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Autumn White Eyes – Changing the Narrative

November 9, 2017


Photo by Angel White Eyes '08

 

As a high school student at Red Cloud, Autumn White Eyes found her voice by writing. Through poetry she explored her experience and identity as a young Lakota woman—and found strength using her voice to address the injustices facing indigenous nations like her own.

Autumn continued to explore those themes at Dartmouth College, majoring in both Native American Studies and English. And although at one point in her life she dreamed of serving her people as a physician, she soon realized that she could also create powerful change as an artist and activist.

After completing her master’s degree in Arts Education at Harvard, Autumn has taken on a new role as Executive Director of Lakota Children’s Enrichment, a dynamic Pine Ridge-based nonprofit organization. Her goal now is to help Lakota youth find their own voices—and to empower them to become leaders, in their community and in the world.

 

 

 

Looking back, what was important about your education at Red Cloud?

Having our culture and language be a central part of that community experience was really powerful too. Learning to speak Lakota was incredibly important to my development as a Lakota woman. Because of our history, there is a lot of shame associated with speaking our language. But our teacher Philomine Lakota, who is an elder in the community, created an atmosphere where students were encouraged to speak the language out loud and to not to be ashamed of it. It was a welcoming, safe environment in which we could all share our personal stories.

When I went off to college at Dartmouth, I felt like my culture and my language were ingrained in who I am as a person. It really grounded me, in my academic schoolwork but also in finding and pursuing my own dreams and goals for the future. I think knowing our history, our culture, and our language helps us to know our identity—and grounds us in who we are and where we're going.

How did your love of writing and poetry emerge?

Growing up I wrote poetry here and there, but I started writing more regularly when I took a creative writing elective class in high school. Our teacher really pushed us to read our work aloud at least once a week—and that helped me get onto the road of writing more and being comfortable sharing my work.

During my senior year at Red Cloud, I read one of my poems at an open mic night—and it ended up that two rappers were there looking for Native students to take part in Brave New Voices, a major and very well-known poetry slam competition. Going to California and seeing Brave New Voices was really empowering for me—to see young people really expressing themselves and speaking out about injustices that they faced, surrounded by such a strong community of support.

Talk about your time at Dartmouth.

I think this comes up a lot for Native students, but when we go to predominantly white institutions for college, we are met with a lot of ignorance about Native culture and people. It was really difficult for me at first—a lot of people would ask me questions about living on the reservation and they would assume that I got money from the government and that I lived in a tipi. It's a common experience for a lot of Native students.

But one of the things about Dartmouth that helped is the large Native American community on campus. There’s a Native American house on campus and a great Native American Studies Department. Through those, I really found community at Dartmouth—I was able to connect with other Native students who I felt like I could go to if anything got challenging. In academics, I double majored in Native American Studies and English, and by studying both I was able to focus on Native authors like Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich.

All of that helped me to feel comfortable going to school there. And ultimately, I think that being grounded in my culture and my community here at Red Cloud allowed me to seek out that community at Dartmouth and to be proud of who I am as a person.

 

Autumn hosts a TEDxYouth event in Rapid City, SD. Photo by Angel White Eyes '08

 

What drew you to your graduate program in Arts Education?

In high school, I actually wanted to be a pediatrician—because I felt like Lakota youth needed a lot more support and care on the reservation. But through my work with Brave New Voices, I got more and more connected with a community of artists and activists who were providing that grassroots support and empowering young people through arts-based education. And because I myself identify as an artist, I became really focused on being able to create those opportunities for Lakota youth here on Pine Ridge.

The arts and education program at Harvard is fairly broad in nature—I think it’s meant to have a broad mission so that artists from any background can come to this program and learn about bringing activism and arts education into communities. I got to work with artists every week who come from different places but all believe in the same thing—in the power of bringing arts into education. That’s what drew me to the program, and I really loved it.

What does it feel like to graduate from Harvard?

It was an amazing a thing to be able to share that experience and to share Harvard’s campus with my family, who came to see me graduate. I’ve spent a lot of time on the East Coast now, but it’s still sort of a shock to have graduated from Harvard!

Talk about your new position at Lakota Children’s Enrichment—why is this work so crucial?

Our mission to amplify the voices of youth by providing them with arts education, leadership, and mentorship opportunities. One of the greatest things about this organization is that we partner directly with youth to make our work happen. Many of our programs, like the writing and art contests we facilitate, were created because youth had the idea for them in the first place. And I really love the idea of being able to show our youth that their ideas are powerful.

The reason that this work is so important is that many of our youth’s lives are not being enriched. Our communities are stricken with poverty, and one of the things that our youth really struggle with is suicide and depression and the stigma around mental health. I think it's hard to talk about in our community when we lose someone. So being able to provide a space for youth to express themselves is so important.

But more than that, we want to provide a space where youth can come together and feel empowered to work within their own communities—to give back and become leaders and mentors. I think having mentors is so important for the well-being and health of our youth so that we can see ourselves in jobs and in places where we might not have seen ourselves before.

 

Autumn with her parents at her graduation from Harvard University. Photo courtesy Autumn White Eyes.

 

Did you always know you’d come back to Pine Ridge?

I always wanted to come back and work specifically with Lakota youth. That's something that I've always thought about and has always been really emphasized to me within my family and community, and also at Red Cloud.

Being able to go off and get an amazing education and then come back to support our youth and community is really empowering. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with Lakota Children’s Enrichment. By giving directly to my community, I feel I’m helping to work toward rebuilding tribal self-determination and supporting our own sovereignty as a nation.

With the challenges that face Lakota youth, what makes you hopeful?

There’s a prophecy that the Seventh Generation—those who are just becoming adults today—will be the ones to create change and help us to prosper as native peoples. And I really believe that young people are ready to stand up and take care of our communities.

One of the things I think a lot about is the youth from Standing Rock who ran all the way to D.C. from North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline and raise awareness. Young people really started that movement—they are leading the change we want to see in our communities, reminding us that the earth is important, and our language and culture are important. That we want and need them for the next seven generations.

Above all, Lakota youth are very powerful. They are going to work toward sovereignty and self-determination no matter what, to ensure the future of our people. Our job is to do everything we can to support them.

 


 

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