American Indian activist, author and educator Mary Ellen Brave Bird-Richard walked on at age 58 on February 14, of natural causes.
But for many of her comrades—stretching back to the 1970s Trail of Broken Treaties and the standoff at Wounded Knee—Brave Bird's struggle for her people will never be forgotten. Her story was immortalized in her American Book Award-winning 1977 memoir, Lakota Woman, which became a made-for-TV film.
“She was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known,” her 34-year-old son, Henry, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “She never went after anyone. She was a really kind, and a really private, person. She’d always teach us to have self-respect and honor. Both of my parents were raised by their traditional grandparents, and that’s how they raised us, too.”
Brave Bird was born in 1954 on Rosebud Reservation, and grew up in poverty, often called a “half-breed” because her father was white. She attended St. Francis Boarding School, where she was forbidden to speak Sioux and forced into Christianity. But as a teenager, her life as an advocate began when she published a newspaper exposing her abuse in the mission school.
She married Leonard Crow Dog, a Sundance Chief and spiritual leader in the American Indian Movement, and had four sons and two daughters. Last year, she remarried, but her husband was killed in an automobile accident only weeks after the wedding, according to her son.
“The first time I saw her, we were at Wounded Knee,” New York-based photographer Owen Luck told ICTMN. “Leonard [Crow Dog] was talking to a bunch of us. Mary just came up and asked who I was and what I was doing there, out of blue. She was just like that—very direct, but very kind. She was very protective of AIM… What I remember most about Mary was she was very kind. She was incredibly loyal to Crow Dog. The word that comes to mind is steadfast.”
Reached at his South Dakota home—the site of annual Sundances known as “Crow Dog’s Paradise”—Crow Dog said Mary’s passion was always freedom for her people.
“From when Lakota Woman was born, she lived a traditional way of life,” he explained. “She respected the waters of life—of the generations. Mary protected the Indian generations of our national tribes. She read a lot of history. What brought her to that was that there is no freedom here in America for Native Americans.”
Brave Bird was buried in Clear Water Cemetery on February 24, on Rosebud Reservation’s Grass Mountain. And though she is remembered for her doting attention for visitors to Crow Dog’s Paradise, she carried inside her a story of suffering which she kept mostly to herself.
“One time she told me, when we were sitting around, what it was like to be raped in the mission school—the nuns had participated in this,” Luck recalled. “She had to trust you to do that. I remember having conversations… when people would come into the room she didn’t know, she’d become immediately silent. She didn’t talk a great deal until she got to know people.”
Luck, a non-Native supporter who kept in touch with Brave Bird in the decades since Wounded Knee, said her biggest lesson for him was how to balance anger at injustice with forgiveness.
“If anything, I learned from her—after Wounded Knee—that you have to have forgiveness,” Luck said. “Of course, there’s still an enormous amount of anger. But I noticed Mary was very, very quick to forgive. I’m not that forgiving.”
For her son Henry, Brave Bird’s legacy is one that affected many. She published her second memoir, Ohitika Woman, in 1993, as well as a book on educational abuses, Civilize Them with a Stick.
“My Mom really opened a lot of doors for Indian country,” Henry said. “When they were going to close our Indian schools, she stood up to the U.S. government and told them, ‘We need Indian education, for Indians.’ She’s pretty well known in Indian country. She did a lot of good things for the tribes. Now it’s official: Her work will go into the future.”