Lakota Woman, the (real) life of Mary Crow Dog

12 Oct

The cover shot from the book, a portrait of Mary Crow Dog

Lakota Woman, is the autobiography of Mary Crow Dog (nee Brave Bird), a Lakota Sioux from South Dakota. From growing up fatherless in a one-room cabin without running water or electricity, to the stand-off at Wounded Knee in 1973 (during which she gave birth to her son), to her marriage to medicine man and activist Leonard Crow Dog, we follow Mary as she struggles with race, spirituality, pride, and her place in the world as an American Indian.

Reservation life makes living in the projects look like a good deal. The disenfranchised Lakota are being slowly stripped of the last of their culture by the government, and all that is available to kids growing up on the res is alcohol, shoplifting, and general troublemaking. The missionary school is harsh and teaches the children no usable skills, but there is no other option. But when the American Indian Movement of tribal pride sweeps the nation in the 60s and 70s, it lights a fire in Mary and another way opens up to her. Through a retaking of the old traditions of the Sun Dance, the vision quest, and peyote, she becomes a part of the biggest Indian rights movement, and gains control over her life at last.

Mary is hard-as-nails and whip-sharp. As a kid, she’s a troublemaker, but with AIM she becomes a revolutionary. She takes part in the Trail of Broken Treaties and the ensuing occupation of the ineffective and generally hated Bureau of Indian Affairs in D.C. She speaks out against the mindless degeneracy of Indian kids on the res, and against the common (that is to say, white) conception that the AIM is full of dangerous radicals. Her most powerful trait is that she sees clearly what the way of life offered to her is, and she chooses to make her own.

This is the first autobiography we’ve touched on, and I think this book is the more important for it. Here is a real life heroine (still living in South Dakota) who not only stood up in action, but wrote about her fight and took it to a larger scale – this book was actually taught to me in a class on World Religion. And her fight isn’t solely for rights, but for respect. Her story centers around the Sun Dance, a traditional religious ceremony for good health and fortune, which involves – among other things – ritual piercing of the arms, back, or chest. I have to admit, the pictures of the ceremony grossed me out, but Mary’s point is not to get me to like it or want to do it. Instead, she hopes for people to understand the sacredness of the tradition, and to leave the Lakota to the Lakota. Her traditions are just as important as anything that came over on the Mayflower.

The most poignant part of the book isn’t about Mary at all, but rather about Indian life in general. Traditionally, the roles available to men in the tribe were warrior or shaman, but thanks to the police, the government, and the laws of this country, the role of warrior has been destroyed. Indians can no longer hunt, nor can they protect their tribes. The only way they can be warriors is to get drunk and get in fights, which just leads to a vicious cycle. And it isn’t just the men, either. They are meant to owe their allegiance to a government that has eradicated their culture. This is what faces Mary. This is what is going on here, in our country, today.

So check out Lakota Woman, and her second book, Ohitika Woman for a poignant look at a real-life bad-ass girl who fights against ignorance and intolerance on your very doorstep. Recommended for upper-grade readers.

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