Between the police raids and government evacuation orders, it can be easy for those who only see newspaper headlines and Twitter’s trending topics to miss the fact that that the people protesting the Dakota Access pipeline haven’t just galvanized people around the world with their activism. They’ve also created a genuine community for themselves.
The Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp, where many of the protesters supporting the Standing Rock Sioux in their fight against the pipeline are living, is one of the most visible manifestations of that community. Despite the name, it’s not just a bunch of tents. It’s become a proto-city of sorts, complete with kitchens and infirmaries, and it’s populated not just by activists, but entire families as well.
It’s in this community that Alayna Eagle Shield, 27, founded Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa, the “Defenders of the Water School”—a volunteer run, donation-dependent educational center that serves Očhéthi Šakówiŋ’s children whose parents have come to the camp to protest the pipeline’s construction.
Describing itself as “a resource school providing support for parents who choose to supervise their children’s home education,” Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa offers lessons for children in Lakota language and tradition, as well as more standard subjects.
“The kids are between about 7 and 13 years old,” Alayna Eagle Shield explained over the phone. “There are anywhere between 25-35 kids at a time and that is mainly due to the fact that some families stay for two weeks, some stay for three, some just come for the weekend. They have a plan for that.”
Eagle Shield, 27, is the Language Specialist at the Language and Culture Institute on the Standing Rock reservation. She is also earning a Masters degree in public health at North Dakota State University, where she specializes in Native American issues.
Like much of the community that has sprung up around the Standing Rock protests, Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa grew organically out of an effort to identify what the camp needed.
“I had gone into each and every camp at the very beginning when the camps first broke out and had started to create a list of resource people,” Eagle Shield said. “So if you knew how to bead, if you knew how to sew, if you knew how to speak a language, if you knew a traditional story or traditional songs, or any kind of knowledge that you knew, if you were willing to share it then I asked them if they were would be a resource.”
Throughout that process, Eagle Shield explained, “grandmas and aunties had reached out and said ‘what about our kids? We need to do something with our kids.'”
A typical day at the school starts at around 10 AM, with students participating in project-based learning with volunteers who teach everything from first aid to plant medicine to buffalo ecology.
“We were donated some tablets and so what the kids are working on now is a documentary about their experience,” Eagle Shield said. “We don’t want to be the ones telling the kids how to feel. We’re just sharing their own history, their own languages and culture, with them. And they get to interpret however they feel about that. However the camp makes them feel. Whatever they learn from people.”
As idyllic as this may sound, the school does not shy away from what is happening nearby—nor the violence that sometimes occurs as a result, though Eagle Shield stressed that no danger has entered the camp itself.
“We let them read articles and watch videos from our local papers and things like that, that are definitely biased. And we just help them to break apart the history and why this is happening in this day,” she said.
Eagle Shield said she would like to see Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa turn into a more permanent fixture, like a charter school or a long-term tribal school. She said this is a particularly important undertaking given what she sees as failures on the part of the Bureau of Indian Education, the federal agency that oversees learning needs among native peoples.
“We have children who have a lot of trauma in our communities. We have children who have different learning styles. And all state schools and BIE schools are western in their thinking. And it also leaves out the narrative of who they are. That is not okay,” she said.
While a permanent iteration of Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa may still be a ways off, Eagle Shield has already seen the school’s positive impact on her community.
“When it first started, these kids were so embarrassed to say anything in our language. They didn’t know much history, they didn’t know many stories or songs,” she explained. “But now they’re so proud to speak Lakota when they meet people and they also walk throughout camp singing all the time. They made hand drums with this guy who came and taught them. And they just walk around singing. It’s so beautiful.”