarah, what she remembers most from her trip was the food—how centuries-old subsistence lifeways were visibly giving way to warming temperatures.

 

“It was really shocking to notice a decade ago that climate change was eroding this little Island, and that simple cultural practices, like storing your food for the winter, were being disrupted by climate change,” she said.

 

Sarah helped produce a short film from that visit. Today, another film credit looms large. In May 2019, the Lakota activist stood on the red carpet holding an Emmy in Pasadena, California, for her role in Crow: The Legend, an animated short film starring John Legend. Recognized for its virtual reality, the story is inspired by an Indigenous tale about how the crow turned black. Eagle Heart was a consulting producer of the film, where she also gave a cameo voiceover appearance as Luna, the talking moon.

 

Like many of us, Sarah charged into 2020 with big plans that would soon be met by the coronavirus. Yet that has not stopped her from growing the nonprofit foundation she launched last December. Return to the Heart is a US-based, Indigenous women-led initiative fueled by the same intentions that pulled Sarah to Kivalina years ago—a deep commitment to climate justice, narrative change, and equity-building across Indian Country. I had a chance to talk with Eagle Heart in anticipation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

 

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

JENNI MONET

Sarah, when it comes to the Indigenous Rights movement, there’s a widespread observance of a momentum that seems to be growing right now. What do you think is attributed to that momentum—specifically since the build-up from the demonstrations at Standing Rock?

SARAH EAGLE HEART

There was like a rootedness that was happening at Standing Rock, and people were beginning to truly understand all of these issues that were happening across the Indigenous world. It was all of a sudden heightened. I think that non-Indigenous people began to really understand the cultural significance of Indigenous wisdom. And I think that movement leaders who already knew this were very intentional afterward about saying, “We want to be inclusive.” And so the movement leaders in the United States decided to be really intentional.

JENNI

What did that look like for your advocacy?

SARAH

I went on to begin my work with Women’s March. I co-founded this movement around Indigenous Women Rise, and it helped to inspire a thousand Indigenous women to march. And then I helped to bridge the understanding of different communities with the Women’s March leaders, and they were very intentional about listening. Language began developing around Black and Indigenous issues. I really believe that momentum continued because movement leaders recognized the inherent Indigenous justice that needed to happen, not only because of their own movements, but they were saying, “You know, these issues didn’t begin with slavery, and we want to talk about what happened before that.”

JENNI

Compare that to your work, particularly stemming back to your early advocacy when I met you in Kivalina. You were with the Episcopal Church then, right?

SARAH

Yeah, I was working on the staff of the first female presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori at the Episcopal Church, and she focused on areas of environmentalism and science.

JENNI

Which is a huge deal. I don’t think people really recognize how progressive that is.

SARAH

She was very progressive. And of course, she supported Indigenous issues. So when we met, it was because the organization—the denomination of 2 million people in 16 countries—had repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. They were the first denomination to do that.

 

Editor’s Note: Christians used this idea of the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their colonization and seizure of Indigenous lands. Christians would claim “discovery” despite Indigenous people living there. This spiritual and political belief became a part of international law. The US Supreme Court used the Doctrine to support decisions invalidating or ignoring Indigenous possession of land in favor of modern imperial governments, such as in the 2005 case of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation, an opinion written by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

JENNI

Also a huge deal.

SARAH

Also a huge deal—a super huge deal—for Indigenous People.

 

The educational work that I had to do around the Doctrine of Discovery with the Episcopal Church was very grueling.

JENNI

You mean in terms of teaching others?

SARAH

Yeah. Like that it was grueling—and I don’t… I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever used that word before.

JENNI

Well, you’ve got enough experience in the rearview behind you. It’s totally acceptable. What happened?

SARAH

We developed a whole service around the Doctrine of Discovery. It was a very beautiful service; it was in a circle. We acknowledged the four directions. We had Indigenous People that were reading, and we were talking about the impact of this history on the church. And it was not highly attended, and it should have been.

 

And so that was probably a moment where I was like, “They are not taking it seriously.” And I think, as an Indigenous person who grew up the way that I did—on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, one of the poorest counties in the United States where, you know, there’s 80 percent unemployment, the median salary is maybe $10,000 to $20,000 annually—for me, that was definitely a moment of urgency.

 

I think working at the Episcopal Church was somewhere that I needed to go to understand the issues and understand how difficult and how much work it was going to take to bridge-build but also like where to focus my energy.

Indigenous women have all of these solutions; they’re in the middle of their communities. They’re in the middle of their families, and they are the organizers. They’re the caretakers; they’re the culture bearers. And I thought: This is where we need to focus, especially in the environmental movement. These are the leaders who need to be supported.

SARAH EAGLE HEART
Co-Founder / Co-CEO Of Return to the Heart Foundation

JENNI

So where is that centered for you now?

SARAH

My career and the work that I’ve done has really centered around truth and healing movements. It’s just been a really critical foundation for understanding the narrative around Native Americans.

 

And let me tell you, Jenni. Nobody wanted to talk about healing 10 years ago.

JENNI

I believe you. Remember President Obama’s 2009 apology? He didn’t verbalize it but wrote about it—buried in an ancillary document.

SARAH

Yes. That’s what I mean. Even Native people at the time didn’t either care or saw it as no big deal. And so I think that’s why this is a moment—like we just saw Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) introduce a Truth and Healing Commission bill. There’s a part of me that is just feeling so satisfied.

JENNI

That’s a good word.

SARAH

Yeah, cause I’m just like, “OK, I can breathe a little, right?” Like I can start thinking about the next thing, about what needs to happen for our people and for our community.

JENNI

So what is the next thing?

SARAH

Gosh, I think just inclusion at every level.

 

I co-founded Return to the Heart Foundation at the end of December 2019, not knowing that coronavirus was going to hit. And it was something that I had been thinking about very intentionally—about how Indigenous women are left out. Of course, myself being an Indigenous woman and seeing all of the battles that I had to fight, right? Just to have equity and realizing how much of a struggle it was. I have to work 10 times harder to get the same equality that men, even Native men, get.

 

I was also thinking about how Indigenous women have all of these solutions; they’re in the middle of their communities. They’re in the middle of their families, and they are the organizers. They’re the caretakers; they’re the culture bearers. And I thought: This is where we need to focus, especially in the environmental movement. These are the leaders who need to be supported. Of course, this is also related to networks because when I won the Emmy, it opened up doors to some really powerful networks.

JENNI

Tell me about the Emmy.

SARAH

Crow: The Legend is another example of bridge-building. I’m very thankful to Baobab Studios, as well as John Legend and Get Lifted Studios, for the opportunity to work together and create a story that is about how the crow turned black. I feel the story shares a very Indigenous perspective because you enter a world of animals that are trying to save the Earth. And so it’s just amazing. You can watch it on YouTube.

 

This story is also connected to so many amazing influencers like Oprah, and Liza Koshy, and Constance Wu, and Tye Sheridan, and Diego Luna. I mean, just these incredible people who want their voices to help amplify the story and also connect it to Indigenous issues.

 

So it’s just another amazing, amazing example of doing something that’s unconventional, of working and thinking outside the box, and that is actually leading to much impact. And that’s really what I love about it.

JENNI

As we turn and mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day, what does this day mean for you, particularly at this moment?

SARAH

Gosh, it’s so hard to sum up because, you know, Indigenous Peoples’ Day has always been a celebration for us, of our survival and also of celebrating our culture. And I think this year, it’s even more of a celebration because so many of the issues that so many of us have worked on for so long are finally seeing light. Like in this crazy darkness of times, we’re also seeing action—like real action—behind these issues. There’s real movement. And I think for so long, so many of us have been fighting very diligently to make sure that we were heard. So for me, it’s definitely a celebration of the action and movement that is happening right now.

JENNI

Thank you, Sarah. I hope we can do this again—next time, to discuss that book you’re in the throes of writing. Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

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