Mary Crow Dog (aka Mary Brave Bird) – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

Mary Crow Dog (nee Brave Bird).
September 26, 1954 – February 14, 2013.
Sicangu Lakota.
Mother, grandmother, activist, writer.

Beginning on February 27, 1973, the leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and 200 Oglala Lakota people occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota for 71 days. This action was a result of the failed 1972 protest known as the Trail of Broken Treaties. AIM activists chose Wounded Knee as the site of their protest as it was the site of the massacre of 300 Lakota men, women, and children by the US Army in 1890. Mary Crow Dog was one of the activists that took a stand against the corruption of Tribal President Richard Wilson, the broken treaties between the US government and First Nations, civil rights abuses and more. She was 18 years old and would give birth to her first child, Pedro, during the occupation, in the midst of a firefight. She was given a new name, Ohitika Win (brave woman), and an eagle plume was fastened in her hair.

I first learned about Mary Crow Dog (nee Mary Brave Bird) in my North American Indians class. We were assigned her memoir Lakota Woman and I was both horrified at the abuses she, and other American Indian women, suffered and amazed at her strength and resilience.

Mary was born on September 26, 1954 on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her father, Bill Moore, who was part Indian and part white, left her mother, Emily Brave Bird and her older siblings shortly after Mary was conceived. Emily was trained and found work as a nurse in a hospital hundreds of miles from their home. Mary and her siblings were primarily raised by her maternal grandmother, and her second husband Noble Moore (father to Bill Moore). The family of nine lived in a one-room shack with out electricity, plumbing or running water. Money was scarce so Grandpa Moore hunted to put meat on the table. Like most Indian children at the time, and like her mother and grandparents before her, Mary was sent to boarding school run by the Catholic missions. Though these schools are not the horror show they used to be, where children had the “Indian” beat out of them literally and figuratively. The majority of these schools have since closed over the past twenty plus years, and those that do remain open have incorporated Indian language and culture into the curriculum.

Mary heard Leonard Crow Dog, one of the founders of AIM, speak in 1971 and was inspired to join the movement. She was 18 years old and had already suffered many hardships and abuse at the boarding school. She was raped at the age 15 but never reported it as these crimes were rarely investigated, if the girl reporting the crime was even believed. She turns to alcohol, drugs, and petty theft as she drifts through life. Listening to Leonard Crow Dog, whom she later married, gave her the connection with her native heritage that she struggled to feel as a child. She began to learn more he religion of her ancestors, the language, culture, and took part in many rituals for the first time. The Crow Dog family were traditional Sioux and did not immediately accept Mary, who was an iyeska (half-blood). This was a stigma that Mary had to live with all of her life, from both the “full-bloods” on the reservation and the whites in the surrounding towns. It’s not until she participates in the sacred Sun Dance after Leonard’s release from prison that she feels she is “wholly Indian”.

Lakota Woman, Mary Crow Dog’s first memoir, was published in 1990. Her second memoir, Ohitika Woman, was published in 1993. It picks up where Lakota Woman ends in 1977 and continues with her life story. She talks about her friends, women like Annie Mae Aquash, who was raped and murdered (the official report states that Annie Mae died of exposure and does not mention the .38 caliber slug in her head). She discusses the role of the US government and offices like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI in the abuse of Native Americans, systemic racism, and the living conditions on the reservations. Mary also talks about gender roles and the Indian identity.

Not much is written about Mary Crow Dog after the Wounded Knee Incident but she continued to stand up for her people, whether it was to advocate for teaching Indian children their heritage or protesting environmental abuses. Mary remained well known was admired by many in her community and beyond.

I grew up ignorant of the history of North America prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Native American, or American Indian, history was not really taught in our K-12 history classes, at least not in regards to their interaction with white Europeans. Most of the more tragic interactions were glossed over as to not vilify actions against American Indians by the US government. It wasn’t until I was in college, studying anthropology and North American archaeology that I finally started to learn about, and had to accept, many hard truths about my country that was already alive with people and culture for thousands of years prior to European immigration (occupation). Mary Crow Dog, Patricia Bellanger, and Annie Mae Aquash are just a few of the Native American women that fought for justice that we learned about that semester. I encourage all of you to learn more about them, and others, for yourself.

Let’s make our stand at Wounded Knee, because that place has meaning for us, because so many of our people were massacred there. If you guys don’t want to do it, we women will, and you men can stay behind and mind the kids.

― Mary Brave Bird, Ohitika Woman

Written by Traci DiSalvatore (she/her) from Boston, MA, USA. Follow her on Instagram! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.

Sources and further readings:

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