Climate and Indigenous Storytelling: an Interview with Sarah Eagle Heart

The breadth of Sarah Eagle Heart’s work is both stunning and inspiring. A member of the Oglala Lakota, Sarah is an activist, storyteller, and filmmaker who has devoted her life to healing trauma and supporting diverse communities. She’s worked with churches, corporations, nonprofits, and start-ups. Her background gives her a unique perspective on the ways the burgeoning world of climate storytelling is influenced by Indigenous storytelling traditions—and we had the great fortune to pick her brain on the matter. This is a condensed interview.

Can you talk about how Indigenous worldviews are connected to the Earth, and how that informs storytelling? For instance, the way the Gwich’in see the land as part of their bodies and spirituality and stories, instead of separate from them.

The Gwich’in and Alaskans, they’re freaking out, because their land is literally disappearing. I was reading a report recently saying, “We’re the ice people, who are we if we don’t have ice?” All of their ceremonies revolve around being the people of the ice. Identity is really interwoven with climate—think about the Black Hills: that was taken from us, but it’s still there, and it’s still our sacred place. If this were Jerusalem or Rome, it would be a different story. But when it’s Indigenous people’s shrine or sacred place, it’s more: “Oh, it doesn’t matter. You’ll be fine. We’re gonna build some humongous houses out there.”

We have dozens and dozens of movies about a dog being animated, right? But we don’t have a story that’s about a rock, an animated rock. My sister told me a story once about a rock that was talking to her. A rock that was smiling. You could ask this rock a question, turn it over, and then the rock would have a number on it. For her it was the number seven. She was like, “I didn’t just see that.” She turned it back over again, and it was deeper: seven. She turned it over again, thinking, “No, I did not just see that.” And when she turned it over again, it was smiling. There was a happy face in the rock, and she felt, “Oh my god, this rock really is telling me something.” She wanted to know when she would get this job—and the rock was like, “I said seven weeks.” And guess what happened?

Everything is tied together. Think about rituals, the rituals of seasons: thunder beings come around the summer solstice, which demonstrates how one season changes into another. It’s not just animals: the thunder beings return, and the dragonflies come back. All of these little things are very symbolic in our culture. Stories always reaffirm our connection back to our land and its symbols. So if I see a hummingbird, I might respond with, “Whoa, this hummingbird here, is there some kind of message I need to pay attention to?” Or, “Oh, there’s a crow sitting outside my window. I probably should be careful.” Or there’s the symbol of burning things. The ritual of burning sage, for example, is intertwined with all of Earth, because that’s where [sage] comes from. So when you ask us to separate it out, we can’t: it’s everything.

How do Indigenous creation stories connect to spirituality and humanity, as well as climate change? How do these stories connect to our larger storytelling structures?

[Creation stories] are thousands and thousands of years old, which means there wasn’t a direct link to climate change, because we didn’t have that back then. But for me, the creation stories are more about spirituality as a whole, and also about the connection to the Earth and why we need to take care of it. They’re conservation-motivated, and meant to help us know our connection to the Earth and all of the animals on the Earth. [They] were set up to ensure that our spirituality was embedded in them. And they’re oral—that's a big deal. Our people are actually super hesitant to tell Western, non-Native people these stories, because of colonization in our communities and religious persecution against our spirituality—we still remember the seventies, when we couldn’t practice our own religion.

There’s a lake in Nevada with a rock formation called Stone Mother, and the lake is Pyramid Lake. Pyramid Lake is a saltwater lake in the middle of Nevada, which you never hear about—the story behind it talks about a mother who had two children, two sons, and they would fight and argue with each other, so the mother had to send one to the south. And she cried because of all of this, and that’s how it formed, this salt lake.

We also have a story about how a woman brought the pipe to the Lakota people. The people were starving, and there were two scouts out on the plains when a woman came, all dressed in white, and one of the men saw that she was sacred. But the other man had bad thoughts, lustful thoughts about her. The guy with the bad thoughts, he turned into ashes. Then the woman told the other guy, the one who recognized that she was sacred, to go back in, to prepare, and that she would be there in four days. And when she came back, she was in the form of a buffalo that turned into four different colors. And that’s why they call her White Buffalo Calf Woman, and it’s also where we get the four direction colors from.

And she brought ceremonies: sweat lodge, sun dance, naming ceremonies, and the coming-of-age ceremony. She brought all of these to the people, and this is where our spirituality began. It’s thousands of years old, from the beginning of time, and our stories involve us emerging from the Earth. I always get irritated when I think about people in the scientific community who say, “Oh, no, you guys came across the Bering Strait.” Our traditions tell us that we emerged from Wind Cave, which is the longest cave in the whole United States, miles and miles long.

When you look back at our communities in connection to climate change, it’s interesting, because our identity is so wrapped up in these sacred places: our identity, our language is everything. And it is at a crisis level right now—we’ve lost so much because of colonization. We’ve lost languages, we’ve lost tribes, we’re losing stories that are embedded in our language. All of it is interwoven in policy and advocacy and spirituality and climate change. So I think for Native people, it’s also about protecting what we can, and about raising up and protecting those people that are actually caring for the rest.

There is the narrative that climate is the first existential crisis, while Indigenous people and Black people push back and say, “It’s not the first existential crisis for us.”

Well, as far as the existential crisis, no, it’s not the only crisis. It’s just one of many—colonization was a crisis. You know, we were being murdered, and decimated, and our buffalo were being killed. That was our food, our food, and the government said, “Let’s kill their way of life. Their life revolves around buffalo, so we’re gonna kill millions of buffalo that are so good for the environment, in order to stop these people from thriving.”

I personally think it’s not our responsibility to help heal all of it. I think white writers and non-Native writers have a responsibility to help us heal it, and tell those stories. And it’s a really big lift, to teach you all about, you know, our culture and our way of life. I’ve literally made a career of it—and I’m kind of tired of it. I know that I still have to do it. I think part of it is that it’s not just a one-off, it’s not something where you can say, “I want to study it over the length of a thirty-minute brown-bag lunch”—which I get a lot, by the way: invitations to host a thirty-minute brown-bag lunch at corporate functions.

We have so many amazing Black stories coming out—and we need Native stories as well. We’re caught up in being these stereotypical tropes, because nobody else knows any other perspective of a Native person. So that’s also part of it: letting Native people express who they are and their identity, but also not limiting it.

In what ways is Indigenous storytelling distinct from mainstream storytelling?

I used to get really irritated, because people would say, “Oh, you talk in a circular way, it’s all over the place.” Somebody said that to me once. I responded with something like, “I’m sure you probably think it’s annoying, because I talk really circular,” and he kind of laughed, like, “Yeah.” Why should I change the way that I think or talk? There has to be an acceptance of that circular storytelling, of sharing things in a way that is nonlinear. There has to be an acceptance of it, and the patience to stretch yourself beyond a Western structure and be able to say, “Okay, I can take in this knowledge, and in a way that is more organic.”

How could you apply that nonlinear storytelling to modern screenwriting?

I think it would be centered on a person, or a couple—an ensemble in a specific place, where you could dig deep into a story that isn’t a one-off. You let that person and that ensemble have time to develop the full breadth of their culture and their identity and their relationship, all at once. Versus, you know, “Oh, we’re all dying, and there’s a random Native person there.”

I think the reason I love creation stories is I love how open-ended they are. I love that they want you to actually learn the lesson yourself, so that you are transformed as an individual, so that then you will actually do something about it. And you learn that a lot of these stories are not about the individual. They’re about the collective. An elder was saying that, in white culture, doing something bad, getting corrected—it’s a bad thing, their feelings are so hurt. And in the Native community, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because somebody is telling you the right way to do it. You don’t just represent yourself, you represent the whole community. So we don’t want you to do it wrong, because you represent us.

It’s a part of reinforcing culture and traditions. My tribe in particular, Lakota people, we’re known for being really direct; we’re kind of a warrior tribe, one of the last warrior tribes. We’re pretty direct, and some people think that’s mean. I think every tribe has their own personality and culture that they reinforce. Understanding that every tribe, all 566 of them in the United States, has its own very unique identity and cultural traditions, is important.

Along with that open-endedness of creation stories, do you have any thoughts on how Indigenous storytelling, either the structure or the actual stories, might help us become more comfortable with the sense of uncertainty that climate change brings up?

Letting Indigenous people tell more stories and making people feel comfortable with those cultures, that way of life—that’s what’s going to make people more comfortable with the unknown. I mean, I feel I’ve been in the unknown for a really long time, and became really comfortable with it. But I know to wait for a sign, or synchronicity, and let it guide me. I think that people aren’t used to living their life that way—being receptive, waiting. And that is super uncomfortable, right? Because you’re really talking about your need to put everything in order.

In our world, nothing’s in order. Things that come to pass, you learn wisdom you’re supposed to know and find what you’re supposed to do. It’s all very much spirit-led versus us injecting ourselves into everything, our need to be linear. Nobody told you that you have to be linear.

It’s the propaganda emissaries. We’re all living in that propaganda, which is why it’s such a heavy lift to unlearn all the stereotypes and tropes. It’s literally interwoven in our songs: “This land is your land, this land is my land.” It’s interwoven in the historical stories of the founding of the United States. They would spread misinformation: “The Indian men are going to rape all the women, so watch out.” When, in fact, it was actually the military raping Native women. Stories and letters have come out about the Dakota men who couldn’t save their sisters: they were all in prison and they could hear their sisters being raped, but they couldn't do anything about it. All they could do was sing a song, to let them know that the Creator was still there with them. It’s still happening today with missing and murdered Indigenous women. Murder rates for Indigenous women are ten times more than the national average, and those attacks are linked to Big Oil and “man camps.”

It’s self-reflection. Native history has never been told—it’s been told mostly from a white perspective. And when you think about climate, about everything that’s happening right now—it happened because of a history of individualistic thinking. One person was more important than another person, or one community was more important. So we can dump a bunch of crap over there and we can mine over here, because the people don’t matter, only money does.

What’s your core advice for writing Indigenous characters?

Two things. One is, find a Native writer to work with. It’s not that hard. Ask, “How do I write this better?” I think it’s crazy that so many people are benefiting off of the land and resources of Native people, but don’t want to take the time to actually learn the stories about the communities they live in or the people that are there. So part of it is really helping to cultivate and support the talent that’s up and coming.

And then it’s about being flawed.  We don't get to be the villain, or we only get to be the happened-to-be-Native neighbor who gives advice. So much of this wouldn't be an issue if we had more representation, but we only get these certain tropes or these certain perspectives or stereotypes because there’s not enough stories out there.

✍️ Sarah Eagle Heart is an Emmy-winning social justice storyteller and member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Sarah utilizes her experience growing up on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to share and translate Indigenous world view for collaboration, partnerships, and social justice impact.