Amid Dakota Access Pipeline protests, a makeshift Native school empowers young activists

STANDING ROCK INDIAN RESERVATION, North Dakota—For most students, going back to school means entering a classroom in a building. For those at Defenders of the Water School, however, it means walking into a teepee.

Students, there, learn typical subjects like math and reading—but also Lakota language and songs, drumming, and indigenous history. More importantly, they hear stories from elders who’ve converged on a group of camps near the Standing Rock reservation as part of a national movement to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from being built on Native treaty lands.

“It’s been a blessing to be here,” Savannah Begay, a volunteer at the school who travelled from Arizona to protest, told me. “I really like hearing the discussions of the kids. The other day, they were talking about the pipeline, and to hear what they had to say is something that I would never hear in a public school system at all where I used to live.”

From just a core group of 200 people setting up camp in April, to Labor Day weekend’s record number of more than 3,500 gathering near Cannon Ball, ND at the South Dakota border, the indigenous-led movement to stop DAPL has reached a fever pitch—and there’s no sign it will end anytime soon.

As a result, protesting families that plan on staying there for the long haul must arrange for their primary school-aged children, from kindergarten to grade 8, to continue getting an education at the camp. Defenders of the Water School, an ad-hoc institution based on a homeschooling model, provides just that.

A schedule posted outside one of the tents at Defenders of the Water School on Sept. 7, 2016.via Sheila Regan

A schedule posted outside one of the tents at Defenders of the Water School on Sept. 7, 2016.

Organized by a group of women, the school’s curriculum emphasizes indigenous language and culture in addition to core academic subjects. They came up with the idea after realizing that some protesters at the camp didn’t know indigenous traditions, such as how to handle a sacred pipe or what times to sing certain songs.

“Not everyone that showed up to the resistance had that knowledge,” Alayna Eagle Shield, founder of Defenders of the Water School and one of its teachers, told me. “I was going from camp to camp to see if anyone had that knowledge.”

The response was positive. Eagle Shield said people eagerly volunteered to share their expertise, whether it involved teaching about treaty rights, how to bead, or a language. And when the possibility of engaging children in a talking circle came up, many elders suggested starting a school, she added.

Eagle Shield acted immediately. Last week, she launched Defenders of the Water School, which is staffed with a mix of volunteer and certified educators. Every weekday, students arrive between 8 and 9 a.m. and eat breakfast. They start with an art activity, followed by prayer, singing, or drumming, depending on the day. Then the students, grouped together based on their grade level and interests, work for a two-hour academic block; according to a recent schedule, subjects offered include reading, writing, Lakota, and math. After that, it’s lunch, a physical activity (there are plans to offer lacrosse soon), and community time for socializing and discussing what they learned.

“We’re really trying to make it about the history of the people, here, and using that as the basis for the education.”

On Wednesday morning, for instance, around 20 children and six supervising adults gathered in a large teepee to start the day. Exuding charismatic energy, Eagle Shield welcomed her students with an introduction that incorporated Lakota words. She then introduced an elder storyteller who told a tale about the importance of listening deeply to others.

Shawn’dai, a fourth-grade student, says the main difference between her school back home and Defenders of the Water School is that she receives Lakota lessons. “It’s pretty fun,” she told me, adding that this is the first time she’s learning the language.

The number of participating kids fluctuates from anywhere between 15 and 20 students, to as many as 35 students one day last week. About three-quarters of them are Native and mostly elementary school-aged, Eagle Shield said. (Due to limited resources, the school isn’t able to accommodate high school students.)

Defenders of the Water School gives special attention to families who plan on camping for more than several weeks. In addition to holding classes for all children and providing academic support, Eagle Shield and other teachers help them with paperwork to apply for homeschooling in their state if they aren’t already registered.

“We’re really trying to make it about the history of the people, here, and using that as the basis for the education,” Lee Knott, a teacher at Defenders of the Water School, told me.

Knott, who also runs an alternative school in Washington state called Sea School Cooperative, advises Defenders of the Water School on legal issues; these include complying with state homeschool laws, and setting up Sea School as its fiscal agent, which will allow Defenders to accept tax-deductible cash donations. While Defenders of the Water School has received tons of school supplies (which are kept in overflowing tents surrounding the teepee), it hasn’t gotten much in the way of monetary donations.

Defenders of the Water School volunteer Savannah Begay and teacher Lee Knott prepare for class inside a teepee on Sept. 6, 2016.via Sheila Regan

Defenders of the Water School volunteer Savannah Begay and teacher Lee Knott prepare for class inside a teepee on Sept. 6, 2016.

Dallas Goldtooth, Keep It In The Ground campaign organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, has been at the camp for two to three weeks. Goldtooth’s kids joined him over Labor Day weekend, and now attend Defenders of the Water School, which he sees as a unique educational opportunity.

“I live outside of Chicago,” he told me. “There are no Indians in that school district.”

“So this is something special to be in this place, not only for them to have the opportunity to get some homeschooling education taught by really quality and certified teachers, but they also have a chance to learn [Lakota].”

Signs posted in the overflow camp near Sacred Stone Camp on Sept. 6, 2016.via Sheila Regan

Signs posted in the overflow camp near Sacred Stone Camp on Sept. 6, 2016.

Back in April, protesters originally set up at Sacred Stone Camp, down the road from where the pipeline is proposed. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted permits to Energy Transfer Partners to work on the DAPL pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, as well as other tribes across North America, rallied to fight.

“It’s a fight to protect this river, this land, and the spiritual integrity of the river…and the cultural sacred sites surrounding it,” Goldtooth explained. “But it also has a part to play in the bigger climate-justice movement.”

The DAPL has a $3.8 billion price tag, and includes a plan to carry 450,000 barrels of oil per day from North Dakota to Illinois, according to its website. Opponents say the proposed pipeline could pollute drinking water if it leaks, and also crosses through sacred ground (e.g. ancient burial sites and places of prayer), some of which has already been demolished due to construction.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg temporarily halted work on the pipeline east of North Dakota Highway 1806, but allowed work to continue west of the highway, according to Indian Country Today. Then on Friday, Boasberg denied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request to stop work on the pipeline, making his earlier injunction moot.

Also on Friday, three federal agencies said they won’t allow the pipeline to be built on U.S. Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe. The Department of Justice, Department of the Army, and Department of the Interior requested that the DAPL voluntarily pause construction 20 miles from the lake. Lake Oahe, a large reservoir behind the Oahe Dam on the Missouri River, is south of the encampment, in both South and North Dakota.

“The fight for safe drinking water hits home for our children and our grandchildren,” Joye Braun, one of the original protesters who’ve been here since April, told me.

That’s why Braun, who previously protested the Keystone XL Pipeline, thinks having a school at the camp is so important. Educating indigenous children about their history, culture, and language, empowers them to take ownership over their futures, she said.

“They are leaders of the future.”