Dear Mitakyapi (“Relatives” in the Lakota language and is a traditional greeting),
Cante Waste ya Nape Ciyu zape ye (“I shake your hand with a good heart”). It was an honor to receive to the 2017 American Express NGen Leadership Award from Independent Sector at Our Common Future and Philanthropist of the Year at Potlatch Fund’s 15th Annual Gala in Suquamish, WA. To be recognized alongside so many individuals who I personally admire is at once somehow gratifying and incredibly humbling. I’ve been blessed to learn how how to utilize platforms for narrative change in my life, from being a teen activist, working at the Episcopal Church, to working with President Obama’s White House, America Ferrera, Bethany Yellowtail, John Legend, Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas, Women’s March, CHANGE Philanthropy, and Native Americans in Philanthropy.
To be recognized alongside so many I personally admire is at once somehow gratifying and incredibly humbling. I’ve been blessed to learn how how to utilize platforms for narrative change in my life, from being a teen activist, working at the Episcopal Church, working with President Obama’s White House, America Ferrera, Bethany Yellowtail, John Legend, Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas, to Women’s March, CHANGE Philanthropy, and Native Americans in Philanthropy.
I learned from a young age if you found the right people motivated by the intention to create impact addressing narrative change…pathways opens and magic happens. I am inspired by my great grandma and grandma who taught me WE are ALL related through the closing prayer of Mitakuye Oyasin (“We are all related”)! It did not matter your socioeconomic status, we are all humans striving for a better world for the next generation through our interconnectedness.
Being recognized by such great organizations meant so much to me, especially since I grew up in the poorest place in America – Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, with an absentee father and a mentally impaired alcoholic mother – but I was fortified with the resilience that grew through a connection with our culture and spirit. I don’t do my work in a vacuum and these awards are not only about me. It’s a culmination of the mentors, teachers and healers that I have been blessed to have in my life. My grandmother who kept me connected to our culture; my twin sister the professional counselor and reflective mirror, and others who have been so generous with their time, energy and knowledge. Every major project I’ve ever completed has been in collaboration with others. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am.
To me, these awards is a recognition that the work that so many Natives are doing on behalf of our people is having an impact, and being noticed as a result. Since the awards were announced, I’ve had many Native friends and family tell me I cried when you won, saying “it’s finally us!” I was taught that to help my people is the most important accomplishment, and I believe I have been guided by the Tunkasila (the Great Spirit) at each point in my journey to this exact moment.
But it is also a reminder of how much work is left to do. With socioeconomic indicators like life expectancy and infant mortality closely resemble third-world countries, and suicide rates that are through the roof, every day that I, and other leaders like me, don’t maximize is quite literally a matter of life or death for my people. So I ask myself (and Tunkasila) every day: what can I do and say to make people not just listen, but to act? We believe the way forward for us is rooted in decolonization – whether in advocating for tribal sovereignty and protecting our environment at Standing Rock, educating people about the destructive legacy of Indian Boarding Schools which inflicted cultural genocide on generations of our youth or bringing back our Indigenous worldview and teaching it to our youth. In my work, I tell everyone I encounter that they can help with re-righting these wrongs by understanding the strength of the Indigenous wholistic worldview, learning and taking ownership. I feel connected with this work and everyone I encounter through it; and I am gratified to know that our work will continue to intersect.
Wopila (deep gratitude),
Sarah Eagle Heart, CEO
Native Americans in Philanthropy