We thought that you might want to learn a bit more about our new Executive Director, Autumn White Eyes, so we sat down and asked her some questions. Read all about it!
Can you tell us about your background and how and where you grew up?
I am Oglala Lakota on my paternal side, and Turtle Mountain Anishinaabe on my maternal side. I was born in Rapid City, South Dakota and my family and I moved to Pine Ridge when I was five years old and this is where I call home. I am an alumna of Red Cloud Indian School and this was a very important community in my life for my k-12 education. I went on to college at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire where I studied Native American Studies and English with a concentration in Creative Writing, and received my bachelor’s degree in 2014. I spent the next several years after college doing work in nonprofits both directly with youth and through development. I am recent graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Education where I received my Ed.M. in Arts in Education.
What was the experience or factor that most impacted your desire to continue in education?
At a young age, I saw my parents working diligently in college while also struggling to make ends meet with their four children. I was present for both of their college graduations and this set a high expectation of the importance of education. My father is a Lakota Language teacher and my mother volunteers in our community, so they both would emphasize the importance of education and giving back to our community. This really inspired me to continue to reach for my goals. I also had a few mentors and teachers who helped me along the way and encouraged me to apply to college.
What was the transition to Dartmouth College like?
The transition to Dartmouth College was difficult at first, because I attended a school that was thousands of miles from my home with a very different culture. The reason that I chose to attend Dartmouth was due to its large Native American community. While at Dartmouth, this community helped me to feel at home. I was lucky to also go to a school with a renowned Native American Studies program and was able to learn from Native American role models and mentors.
How were you introduced to spoken word poetry?
I was introduced to spoken word poetry through an opportunity to attend Brave New Voices in 2010 through First Peoples Fund. Before attending this poetry slam competition, I wrote poetry but was unfamiliar with the style of spoken word. Attending this large international poetry slam competition was my first exposure to the world of spoken word poetry. In 2011, I was a part of the first team from Pine Ridge to compete at Brave New Voices. Team Pine Ridge (Dances with Words) is now in its 7th year with Brave New Voices!
Why were you drawn to spoken word as a form of performance and writing?
I was drawn to spoken word because I felt that it was a very powerful artform to learn and empathize with other people. Spoken word reminded me of the importance of storytelling and passing down history through oral traditions, a practice that is a part of Lakota culture. When I performed spoken word poetry, I felt connected to the audience, and empowered to share my story and truth as a Lakota woman who experienced injustices growing up in Pine Ridge. I also felt that spoken word was avenue where I could learn about my personal experience in relation to injustices impacting Indian Country, and find healing through writing.
What do you gain from your work in the arts? Why is advocating for the arts important to you?
Advocating for the arts is important to me because of the impact that it had on my life. I think that the art can be a very important tool for connecting people, as well as learning about oneself and the world around them. I find that my engagement in artwork has been cathartic and thus healing for me. I also find that the arts can be an invaluable tool in education that can help students become well-rounded students and creative thinkers.
What drove you to apply for the position as Executive Director of LCE?
I was driven to apply to the Executive Director position because I was inspired by LCE in my past work through my role as a writing challenge judge. I was really energized by student participation, their artwork, and their writing, and wanted to continue to be a part of this type of work in a full-time capacity. I also saw that it could be a good opportunity to introduce more programming for youth on the reservation.
What do you want to be your biggest accomplishment in the new job? Where do you want to be in 5 years?
In my position as Executive Director, I hope that my biggest accomplishment will be to create more art education programming on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that will bring the community together and centers our Lakota youth as our future leaders. In 5 years, I hope to be growing the work of LCE and reaching more Lakota youth across the state of South Dakota. I also hope grow the team of LCE to make this possible!
Who do you root for? What is your favorite saying?
I am rooting for Indigenous peoples all around the world and support their work towards environmental justice and equal rights. My favorite Lakota phrase is Mitakuye Oyasin, which translates to “We are all related.” I love this phrase because it is a reminder that we are all connected to one another.
What advice do you have for Lakota youth? What advice would you give your 13 year old self– if you could travel back in time?
My advice for Lakota youth is to always remind yourself of your dreams and make that your motivation to continue reaching for your goals. To do this you can you write it down in your notebooks or post it in your locker, by seeing your dream frequently, you are reminded that you have big plans for your family, community, and for yourself. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help, because there are people in your community who care deeply about you and know you can do anything you put your mind to. I would give my 13 year old self the advice to keep being creative on the ways to give back to your community. I truly believe that social justice starts at home so that if you feel like that there is injustice or if you want to be heard, just keep speaking out loud and telling your story.
If you would like to support Autumn’s efforts, you may make a tax deductible donation at this link.