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Spotted Eagle hoping to defend South Dakota

Faith Spotted Eagle sits with 4-year-old grandson Tokana Spotted Eagle at the Brave Heart Lodge in Lake Andes. The boy’s full Lakota name is Tokana Ikpa Nejin, meaning First to Rise. His birthday is Sept. 4, sandwiched between the anniversaries of the Battle of White Stone Hill and the date Crazy Horse was killed. (Mark Andersen / Republic)

LAKE ANDES — Stories sustain Faith Spotted Eagle.

They define her, bind her to a purpose and give her strength.

The 70-year-old Lake Andes therapist became widely known for opposing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines. Her efforts garnered the national spotlight in 2016, when Washington state elector Robert Satiacum voted for Spotted Eagle, making her the first Native American to win an Electoral College vote for president.

Now as a Democratic candidate for South Dakota House in District 21, Spotted Eagle hopes her expanding fame will lead to further opportunities to defend the land, water and people.

"Somebody had faith in me," she said. "I run across a lot of people who recognize me."

She sees her role as that of defender rather than as activist. It's one her family expected her to play and prepared her to fulfill, she said.

"I was born into it," she said recently.

Spotted Eagle's family hid when Native children were concentrated at boarding schools, she said. That gave her unbroken access to a traditional culture, which fills her with the pride needed to persevere against overwhelming odds.

"It's been the story of my life," she said.

Vision is the last ingredient of a defender, she said.

Spotted Eagle will share the Democratic primary ballot on June 5 with Brian Jorgensen, of Colome, and Anna Kerner Andersson, of Burke. The top two will advance to the general election. District 21 comprises Bon Homme, Charles Mix, Gregory and Tripp counties.

Spotted Eagle's efforts against two pipelines that captivated national attention gets quickly into details. She talks of working with Bold Alliance of Nebraska, the Sierra Club, the Cowboy Indian Alliance, Dakota Rural Action, and the NoKXL Coalition. As a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, she worked through anti-pipeline treaty efforts with the Oglala Lakota, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and Canada's First Nations.

The litany is powerful reminder that it is one thing to espouse something and another thing to consult, strategize and garner the respect to lead.

The Yankton Sioux Tribe is still fighting the Keystone XL in Nebraska through its connections to the Nemaha Half-Breed Reservation, Spotted Eagle said.

One struggle leads to another, and it's been this way a long time for Spotted Eagle's family.

Her grandmother, she says, grabbed a horse to save her children during the White Stone Massacre of 1863 in present-day North Dakota. At White Stone Hill, Gen. Alfred Sully attacked a village of between 300 and 400 tipis housing about 3,000 Yanktonais, Santees, Sissetons, and Tetons, resulting in the deaths of about 150 Dakotas.

Her own earliest memory, Spotted Eagle said, is of sadness at White Swan, a Native community along the Missouri River inundated in the early 1950s by the creation of Fort Randall Dam.

"My earliest memory is of being down there amid the log cabins and seeing adults, the sadness and anger as they were being moved out," Spotted Eagle said.

She retells a favorite story of how her father told her as they fished along the Missouri banks that someday she would need to stand up against the wrongs done to her people.

Most Natives removed from White Swan went to Lake Andes, but Spotted Eagle's family owned land nearby. Her grandparents cared for her, and she grew up speaking Lakota, learning English later at the hands of a dedicated country school teacher.

That teacher recognized her intelligence and pushed her to excel, Spotted Eagle said.

Growing up connected to Native culture, she felt an expectation of developing the competence to care for her family, Spotted Eagle said, and that taught her discipline and organization.

Someday, she was told, she would need to embark on a zuya, a journey of discovery.

"Someday, I would have to leave and go find out what I have to do," she was told. Her family told her: "You're smart. Go be smarter.

"Get as much as you can — and hurry."

Spotted Eagle earned her master's degree from the University of South Dakota at age 24.

Her father served in the South Pacific during WWII, and it was his issues of post-traumatic stress, as well as her own survivor experience, that led her to counseling. Spotted Eagle has been a private consultant in PTSD counseling for veterans, as well as a school counselor and principal, and a Dakota language teacher at Sinte Gleska College.

In 2002, Spotted Eagle was part of efforts to halt the Corps of Engineers when construction workers unearthed human remains along the Missouri River

She ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in District 21 in 2006 after somebody talked her into running, but she didn't campaign. This time is different.

"A few years makes a difference in your patience," Spotted Eagle said of her decision to run again 12 years later. "I have a different level of acceptance of myself."

Spotted Eagle opposed the Keystone XL, she said, because polluting the Missouri River is the same as killing babies. Too many people today do not see the many connections that everything has with everything else, she said.

Her involvement in opposing the Keystone XL led her to be invited to the Standing Rock Reservation before the camp was erected there to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Native efforts at Standing Rock were later supplanted by a lot of young white people, she said, and many were trying to be Native.

"You can't," she told them. "Find out your own stories."

People, she said, have been robbed of their proudness because they have lost their spiritual stories.

Spotted Eagle believes she may become the representative of a legislative district with a minority Native population because of the "commonality we have as rural people."

Rural non-Natives also fear the threats posed by outside companies like TransCanada, she said.

"The rural nature of South Dakota is so enduring," she said. "We have something so old-fashioned good."

Spotted Eagle believes she can work with the Republican majority in Pierre.

"I have such a curiosity about people," she said. "There has to be common ground. We all have grandchildren. We have to bridge this in a stronger way for our grandchildren."