That teepee behind the row of flags is now a school where 30 to 40 children study the language and culture of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
That tipi behind the row of flags is now a school where 30 to 40 children study Lakota language and culture. SB

It's hard to catch a moment with Alayna Eagle Shield.

That's because Eagle Shield, a 26-year-old native of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, has been doing something that usually takes years, thousands of dollars, and a paid department of experts. In two weeks, and with little to no resources, she's started a school.

The logistics surrounding the school are also more challenging than most. Eagle Shield's school happens to be located in the middle of a camp where thousands of people from all over the country have come together to pray with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Every morning, the students—between 30 and 40 kids who are here with their families—gather at a tipi located near the entrance of the Oceti Sakowin camp. Among the native children learning at this impromptu school are some non-native children whose parents have also come to the Sacred Stone camp to show solidarity. The idea is that it's important for everyone to learn.

A few weeks ago, most of this was just a field of tall grass. Now, outside the tipi, there's a basketball court, a library, and a tent filled with growing donations of notebooks, teaching materials, toys, and markers.

An unspoken rule around camp is that the people working the hardest to make it hum rarely talk about their actions to reporters, and they rarely have the time to do so. The time I find with Eagle Shield is also the time she finally has a chance to eat, and now that's interrupted, too.

A month ago, Eagle Shield tells me, she was working as a language specialist at the tribal education department when she started seeing messages that pipeline construction would be starting in an area flagged as sacred to the tribe. "People were like, 'I'm going to camp here all night, they're not going to get through!'" Eagle Shield remembers. "And then Thursday morning I was at work and—"

The story is interrupted by a school volunteer. "Alayna, where's the binder for resources?"

"It's on the dash in the truck! So Thursday I was at work and people were sending messages like, 'Get up to the barricade! Get up to the blockade!'"

Eagle Shield did end up going to the site with about 30 other people. "It was just nonstop crying," she says.

The following morning, Eagle Shield returned to the site. Only one person was at the site when Eagle Shield got there at dawn, but as the morning wore on, more and more people showed up. They felt helpless, she remembers, until someone suggested that they go and sit at the gate where construction was set to start. Together, they held a prayer, and before long, the cops arrived and told them they had to leave. Eagle Shield was arrested that day, and released two hours later.

Mni wiconi means water is life.
"Mni wiconi" means "water is life." SB

Two days later, however, Eagle Shield was back at the camp. When the camp started, Eagle Shield had visited with people, and many of them told her that she should organize events with knowledgeable people to share protocols and traditional stories with children. So, just a few days after she was arrested, Eagle Shield started visiting each campsite to see if anyone there was willing to be a resource.

"[I was] seeing if they knew traditional stories, if they knew traditional songs, if they knew how to bead, cook—and I compiled a list."

But Eagle Shield took something else away from her campsite survey, too: stories of historical standoffs in which children were present and killed or forcibly removed by the US government. "That has happened to us before, so they were like, 'You should start a school,'" Eagle Shield says. "And I was like, 'Okay, we'll see.' And I ended up putting a schedule together, and one thing led to another, and we have a school."

It's important to Eagle Shield that the children staying at the camp with their families for the unforeseeable future of the pipeline construction have a grounding in the Lakota language and culture. She's currently pursuing her masters degree in public health, and she sees health and cultural identity as inseparable.

"I'm in public health because I definitely feel like language and culture are public health, and public health are language and culture, especially for indigenous communities," Eagle Shield says. "It really does sound cheesy, but those things really did save my life."

School started last week, took a break over the weekend, and launched again on Wednesday. The night before school, Eagle Shield was up late preparing at the Prairie Knights casino—the camp's unofficial wifi hub—and getting ready to teach in the morning.