Leonard Crow Dog, Spiritual Leader at Wounded Knee, Dies at 78

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He served time in prison after the 1973 occupation on the Pine Ridge reservation and dedicated his life to preserving the traditions of the Sicangu Lakota.

Chief Leonard Crow Dog in 2016. During the Wounded Knee occupation he cared for the injured and served as a mediator with the federal authorities.
Credit...Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune, via Associated Press

June 23, 2021

Leonard Crow Dog, a Native American spiritual leader who played a key role in the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota and who fought to preserve the ancient traditions of his tribe, the Sicangu Lakota, died on June 5 in Rapid City, S.D. He was 78.

The cause was liver cancer, a family friend, Barbara Dills, said.

The first clash between Native Americans and the United States government at Wounded Knee was in 1890, when federal forces killed hundreds of unarmed Lakota people. In February 1973, hundreds of Native American activists returned to the site, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, bearing a list of grievances and demanding that broken treaties be honored.

Chief Crow Dog was among them. He tended to injured protesters and negotiated with federal forces throughout the occupation, which lasted 71 days. He also held a traditional ghost dance ceremony at Wounded Knee to honor those who had died in the massacre nearly a century before.

Though the Native American occupiers eventually surrendered, the confrontation brought about a new understanding of the mistreatment of tribes by the federal government.

“I think that this was the greatest moment in my life,” Chief Crow Dog said of Wounded Knee, “and that our 71-day stand was the greatest deed done by Native Americans in this century.”

Leonard Crow Dog was born on Aug. 18, 1942, to Henry and Mary Gertrude Crow Dog on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, home to the people also known as the Sicangu Lakota.

His mother was one of the first female singers in the Native American Church, Chief Crow Dog said in his autobiography, “Crow Dog, Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men” (1995, with Richard Erdoes). His father was an eagle dancer who educated his son in rituals, prayers and songs.

Chief Crow Dog’s parents kept him out of American schools to ensure that he learned tribal traditions, he wrote. “When the truant officers came to get me, my father chased them off with a shotgun,” he recalled.

He was drawn to activism as an adult, joining the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.), an activist group founded in 1968.

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Chief Crow Dog, left, with his father Henry Crow Dog, center, and Chief Frank Fools Crow in 1973.
Credit...Jim Mone/Associated Press

After an early marriage to Francine Cloudman, he married Mary Ellen Moore, a fellow Native American rights activist best known for a 1990 memoir, “Lakota Woman,” also written with Mr. Erdoes. She died in 2013.

He is survived by his third wife, JoAnn Crow Dog, whom he married in 1998, and seven of his nine children: Bernadette, Richard, Robert Pedro, Onwai, Leonard Jr., Shwanah and Tyler.

In the fall of 1972, A.I.M. delegates, Chief Crow Dog among them, sent to Washington a 20-point proposal called the Trail of Broken Treaties. The government responded that fulfilling all the demands, including land restoration and the creation of a new office of federal Indian relations and community reconstruction, would be “impracticable.”

Chief Crow Dog called it “the greatest gathering of Indians in the nation’s capital.”

The occupation at Wounded Knee the following February grew out of the movement’s frustration with the government’s response to its demands, one of which was that it help remove the chief of the Pine Ridge Reservation, Richard Wilson. Chief Wilson “ran the tribe like a dictator and won elections by fraud,” Chief Crow Dog said.

He was one of the seven principal defendants in the Wounded Knee trials, alongside Russell Means, a founder of the movement, and Carter Camp, one of its leaders. Chief Crow Dog was convicted of charges related to the occupation and of unconnected assault charges involving an altercation. He ended up serving about two years in prison, released in 1977 after his sentence was reduced thanks to a lobbying campaign by his lawyers and supporters, according to Edward J. Rielly’s “Legends of American Indian Resistance” (2011).

After his release, he returned to his home, called Crow Dog’s Paradise, in the community of Grass Mountain on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. He turned his home into a site where the old ways could be preserved, including an annual sun dance, a sacred ceremony celebrating summer and calling for renewal.

“We danced so that our Lakota nation should live,” he said.

As a leader of the Native American Church, which combines tribal and Christian elements, Chief Crow Dog oversaw traditional peyote rituals. He and his father drew from those rituals in 1972 in releasing an album of ceremonial songs, which The New York Times described as an “incantatory and visionary sacramental experience.”

Chief Crow Dog remained active in later life, traveling to the Standing Rock Reservation to protest the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under Native American lands and becoming involved in a project to preserve the Pe’ Sla sacred lands in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He joined a coalition of tribes in raising money to purchase the Pe’ Sla land. Tribes reintroduced buffalo to the area, and in 2016 the federal government placed the land in a trust to preserve it as a sacred site.

“The Indian almost lost his culture,” he told The Times in 1972 in describing his mission in life. “I tried to take off where my people left off. Bring it back, and let the people go from there.”

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