By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015

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Cecily Engelhart (Ihanktonwan and Oglala Lakota) has lived a life as though by design. Each step she’s taken opened up a path to the next one, leading her to the communications manager position at First Peoples Fund. But it started with a solid foundation from her youth.

Raising her in two separate households, Cecily’s parents aimed to work together to raise their daughter. She lived with her gentle, determined mother in Vermillion, South Dakota, and her warm-hearted, hardworking father in Greenwood, South Dakota on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. Her dad’s love for music, film and media helped to create the soundtrack of Cecily’s life.

“I credit him for helping me appreciate me how the world expresses itself,” Cecily says.

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Part of that foundation were her grandmothers. As a retired dietician, her paternal grandmother Madonna Archambeau (Inhanktonwan) shifted the patriarchal structures on the Yankton Sioux Reservation when she became the first tribal chairwoman. Cecily’s maternal grandmother Ellen Libby (Oglala Lakota) was a tireless learner, gaining her Ph.D. and working as a speech-language pathologist.  She eventually became a professor at Northern University and received a Bush Foundation fellowship to help prospective teachers learn about fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Seeing my Grandma Madonna elected was a lesson that even if the odds seem insurmountable, you have to put one foot in front of the other and keep building relationships that strengthen your communities,” Cecily says, “And my Grandma Ellen’s drive to understand how we communicate with one another taught me that there is such a power not only in language, but in all ways of expression. Communication shapes what we believe about each other, what we believe about ourselves, what we hold as our values. I think that is part of why I ended up in this field.”

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Her grandmothers, both powerhouse women, were foundational in Cecily’s life, feeding the desire in her to go to college. Her mother helped guide her along every step of the way, pushing her to finish high school and learn to navigate the demands of college, where she realized the power of the arts to promote social change.

Cecily was part of a team of Native students that created a short film with a title that played on the University of South Dakota’s diversity statement of “Everybody Belongs.” With the American Indian studies department located in a basement featuring duct-taped pipes and moldy walls, their video was titled, “Everybody Belongs…Out of the Basement.”

The next year, the American Indian studies department was moved to another facility — above ground. Though the school insisted the video hadn’t been the reason for the move, she was amazed at the stir it caused and the inspiration she felt from collaborating with her classmates. Motivated to keep learning, she applied for a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship which she used to investigate Indigenous issues on a global scale in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

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From there, she would meet someone who would change the course of her life through a single conversation. Another Rotary scholar mentioned a Masters program at the University of California Santa Cruz that combined social justice issues with filmmaking, meaning that the experience she had making a documentary with her classmates could become a career path.

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While filming her thesis documentary (Siouxtable Food), Cecily began with her home reservation, interviewing community leader Faith Spotted Eagle (Ihanktonwan). Then through connecting with other communities she eventually interviewed Linda Black Elk (Catawba), Karlene Hunter (Oglala Lakota), Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota) and Nick Tilsen (Oglala Lakota), the latter of which would later recruit her to the team at Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in Porcupine, South Dakota.

When hearing that Sean Sherman aka “The Sioux Chef” would be catering 2016 First Peoples Fund’s Community Spirit Awards ceremony, Cecily jumped at the chance to volunteer preparing food, helping with kitchen clean-up and gathering footage during the event. It was there she learned that Sean was First Peoples Fund’s first-ever culinary artist fellow and learned more about the work First Peoples Fund does.


Though it was hard to leave her Thunder Valley CDC family, the communications manager position at First Peoples Fund fit Cecily’s skill set, fusing together her passion for communication, expression and art.

“First Peoples Fund recognizes art as an integral, core element of our communities, inextricable from who we are,” she says, “Whether creating networks within and between communities or providing direct support for individual artists, it’s so inspiring to see how First Peoples Fund is really aware of how the work of artists and culture bearers ripples out to impact our indigenous communities. I’m excited to help share those stories.”