By Jen Begeal
Introducing NYWIFT Member Sarah Eagle Heart!
In this interview, I sat down with Sarah Eagle Heart, filmmaker and social justice storyteller from the Oglala Lakota tribe on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Sarah shared with me her creative journey from writing a book with her twin sister about reflections of identity, to working with musical icon John Legend, to her latest feature film currently in theaters.
Can you start by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about your background?
I’m Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I was raised on the reservation and grew up there. I have really been focusing a lot of my energy in storytelling, in all sorts of forms.
You’ve labeled yourself a social justice storyteller on your website. Can you elaborate on what that title means to you and how it resonates with your work?
The term “social justice storyteller” was suggested by a friend when I was transitioning from the nonprofit sector to filmmaking. She said to me that I needed a brand and that everything I was doing sounded exactly like social justice storytelling. It just perfectly encapsulated everything I wanted to do—writing, producing, even my animated projects. It was such a great umbrella in which to hold all my projects under and it gives me the flexibility to move around in different sectors.
I am definitely a multihyphenate, and see myself as not only a philanthropic leader, but also as an entrepreneur, a filmmaker, and an author. For Native people, we often have to navigate different sectors to bring representation to our communities, so this title allows me that flexibility to do my work effectively.
I want to talk about your book, Warrior Princess Strikes Back: How Lakota Twins Fight Depression and Heal Through Connectedness. Can you tell me a bit about that?
The book was co-written with my twin sister, and it’s a coming-of-age story about growing up on a reservation. The book aims to teach Lakota laws, share our experiences, and encourage reflections on identity and self-love.
The title comes from a powerful experience my sister and I had in high school when we protested against a racially insensitive school event. It is really about Lakota women, the challenges that we’ve had to face from a young age to adulthood working in different sectors and our journeys through personal and professional relationships.
How do you incorporate Lakota teachings and spirituality into your film projects?
Integrating Lakota teachings into my films is essential to me. Part of it has been about being very vocal on the front end with these projects that I’m entering into, and making sure it’s the right team, that they’re actually going to be heard, and that they’re going to take into account the advice and the direction that I’m giving.
For instance, in Crow The Legend we emphasized the connection to animals as relatives through a virtual reality experience.
In Lakota Nation VS United States, I was very much on the front end. In fact, I didn’t say yes to the project immediately. It actually took me a month or longer for me to say yes, even after my friend Mark Ruffalo signed on. I advocated for spirituality to be at the core of the storytelling, specifically our connection to the Black Hills.
What are your hopes and dreams for the film?
Ultimately, my dream is for the film to contribute to the return of the Black Hills to the Lakota people. And if you grew up, like I did in South Dakota, on the reservation, you didn’t have a lot of access to the Black Hills. I want to film to make sure that the next generation understands our history and this connection, and that we continue to fight and to love this land that we’re from.
The film aims to educate viewers about the history and spiritual significance of this land to us, beyond that I hope it sparks a sense of responsibility and passion in the audience to support our fight for reclaiming what is rightfully ours.
How did you go from working in social justice to writing and then into filmmaking?
Well, I would say my pathway was a bit nontraditional. I started out in marketing and advertising at an Indian casino in San Diego right out of school and loved it. Then I ended up in Pensacola, Florida, working at a small church, quite by accident. From there, I ended up working on the staff of the first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Then another opportunity came, and it was at Standing Rock. At that time many non-native communities, influencers, and allies were suddenly awakened to the fact that they didn’t have a lot of knowledge about Native communities, and so at that moment, I realized that I was there to educate them.
It was after Standing Rock that John Legend asked me to come on board his project as a consultant producer Crow The Legend. That project was actually my first film project, and it went on to win a Daytime Emmy in five categories, which is crazy to me.
What advice would you give to young Indigenous creators seeking to break into the film industry?
First, educate yourself through various platforms, like masterclasses, online videos, and books. Seek out mentors and elders for guidance and ask for help when needed.
I also think that for young people if you’re interested in a subject area, like say, spirituality, it’s okay to go out there and try to find that pathway for yourself.
Building a strong network is so vital, so reach out to people and maintain relationships. Don’t be shy; your stories matter, and the world needs to hear them.
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