Focus on Famous
American Indian Women:
Mary Brave Bird
Brave Bird dictated her life story in the two books
Lakota Woman and
Ohitika Woman to Richard Erdoes, a
photographer and illustrator who himself became involved in political
activism through having taped and transcribed her story. In these two
books, written 15 years apart, Brave Bird told how the American Indian
Movement (AIM) gave meaning to her life.
Lakota Woman, written under the name Mary Crow Dog, portrays her life
from her birth to 1977, and Ohitika Woman
written under her current name of Mary Brave Bird, covers events up to 1992
and adds new details to the earlier history.
Mary Brave Bird’s mother, Emily Brave Bird, had been raised in a tent in the
village of He-Dog on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, then taken to
St. Francis Mission boarding school where she was converted to Catholicism.
While she studied nursing in Pierre, South Dakota, her four children were
raised by their grandparents. Robert Brave Bird trapped in the winter and
farmed in the summer. He was a descendant of the legendary warrior Pakeska
Maza (“Iron Shell”), who became chief of the Wablenicha (“Orphan Band”) of
the Brulé or Sicanju tribe of the Lakota Sioux.
Growing up on the Rosebud Reservation, Brave Bird faced poverty, racism, and
brutality from an early age. Although she descended from a distinguished
family, she was not taught a great deal about her heritage. Her mother
would not teach her her native language because, she said, “speaking Indian
would only hold you back, turn you the wrong way.” She was sent to St.
Francis Mission boarding school at the age of five, where she reported that
nuns beat Indian students who practiced native customs or spoke their native
languages. She later ran away from the school and began her teenage life
drinking heavily and getting into fights.
While still a teenager, Brave Bird became involved in the protest
activities of AIM, where she began to find new spirit and meaning in being
Indian. In 1972, at the age of 16, she participated in the Trail of Broken
Treaties march on Washington, D.C., after which protesters occupied the
Bureau of Indian Affairs building. At that time, Brave Bird met Leonard
Crow Dog, a Sioux medicine man who was active in AIM and taught her much
about Indian traditions. They were married the following year.
In February 1973 in Custer, South Dakota, Sarah Bad Heart Bull protested the
release of the murderer of her son, Wesley Bad Heart Bull, and requested
AIM’s help at the Custer courthouse. When AIM protesters in Custer learned
that the police had used violence on Bad Heart Bull’s mother, they rioted.
The riot was followed by a meeting attended by medicine men Frank Fools
Crow, Wallace Black Elk, Henry Crow Dog, and Pete Catches, all there to
consider how to protest this incident. At the time the Pine Ridge
Reservation was calling for AIM to help protest the corrupt rule of Richard
Wilson, the elected chairman of the reservation. Two elders suggested that
they take a stand at Wounded Knee, where the U.S. cavalry had massacred
hundreds of Sioux in 1890.
On February 27, under AIM leadership, a group of Native Americans, Brave
Bird and Crow Dog among them, did take a stand at Wounded Knee. They dug
trenches, put up cinderblock walls, and became warriors. The siege lasted
71 days. On March 12, surrounded by armored cars spewing bursts of gunfire,
a declaration was drafted for the independent Oglala Nation proclaiming its
sovereignty. Two Native Americans were killed, and many were wounded.
Leonard Crow Dog treated the injured survivors with medicinal herbs; he led
sunrise prayers and brought back the Ghost Dance for which his ancestors had
been slaughtered in 1890. For four days, and for the first time in 80
years, on sacred ground, they circled a cedar tree, dancing in the snow.
On April 11 Mary Brave Bird’s baby was born. She named him after Pedro
Bissonette, a man who was killed by the tribal police for having founded the
Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO). The terrorist reprisals by
Wilson’s “goons” (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) resulted in the deaths of
250 people, many of them children, on the reservation. Among those murdered
was Delphine, Leonard Crow Dog’s sister, who was beaten to death.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) played a crucial role in Brave Bird’s new
life. Without the organization, she lived in poverty and despair, coping
with alcoholism, domestic violence, joblessness, and hopelessness. Within
the movement, she felt a sense of purpose. The alliance that AIM members
made with the traditionalists restored for them their own ancient ways.
Meanwhile, the tribal elders were given back their traditional roles as
communicators of their culture. Brave Bird, sober, working for the cause,
was heroic. She learned from her work in the movement that pan-tribal
(involving Native people from all tribal lines) unity can give spiritual
power to even those who are treated as the dregs of society. She described
the movement’s ability to strengthen Native communities in her book
Lakota Woman, which became a national
best-seller, won a movie contract, and earned the American Book Award for
Both Lakota Woman and
Ohitika Woman retell the ancient myths
and explain the meanings of many Native American ceremonies. As Brave Bird
wrote, “AIM made medicine men radical activists, and made radical activists
into sundancers and vision seekers…. It restored women’s voices and brought
them into the tribal councils.” But while
Lakota Woman is a breathless first-hand account of AIM’s early
demonstrations from the perspective of a teenager who had been involved in
heady events, Ohitika Woman presents
them from the viewpoint of a mature woman, adding needed historical
Brave Bird’s life did not necessarily become simpler with her new outlook,
however. Even the large gap between their ages—Mary was 17 and Leonard was
31 when they married in 1973—was less of a problem than their cultural
differences. Leonard had to teach Mary the ceremonies, the use of healing
plants, and reconcile her to the role of a medicine man’s wife. This
involved feeding multitudes of uninvited guests at the feasts following
every service. It also meant never getting enough rest; as tribal
counselor, Leonard Crow Dog was always on call, traveling constantly, and
taking his family along when he was summoned. Since he did not charge for
healing, and gave everything away, there was never enough money to feed the
family. Brave Bird raised seven children. In addition to Richard, Ina, and
Bernadette from Leonard’s first marriage, she had four more with him:
Pedro, Anwah, June Bug, and Jennifer Louise.
On September 5, 1975, with helicopters whirring overhead, 180 agents broke
into Crow Dog’s home and took him away in handcuffs. After three trials, he
was sentenced to 23 years in prison for his political activities. Brave
Bird addressed rallies to raise funds, but it took contributions of $200,000
from friends, Amnesty International, and the World Council of Churches to
get him out of prison. Famed activist attorney William Kunstler argued on
his behalf. At Lewisburg Penitentiary Crow Dog’s cell was so small that he
could not stand upright in it, while authorities at Leavenworth tried to
disorient him by keeping a neon light glaring 24 hours a day. Filmmakers
Mike Cuesta and David Baxter made a documentary about his imprisonment, and
as a result a number of celebrities rallied to his support. When he
returned to Rosebud, the entire tribe welcomed him with honoring songs.
many separations and reconciliations Brave Bird and Crow Dog divorced.
Brave Bird married Rudi Olguin, a descendant of Zapotecs, Mexican Indians,
on August 24, 1991, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Together they had a daughter,
In her books Brave Bird tells what it means to be a Sioux woman—caught
between the forces of tradition and the feminist movement, often subject to
sexual harassment and degradation. In
Ohitika Woman, she speaks about her recurring problems with alcohol
abuse, and the healing she has found in the Native American Church. Still,
like many other feminists who are also Native Americans, she tends to place
the economic, political, and legal struggles of Indian peoples before the
pursuit of women’s rights.
Native North American Biography
edited by Sharon Malinowski and Simon Glickman