Mary Brave Bird, a Sioux woman, was named Ohitika Win, or Brave Woman, after she had her baby during a firefight at the Siege of Wounded Knee in 1973. After this, she was jailed and her baby was taken away. Her best friend, Annie Mae, was found dead in the snow following police malpractice, while her sister-in-law, Delphine, was beaten by a drunk and left in a blizzard to die. Mary’s sister, Barbara, was sterilized in hospital against her will. Mary Brave Bird was sent to a Catholic school where she was beaten; at the age of fifteen, she was raped.
Brave Bird cites these examples to show the difficulties of being an Indian woman. It was also difficult to be a woman among an Indian tribe in which the men looked down on the women. Moreover, the men had had their way of life as warriors stripped away from them. Many of the men, frustrated, beat their wives and became alcoholics.
Mary Brave Bird was raised on the Rosebud Reservation among the Brule Tribe. The Brules are one of the seven Western Sioux tribes known as Lakota. Once a horse people, the Sioux were driven into reservations between 1870 and 1880 and forced to give up their horses, hunting, and arms. Mary’s family settled in He-Dog, a place named after a famous chief.
Mary’s grandfather, Fool Bull, was the last man to make Indian-style flutes and play them. He remembered the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, where soldiers had stopped a group of Indians participating in a Ghost Dance and butchered over three hundred people. The Rosebud people did not participate in the fights against Custer or Crook, because one chief, Spotted Tail, felt that resisting the white men would only lead to destruction.
When Mary was born, it was late at night and raining hard. He-Dog had no electricity and only one phone. Mary’s birth was difficult, and her mother had to be driven ninety miles to a hospital to be assisted. With some white ancestry, Mary often struggled with her identity and was teased for having lighter skin.
Her husband’s family, the Crow Dogs, were "full-bloods" and thus darker-skinned. Crow Dogs continued to practise their own beliefs for much longer. For all Indians, however, the connection to the land has been partially lost. It is a difficult life.
Sioux society once centered around the “tiyospaye,” or extended family group, in which the whole family looked after the children and hunted together. This was destroyed by white governments, who forced the Sioux into “nuclear family” units. The result of this change has been an absence of fathers.
Mary’s father, Bill Moore, was partly Indian but primarily white. He left shortly after Mary was born; she saw him only twice in her life. Her stepfather, who married her mother when Mary was nine or ten, was a terrible alcoholic whose presence Mary avoided. Mary began to drink herself. To make matters worse, the children were taught no skills, and there were no jobs for the men.
Mary was one of six children: Kathie, Robert, Barbara, Sandra, and herself. Later her mother adopted a little boy, whom she spoiled, because his parents neglected him. Mary’s mother trained as a nurse and had to leave the reservation for work. As a result, the children were raised by their grandparents.
Mary’s grandmother, Louise Flood, was a Sioux. She was married first to a man named Brave Bird, but he was killed in a thunderstorm when his team of horses, spooked, ran off the trail. Louise then...
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remarried a widower, Noble Moore, who was Bill Moore’s father. When Bill abandoned the family, Noble Moore stepped in as a father, working as a janitor and raising all the children in a one-roomed shack. Louise spoke the Sioux language, although she tried to raise the children as Catholics. She advised the children never to go into white people’s homes. Mary once went to play with a little white girl and experienced violent racism from the girl’s mother, who threatened to whip her.
Louise, who had been sent to a mission school, wanted Mary to get a “white man’s” education and not learn to speak Sioux. As such, Mary had to learn about Indian culture from others, such as her grand-aunt, also named Mary, or her grand-uncle, Dick Fool Bull, who took Mary to peyote meetings. Mary’s aunt, Elsie Flood, was a “turtle woman,” a medicine woman, who carried turtles with her and was seen as very wise by the tribe. One day in 1976, she was found dead in her home, having been beaten.
When Mary was sent to boarding school, she realized for the first time that Indians were poor compared to white Americans. Still, she had not experienced her relative poverty as a lack.
Being sent to school was such a shock that some Indian children hanged themselves because of the lack of physical contact and familiarity. Children were forced to eat at “white man times” and beaten by nuns. The schools were originally founded by white people who felt that Indians could be “saved” by being “civilized,” but Indian children were routinely whipped and punished with solitary confinement. Once, Mary and her sister Barbara ran away and were beaten.
As an adolescent, Mary’s political sensibilities began to develop. In the late 1960s, a white girl, a hippie, arrived on the reservation and suggested that the Indian girls should distribute a paper to “tell it like it is,” as part of an effort towards civil rights. Mary and two of her friends put together a newsletter called the Red Panther.
Boys and girls were separated in the boarding school, and arguments between the girls and the nuns sometimes became physical. When Mary was held up as an example of a bad girl for holding hands with boys, she pointed out that a priest at the school had molested a child but wasn't pointed out as an example. Mary got into a physical altercation with a priest who was criticizing an Indian boy’s command of English. After the incident, she quit school.
After school, Mary hung around in Indian towns full of drunkards. At twelve, Mary began to be a heavy drinker, but soon she began to hate the feeling, and stopped. She now does not drink, but all her siblings and family drank, despite the fact that liquor was technically illegal on the reservation. Once, aged about seventeen, Mary was involved in a car crash in which everyone, driver included, was drunk. She fought, too, often entering bars that declared "No Indians allowed" in order to start fights with white people. Mary was not alone in her feelings of frustration. One night, a boyfriend of Barbara’s shot up the tribal office in rage.
By the 1970s, Mary was married with a child, and the frustration of her adolescence had cooled somewhat. However, her frustrations resurfaced one night when she and her husband, Leonard, were driving. Their car broke down, and a group of white people began to heckle them. Leonard, Mary’s husband, tried to calm them, but they jumped him, and Mary tried to keep them away. She called the police officers waiting nearby, who initially did nothing but then began to target Mary and Leonard instead.
From a broader perspective, Mary came to feel that drinking was not an Indian problem but the result of white people’s treatment of the Indians.
Both Barbara and Sandra became pregnant as highschoolers, and their mother berated them for it. Barbara ran away as a result, and began to take LSD. Mary herself began to smoke pot. Both Mary and Barbara frequently shoplifted to support themselves. Mary was caught twice without great consequence, but Barbara once spent time in jail after being accused of burglary.
Mary was raped at fifteen but dared not tell anyone about it. Her predicament reflected the contradictions in Sioux society: Sioux men expected women to be sexually available to them but also shamed women who were sexually active. Huge gunfights erupted between Indians and white people when white people attempted to sexually harass Indian women.
Mary could not judge her restless youth—her “roving” days—as either good or bad, but they came to an end when she encountered AIM: the American Indian Movement.