Mary Brave Bird Essay - Critical Essays

Bird, Mary Brave


Mary Brave Bird 1953–

(Also known as Mary Crow Dog, Ohitika Win, and Brave Woman) American political activist and autobiographer.

The following entry provides an overview of Brave Bird's life and career through 1993.

A Lakota Sioux of the Brulé, or Sichangu, tribe, Brave Bird is known for her autobiographies, Lakota Woman (1990) and Ohitika Woman (1993), both of which were written with Richard Erdoes. These works are notable for their candor and insight into the problems and challenges faced by Native American women in contemporary Native culture and American society.

Biographical Information

Brave Bird was born on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where she was raised by her grandparents and educated at the St. Francis mission school. While a teenager, she became interested in the history, religion, and traditions of her people, and, in 1971, she joined the American Indian Movement (AIM). With other AIM members, Brave Bird occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., in 1972 and participated in the protest and siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. There she met her future husband, Leonard Crow Dog, a Sioux holy man and Indian rights activist. She later divorced Crow Dog and remarried. She is the mother of five children.

Major Works

In Lakota Woman, which was published under the name Mary Crow Dog, Brave Bird recounts her impoverished childhood on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, her rebellious youth, her growing awareness of her heritage, and her marriage to Crow Dog. This work, which won the American Book Award in 1991, also details Brave Bird's involvement in the 71-day siege at Wounded Knee, during which her first child, Pedro, was born. Ohitika Woman, published under the name Mary Brave Bird, traces the author's life from 1977 to 1992. In this work, she describes her participation in the Native American Church, her continuing struggles with poverty and alcoholism, a near-fatal car accident, and her relationship with her children and second husband Rudy.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Lakota Woman and Ohitika Woman has been generally favorable. Most praise Brave Bird's candor in describing the difficulties and hardships of growing up as a Native American woman. Several critics comment on her "fierce feminism," her political activism in the American Indian Movement, and her work to preserve Indian identity, religion, and traditions. While some critics applaud her storytelling ability and accessible "kitchen-table style," a few fault the "cyclical" structure of her writing, arguing that it sometimes confuses the chronology of events and detracts from the impact of the narrative. Still, most critics agree that Brave Bird's autobiographies contribute much toward a better understanding of the cultural and social challenges faced by Native American women in contemporary American society. Gretchen M. Bataille has stated: "In her Lakota society, Brave Bird has found strength and support as well as a shared history. In spite of the poverty, alcoholism, and routine beating of women that she has witnessed and been a victim of, Brave Bird is a survivor who understands the context of her life. She is communicating her pain as well as her joys to people who see only curio shops on their trips through South Dakota."

Principal Works

Lakota Woman [as Mary Crow Dog; with Richard Erdoes] (autobiography) 1990
Ohitika Woman [as Mary Brave Bird; with Richard Erdoes] (autobiography) 1993


Gretchen M. Bataille (review date 19 June 1990)

SOURCE: "Search for an Indian Self," in The Washington Post, June 19, 1990, p. 4.

[Bataille is an American educator and author of several books on Native American culture. In the following favorable review of Lakota Woman, she praises Brave Bird's candor but suggests that the work's "cyclical" structure may be difficult for readers used to linear narratives and chronological autobiographies.]

Mary Crow Dog's autobiography, Lakota Woman, is the story of one woman; however, it tells the tale of many Indian women who have faced the wrath and the pride of their own men and the brutality of government control, and benign neglect, but who have emerged strong and whole in spite of their wounds. Mary Crow Dog is a Lakota woman, and the narrative resonates with the anguish of that reality.

Hers is a harsh story of enduring the whip of Catholic nuns in boarding school and the pain of losing some of her friends in the Indian struggle for civil rights. The title reflects her final acceptance of identity: From viewing herself as a half-breed to achieving wholeness through the Sun Dance ceremony, she has accepted her role within the tribe and for herself.

The traditional power of women, based on the stories of White Buffalo Woman and celebrated by puberty ceremonies, has been eroded and Indian women have been the victims of rapes, beatings and forced sterilizations. Although Mary Crow Dog recognizes that Indian men give "great lip service to the status women hold in the tribe," women are no longer held in such high esteem as tradition would dictate.

Structurally the narrative is difficult to follow if one is accustomed to chronological life histories. But Mary Crow Dog is Indian, and the cyclical pattern so often employed in stories and reflected in ceremonies provides the framework for her narrative. The cycle began before 1890 and erupted with Wounded Knee and the massacre of Indian people by the 7th Cavalry. Eighty-three years later Mary Crow Dog has her first son during the 1973 takeover at Wounded Knee. Echoes of the past reverberate throughout the book; she recalls the "ghostly cry and lamenting of a woman and child coming out of the massacre ravine" of Wounded Knee Creek while she escapes the gunshots that strike close to her and her new baby.

Mary Crow Dog, the wife of the Sioux holy man Leonard Crow Dog, provides the reader with information about Indian history and contemporary reality as she interweaves her life story with that of her people. Although the traditional tiyospaye, or...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)

Patricia Guthrie (review date 1 July 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Lakota Woman, in The New York Times Book Review, July 1, 1990, p. 15.

[In the following review, Guthrie assesses Lakota Woman.]

"Two thousand came to Wounded Knee in 1973. One stayed," reads the epitaph of a Sioux Indian buried at the South Dakota site. Mary Crow Dog was part of the 71-day siege of Wounded Knee's museum, church and trading post by the American Indian Movement. Seventeen years old at the time, she lost an uncle and bore a son during the takeover, which pitted the Federal Government's military might against medicine men and young men armed with old rifles. Ms. Crow Dog's Lakota Woman, written with Richard Erdoes,...

(The entire section is 237 words.)

Penny Skillman (review date Summer 1991)

SOURCE: "Fleshing Out Our Story of America," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. VI, No. 4, Summer, 1991, p. 5.

[In the following excerpt, Skillman praises Brave Bird's candid portrayal of the American Indian Movement during the 1960s in Lakota Woman.]

Mary Ellen Crow Dog tells such an entertaining story of her life in Lakota Woman that it is easy at times to overlook the fact that the tale is about the Native American struggle to stave off genocide. Crow Dog relates how a young hippie from New York visited the Rosebud reservation on which she lived in the late 1960s and challenged the "res" Indians: "Black people are getting it on. Indians are...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Mahtowin (review date March-April 1992)

SOURCE: "Mary Crow Dog: Real Life Hero," in New Directions for Women, Vol. 21, No. 2, March-April, 1992, p. 28.

[Mahtowin is a Lakota political activist who writes about Native issues. In the following essay, she praises the positive portrayal of Native American women in Lakota Woman.]

Being a Native woman, I think a lot about the fact that there are so few positive images of Native women in American popular culture. Chances are if you can name three historically prominent Native women, they will be Pocahontas, Sacajaweah and La Malinche, all three of whom, at best, were severely taken advantage of by the white conquerors or, at worst, betrayed their race.


(The entire section is 548 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 July 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Ohitika Woman, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXI, No. 13, July 1, 1993, p. 827.

[In the following review, the critic offers a mixed assessment of Ohitika Woman, stating that while it lacks the "excitement" of Lakota Woman, it is "a forceful presentation of Native American life today."]

Native American activist Brave Bird—whose autobiography Lakota Woman (1990; written under the author's former married name of Crow Dog) will soon be released as a film directed by Jane Fonda—returns with a disturbing sequel.

(The entire section is 626 words.)

Pat Monaghan (review date 1 September 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Ohitika Woman, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 1, September 1, 1993, p. 10.

[In the following positive review of Ohitika Woman, Monaghan provides an overview of the book and briefly discusses its publishing history.]

More than a decade ago and hard upon the success of Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, the autobiography of a Lakota shaman that he coauthored, [Richard] Erdoes completed another manuscript. As he relates in his introduction to this volume [Ohitika Woman], that manuscript was rejected by his publisher. "This book is much too radical," the wise editor said. "Mysticism is in. Make her into a witch." Erdoes and Brave Bird...

(The entire section is 272 words.)

Gretchen M. Bataille (review date 3 September 1993)

SOURCE: "A Brave Woman's Saga of Survival Continues," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 85, No. 196, September 3, 1993, p. 11.

[In the following favorable review, Bataille examines the themes in Ohitika Woman, focusing on the role of women in contemporary Native American society and the cultural clash between Native and White American societies.]

Mary Brave Bird is Ohitika Win, or Brave Woman, the name she earned as a result of her commitment to her people and her community. The badge was not won easily, as this account of a hard life shows.

Brave Bird's story up to 1977 was recounted in Lakota Woman (1990), and Ohitika Woman...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

Further Reading


Adams, Phoebe-Lou. Review of Lakota Woman, by Mary Crow Dog. The Atlantic Monthly 265, No. 5 (May 1990): 133

Favorably assesses Lakota Woman.

Devereaux, Elizabeth. "Two Women," in The Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 100 (November 1991): 27.

Comparative review of Madonna Swann: A Lakota Woman's Story as Told through Mark St. Pierre and Lakota Woman.

Norton, Margaret W. Review of Ohitika Woman, by Mary Brave Bird. Library Journal 118, No. 13 (August 1993): 112, 114.


(The entire section is 110 words.)