Lakota Woman

Mary Brave Bird (when she later marries Leonard Crow Dog her name changes into Mary Crow Dog) is a strong hearted, brave and resolute woman.

She is a Sioux, but only a half blood because her father is a part Indian, who by the way likes to drink and leaves her mother pregnant with Mary. So she grows up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota fatherless and as the youngest of six children. Mary's mother doesn't have luck with her new husbands at all. In 1954, when Mary is one year old, she divorces her second husband and the third she marries when Mary is nine or ten is a wino, who doesn't love his stepchildren and starts them drinking.

In order to earn money Mary's mother works as a nurse in Pierre, some hundred miles away. So she has to leave her children behind with their grandparents and because she doesn't have many chances to come home she can see them only rarely. Mary and her sisters and brothers are lucky to have good, warm-hearted grandparents, who gives their grandchildren as good a home as they can. The old couple raise them way out on the prairie near He-Dog in a sort of home-made shack. They have no electricity, no heating system and no plumbing. Their cabin is small and has only one room which serves as their kitchen, living room, dining room, parlour or whatever. Grandpa and Grandma Moore have only little money to take care of a large family.

[...] p.20. We had no shoes and went barefoot most of the time. I never had a new dress. Once a year we would persuade somebody to drive us to the Catholic mission for a basement rummage sale. Sometimes we found something there to put on our feet before it got cold, and maybe a second-hand blouse or skirt. That was all we could afford.

Mary's mother and grandmother are Catholics and grandma and just as her doughter has and would have done she tries to raise their grandchildren as whites, because like her doughter she thinks that is the only way for them to get ahead and lead a satisfying life. So she doesn't teach them the traditional way of life or the Sioux-language. If Mary wants to hear the old tales of warriors and spirits she goes to some relative traditional Indians like Elsie Flood, a niece of grandma and a strong turtle woman. She has a big influence upon Mary. In 1976 she is found beaten to death in her home. Her death never has never been investigated.

Like all Indian children Mary Crow Dog is sent to a boarding school and like all Indian children she hates it.

[...] p.29. Although the old tiyospaye has been destroyed, in the traditional Sioux families, especially in those where there is no drinking, the child is never left alone. It is always surrounded by relatives, carried around, enveloped in warmth. It is treated with the respect due to any human being, even a small one. It is seldom forced to do anything against its will, seldom screamed at, and never beaten. That much, at least, is left of the old family group among full-bloods. And then suddenly a bus or car arrives, full of strangers, usually white strangers, who yank the child out of the arms of those who love it, taking it screaming to the boarding school. The only word I can thing of for what is done to these children is kidnapping. Even now, in a good school, there is impersonality instead of close human contact; a sterile, cold atmosphere, an unfamiliar routine, language problems, and above all the maza-skan-skan, that damn clock - white man's time as opposed to Indian time, which is natural time. Like eating when you are hungry and sleeping when you are tired, not when that damn clock says you must.

Premature Mary quits school and then spends her time in reservation towns. When she is fourteen or fifteen she is forcefully raped by a good-looking young man, who is about twice her weight and a foot taller than she.

Together with friends she gets drunk and high and together with them she steals in storeshops. At that time she doesn't have any aims in her life. She leads a wild and restless life with her friends until she gets to know the American Indian Movement (AIM)* at a powwow at Crow Dog's place after a Sun Dance in 1971. There she also sees Leonard Crow Dog the first time, who holds an emotional, impressionable speech. After Mary joins AIM she stops drinking.

She gets married to an AIM member but the marriage soon breaks up. Birth control is against the Indian's belief and so her husband leaves her pregnant.

As a member of AIM Mary takes part in a huge protest march. Lots of caravans, each lead by a spiritual leader or a medicine man with his sacred pipe, go to Washington.

[...] p.84. Our caravan started from Wounded Knee. This had a special symbolic meaning for us Sioux, making us feel as if the ghosts of all the woman and children murdered there by the Seventh Cavalry were rising out of their mass grave to go with us.

The Indians want to organise a peaceful march on Washington to draw the attention of whites to their problems. Despite of their intention they take over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) - building and stay there for a week. They formulate twenty Indian demands, but these were all rejected. The police, who surrounds the BIA-building, gives ultimatums to evacuate it, but the Indians, who are all determined to fight and die for their culture, ignore them and prepare themselves for a fight. Also Mary Crow Dog is ready to fight and die in order to keep the old Indian tradition and customs alive.

Finally a compromise between the government and the AIM-Indians is reached, although the Indians can't achieve their aims.

[...] p.91. The government said they could not go on negotiating during Election Week, but they would appoint two high administration officials to seriously consider our twenty demands. Our expenses to get home would be paid. Nobody would be prosecuted. Of course, our twenty points of view, nothing had been achieved. As usual we had bickered among ourselves. But morally it had been a great victory. We had faced White America collectively, not as individual tribes. We had stood up to the government and gone through our baptism of fire. We had not run. As Russel Means put it, it had been "a helluva smoke signal!"

For Mary Crow Dog the happenings at Wounded Knee in 1973 started in Rapid City. When she is pregnant in her eighth month she takes part there in a demonstration of the Sioux against the racism for which the city has become notorious. During the demonstrations at Rapid City a lot of Indian get arrested. While fights between Indians and whites break out in Rapid City streets and bars, a Sioux by the name of Wesley Bad Heart Bull is stabbed to death by a white man in front of a saloon in Buffalo Gap, a small hamlet not far from Rapid City.

The case is tried in Custer and upon Custer converge many AIM end OSCRO* people to see justice done. In the early February 1973 they arrive in Custer, welcomed by a huge sign for the tourists: "WELCOME TO CUSTER - THE TOWN WITH THE GUNSMOKE FLAVOUR", on another billboard stands: "SEE THE PAGEANT, HOW THE WEST WAS WON!".

When the Indians come to know, that the murderer of Wesley Bad Heart Bull is only indicted for "second-degree manslaughter" and probably would go free, everyone is shocked and angry of not seeing justice done and so a fight breaks out, which lasts from morning until midafternoon. Many Indians, among them Mary's sister Barbara, are arrested, but not Mary. She leaves Custer to go back to Rapid City.

The AIM members don't have much time to rest because the OSCRO people in Pine Ridge need help against Wilson's* goons. But when the caravans arrive there, everything seems to be all right and peaceful again. So they don't know how to react - there is still no definite plan for what to do. First they all assume that they would organise a march to Pine Ridge* town, the administrative centre of the reservation, the seat of Wilson's and the government's power. But upon mature consideration the AIM people decide to go to Wounded Knee, because Pine Ridge is garrisoned by Wilson's goon, the marshals and the FBI and they don't want to be slaughtered by them.

On the 27th of February 1973 they arrive at Wounded Knee and begin to prepare the place for a fight.

[...] p.127. "Our message to the government was: Come and discuss our demands or kill us."

Mary Crow Dog decides to give birth to her baby at Wounded Knee in the natural way, because she neither wants to loose her child, nor be sterilised after delivery, like it has happened to her sister Barbara and to many other Indian-women. Moreover she doesn't want a white doctor touch her.

The two thousand Oglalas and members of AIM manage to hold out for 71 days. The protesters are surrounded by more than three hundred armed police and troops. The Indians want to set up a traditional tribal government and demand that the US should recognise the Sioux's rights under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1863. Although the government doesn't agree to everything they ask for, the siege draws the attention to the problems of Native Americans.

At Wounded Knee Mary Crow Dog also gets to know Annie Mae Aquash. This strong hearted and strong-minded woman becomes a very close friend of Mary. Years later this good person is found murdered in the snow.

Leonard Crow Dog starts to practise the traditional well known but now almost forgotten Ghost Dance* again at Wounded Knee in 1973.

In April 1973 Mary gives birth to her little son Pedro. Soon after delivery she leaves Wounded Knee roughly a week before the siege ends, after a relative of her is killed.

All in all two of the AIM men have been killed at Wounded Knee and many are seriously wounded. On the other side no one is killed and only one marshal badly wounded.

While Mary is arrested for 24 hours (nevertheless she has been promised that she wouldn't be) for taking part at the siege of Wounded Knee, her baby is taken away from her and she is afraid, that her son would be taken away into a foster home because of her poverty. But Mary is not going to give up her baby and so she finally gets it back after her release.

A week later an agreement is signed and the remaining people at Wounded Knee have to leave the place in handcuffs. They are taken to Rapid City jail by helicopter.

After Wounded Knee Mary becomes Leonard Crow Dog's wife against their parent's will. At this time she isn't even 18 years old, but Leonard already 31. In the following years she learns the Sioux - language and the way an Indian wife, especially a wife of a famous medicine man like Leonard (he is also a yuwipi* man) has to behave. At first it isn't easy for her to lead such a lifestyle. She is totally unprepared to the new role she has to play. Just married she can't cook and has to look after Leonard's children of his first marriage beside her own baby. In addition she has to serve the many visitors Leonard receives and often can't sleep because of the men's discussing during the night.

Because Mary is a half - blood, she is criticised by the relatives of Leonard and compared to Leonard's first wife. She isn't accepted by Leonard's parents and because she doesn't feel to be loved she gets sick after a while. After the reason for her illness is found out everybody is nicer to her.

With her husband she lives on "Crow Dog's Paradise", the Crow Dog's beautiful allotment land. This place is a settlement for the whole clan, the whole tiyospaye. There are two main buildings, the little, red OEO-house, in which Leonard and Mary with their children live and the big house, in which Leonard's parents live and which burns down under suspicious circumstances in 1976.

As Leonard is a medicine man Mary gets used to all rituals and most of them are practised at their place, for example the sweat bath*, the yuwipi*, the Sun Dance* or the Ghost Dance.

Because Leonard Crow Dog is a leader after Wounded Knee he is made responsible for everything that has happened during the occupation. On this ground he is sentenced to thirteen years. Leonard is also found guilty of two other incidents which happen at his home, nevertheless he has nothing to do with. At the end of these tree trials he is sentenced to twenty - three years imprisonment. He then is an inmate of several prisons and his wife always tries to be near him and fights for his release.

In prison Leonard is treated in a very bad way and he survives this bad time only through his spiritual power.

During her husband's imprisonment Mary is very busy. Because of the many transfers of Leonard in different prisons she travels a lot and comes to places which she never has seen before. She composes leaflets, talks to lawyers, newspapermen, organisation heads, makes tapes, holds speeches and takes care of her baby. Now she meets and learns to like white people, who are on her side. So she makes many new friends.

Finally she gets Leonard free with the financial support of organisations like the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, the Quakers, Amnesty International and so on and with the help of good lawyers.

So in spring 1976 Leonard is released on probation for three months. After these three months he has to go to jail for another year.

Leonard finally is acquitted by the judge, who has received many letters from all over the world pleading for Leonard Crow Dog. After Leonard is released he tries to live the way he used to. For both, Leonard and Mary, it isn't easy to live together as they did before Leonard was imprisoned, because they both are changed of the experiences they had during their separation.

Mary Crow Dog was 37 years old when she wrote this book, her husband was 50. She gave birth to three children additionally to Pedro, who has become a yuwipi man. Now she lives with her family in Rosebud at Crow Dog's Paradise.


* American Indian Movement (AIM) was born in 1968. Its fathers were mostly men doing time in Minnesota prisons, Ojibways. It got its start in the slums of St. Paul taking care of Indian ghetto problems. It was an Indian woman who gave it its name.

In the beginning AIM was mainly confined to St. Paul and Minneapolis. The early AIM people were mostly ghetto Indians, often from tribes which had lost much of their language, traditions, and ceremonies. It was when they came to the Sioux reservations that they began to learn about the old ways.

The AIM uniform was Sioux all the way, the black "angry hats" with the feathers stuck in the hatband, the bone chokers, the medicine pouches worn on our breasts, the Levi's jackets on which the AIM members embroidered their battle honours - Alcatraz, Trail of Broken Treaties, Wounded Knee. The AIM-people also made up their own songs.

* Peyote:

the Aztec word for the sacred herb was peyotl, meaning caterpillar, because this cactus is fuzzy like the hairs on a caterpillar. The Sioux word for medicine is pejuta (peyote sounds very close). It is certain that peyote came to the Sioux out of Mexico. In the 1870's the Kiowas and Comanches prayed with this medicine and established what they called the Native American Church. By now the peyote religion is common among most tribes all the way up to Alaska.

It is perfectly legal for Indians to buy and use peyote as a sacrament in a religious ceremony.

Peyote makes Mary Crow Dog understand herself and the world around her.

In peyote meetings all Indians who take part are told how to behave by grandfather Peyote. During these meetings all participants are united and receive their individual visions or dreams.

* Visions and dreams:

visions and dreams are very important in the Indian culture. In many tribes children in their early teens go on a vision quest. The children go out alone to pray and fast in an isolated place. After several days or nights they finally have a vision. An animal, often a bird gives them spiritual power and tells them how they would live as adults.

* Pine Ridge is the neighbour reservation of Rosebud, with which it forms a very big chunk of land, some two, three million acres. Both are Sioux reservations. The people speak the same language, have the same rituals and customs, and intermarry all the time. Most Rosebud people have Pine Ridge relatives. Pine Ridge Sioux are Oglalas - Red Cloud's and Crazy Horse's people.

* Dicky Wilson at Pine Ridge was about the worst tribal president of this type. In the early 1960s, Wilson and his wife had to leave the reservation after being accused of conflict-of-interest abuses while he was a plumber for the Pine Ridge housing authority. A few years later he came back and was accused. When he became tribal president he abolished freedom of speech and assembly on the reservation. He misused tribal moneys and took tribal ballot boxes into his basement and there "counted" the votes. Worst of all, he maintained his rule with the help of his private army, known and feared under the name of the goons. Opponents of his regime had their houses firebombed, their cars and windows riddled with bullets. People were beaten and shot. Pine Ridge experienced a rash of violent deaths, unexplained and uninvestigated. People were afraid to leave their homes. Most of the victims were people who had stood up against Wilson or had otherwise offended him.

* OSCRO (Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organisation) was an organisation against Wilson's regime, formed by the old treaty chiefs, medicine men, tribal interpreters and traditionalists. Its had was Pedro Bissonette, a close friend of Mary Crow Dog, who was later killed under mysterious circumstances by Wilson's goons.

*Experiences of Ghost Dancers: page 151.

* Sweat bath:

It is probably the oldest of all the Indian rituals because it is connected with the glowing stones, evoking thoughts of Tunka, the rock, our oldest god. The sweat lodges vary in size. They can accommodate anywhere from eight to twenty-four people. The floor of the little lodge is covered with sage. In the centre is a circular pit to receive the heated rocks. In building a lodge, people should forget old quarrels and have only good thoughts.

A man is after a prayer chosen to take care of the fire, to bring the hot rocks to the lodge, often on a pitchfork, and to handle the entrance flap. In some places men and women sweat together, but among Leonard's family, men and women do their sweat separately. Those taking part in a sweat strip, and wrapped in their towels, crawl into the little lodge, entering clockwise. In the darkness inside they take their towels off and hunker down naked. The rocks are then passed into the lodge, one by one. The leader has near him a pail full of cold, pure water and a ladle. Green cedar is sprinkled over the hot rocks, filling the air with its aromatic odour. Anywhere from twelve to sixty rocks can be used in this ceremony. The more rocks, the hotter it will be. Once the rocks have been passed into the lodge, the flap is closed. Now the purification begins. As sage or cedar is sprinkled on the rocks, the men or women participating catch the sacred smoke with their hands, inhaling it, rubbing it all over their face and body. Then cold water is poured on the rocks. The rising cloud of white steam, "grandfather's breath", fills the lodge. The flap is opened four times during the purification to let some cool outside air in, bringing relief to the participants.

Everybody has the privilege to pray or speak of sacred things during the ceremony. It is important that all take part in the ritual with their hearts, souls, and minds.

When there is a sweat bath with the purpose of suffering for anybody, very much stones are used for and so it's extremely hot.

* Sun Dance:

it is the most awe-inspiring of the rituals and occurs every year at the height of summer. In 1883 the government and the missionaries outlawed the dance for being "barbaric, superstitious, and preventing the Indians from becoming civilised."

There is set up a sacred tree in the middle of a place and at the height of the dance sick persons lie beneath the tree to be cured. The sun-dancers pierce themselves with thongs or buffalo skulls and dance around the tree to become their visions looking into the sun.

* Yuwipi:

it is one of the oldest, and also strangest, ceremonies. A yuwipi is put in motion when a man or woman sends a sacred pipe and tobacco to a medicine man. Some person wants to find something - something that can be touched, or something that exists only in the mind. The yuwipi man is a finder. He is the bridge between the people and the spirits. A dog feast is part of the yuwipi ritual, and dog meat is the holy food that is served at the end of the ceremony. The yuwipi man is wrapped up in a blanket, which covers him completely. Then a rawhide thong is wound tightly around the blanket and secured with knots. Then the yuwipi man is placed face down on the sage-covered floor. After the spirits have been come he would be sit in the middle of the sacred square - unwrapped and untied. He then tells the others what the spirits have told him.

[..] p.210 Almost at once the spirits entered. First I heard tiny voices whispering, speaking fast in a ghostly language. Then the gourds began to fly through the air, rattling, bumping into walls, touching our bodies. Little sparks of light danced through the room, wandered over the ceiling, circled my head. I felt the wing beats of a big bird flitting here and there through the darkness with a whoosh, the feathers lightly brushing my face.

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