Mary Brave Bird

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Gretchen M. Bataille (review date 19 June 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1075

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 extended family, has been destroyed by the intervention of government regulations, boarding schools and the intrusion of social workers, in the end a different kind of extended family has emerged. She tells of her "family" during the Wounded Knee siege; even in New York, where she waited for her husband's release from prison, Mary Crow Dog found "family" to care for her. Contemporary Indian reality has bred new relationships to maintain connections to tradition and to ensure cultural continuity amid change.

Early in the narrative, she writes, "You have to make your own legends now." The full story of Wounded Knee will never be told, but Mary Crow Dog's account echoes those of others who saw the event as cruel recognition that life had not changed much for Indians in South Dakota. The deaths of Pedro Bissonette and Annie Mae Aquash are testimony to what Mary Crow Dog sees as the ongoing persecution of American Indians. In spite of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and the recognition of the Sioux as an independent nation, reservations continue to be what Vine Deloria Jr. calls "dependent domestic nations."

Mary Crow Dog's narrative is an addition to a long history of Indian life stories, some written in English and others told through interpreters. The bicultural production of a text created by an Indian woman working with a white man is not unusual, yet the questions always remain—how much is Mary Crow Dog's story and how much was filtered through the lens of collaborator Richard Erdoes' knowledge of Indian life? Erdoes worked with Lame Deer to produce his autobiography, and this story complements Lame Deer's narrative. The voices in each are different, however, suggesting that much of what has been written has been presented as Mary Crow Dog related it.

This is not the reflective story of an Indian who has lived to old age; Mary is 34 years old when the story is told. This is not an account that consciously attempts to maintain old ways or traditional stories as many autobiographies have done. More than anything, this is the story of Mary Crow Dog's growing awareness of who she is as a Sioux woman and as a political force for change for her people. The messianic movement of the Ghost Dance in 1890 brought brief promise to the Plains Indians who danced because that was the only hope they had. The founding of the American Indian Movement in 1968 rekindled that hope. In the 16 years of her life that form the basis of the book, Mary Crow Dog has learned that she is the inheritor of the memories and stories of the past. As a Lakota woman, she has learned the importance of storytelling to create and maintain identity.

Patricia Guthrie (review date 1 July 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 237

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 author of The Pueblo Indians and The Sun Dance People, details how she arrived at that fateful confrontation. Raised by Sioux grandparents and a mother who refused to teach her the native language because "speaking Indian would only hold you back, turn you the wrong way," Ms. Crow Dog received her initiation into Indian traditions during the Wounded Knee siege, where she learned from the spiritual leader Leonard Crow Dog, whom she subsequently married. The story of her coming of age in the Indian civil rights movement is simply told-and, at times, simply horrifying. Throughout the book, Ms. Crow Dog's recollections seem to exemplify the Cheyenne proverb that introduces her story: "A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground."

Penny Skillman (review date Summer 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

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 getting it on in St. Paul and California. How about you?"

The American Indian Movement spread like wildfire in the political vacuum that existed on the reservations, and of all the rights movements, it was a particular thorn in the government's side. Crow Dog observes about the Indian and Black struggles: "They want in. We Indians want out!"

AIM was made up predominantly of young Indians and elders who had kept to the traditional ways of living. The author does an excellent job of describing how their civil rights battles changed their thinking and catapulted her and others from a rural arena to national prominence. "We lived in a strange, narrow world of our own, suspicious of outsiders. Later, we found ourselves making speeches on campuses, in churches, and on street corners talking to prominent supporters such as Marlon Brando, Dick Gregory, and Angela Davis." From a youth of alcoholism and hoboing on and off the reservation, Crow Dog joined the 1972 cross-country march on Washington, after which the Indians occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building there. The BIA building occupation made what AIM leader Russell Means referred to as "a helluva smoke signa!" since it represented the Indian Nation taking a significant collective action for the first time.

The second section of the book is largely taken up with the 1973 Indian occupation of Wounded Knee, the subsequent government siege to reclaim it, and later the author's marriage to and life with Lakota medicine man Leonard Crow Dog. Difficult questions, such as the presence of sexism in the Indian movement and the meaning of pervasive alcoholism on the reservation are not avoided, yet the author's analysis of these issues is not in depth. But this is a reflective, refreshingly non-defensive story told by a woman who understood its political implications. Could anyone who lived through the now glorious-seeming 1960s not enjoy this look at one of the civil rights struggles the tumult of those times produced?

Mahtowin (review date March-April 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548

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.

Indian women, when we appear at all (and usually we don't; I'll never forget or forgive the organizers of the massive women's march on Washington in April 1989 for not including even one Native woman on the program) are portrayed as mute beasts of burden or, alternatively, lithesome and loose women who eagerly await the coming of the white man. Nowhere in American popular culture will you find the strong, resourceful, hilarious and human Native women-women whom we remember in our oral history and whom we know as our grandmothers, sisters, friends, mothers and daughters-who have been fighting side by side with Native men against colonialism since the day Columbus got lost.

Things are better at least in the realm of literature where we now have so many gifted women writers, such as Leslie Marmon Silko and Beth Brant, to name only two. If you want to find out what life is really like in Indian Country, open up a book by a Native writer.

Which brings me to Lakota Woman, the autobiography of Mary Crow Dog. Read it. Mary Crow Dog is a real life Native heroine. She grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, somehow managing to survive the brutality of racism and reservation poverty, boarding school and wild days of drinking and fighting. As the American Indian Movement (AIM) grew, accompanied by a resurgence in Native pride and militancy, Mary Crow Dog took part in political actions and became increasingly more traditional, less assimilated and lost. She gave birth to her first child during the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1973. She later married the Lakota medicine man Leonard Crow Dog, who was imprisoned for his political activities.

Her story is not just hers, but the story of a whole generation and era. Crow Dog writes of such women as her friend Annie Mae Aquash, the militant Micmac who was murdered by the FBI. She vividly describes the death squads and reign of terror on Pine Ridge during the 1970s both before and after the Wounded Knee occupation. She also talks about the Native American Church, Lakota traditions and what its's like to be the wife of a leading medicine man.

Lakota Woman is narrated in an accessible, "kitchentable" style-you can just imagine Mary Crow Dog sitting across from you talking about her life. The book is funny, appalling in its depiction of racism and government oppression and painfully honest. Mary Crow Dog has lived through and participated in a lot of history in less than forty years, and I hope her story will be read by the widest possible audience.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 July 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626

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.

Lakota Woman turned heads with its angry plea for Native American rights, its outspoken feminism—and its blatant antiwhite racism. Brave Bird has mellowed a bit, although she still makes caustic remarks about white women, especially New Agers whom she accuses of cashing in on traditional Indian religion. Sadly, her personal life seems as chaotic as ever, as she relates a horrifying story of chronic drunkenness, drug-taking, brawls, poverty, homeless shelters, and batterings by lovers. Readers willing to put up with the sordidness—which culminates in a drunk-driving crash and subsequent open-heart surgery for Brave Bird—will no doubt get the message: that Indians, Lakota in particular (Pine Ridge reservation is the poorest county in the nation), have been shoved to the bottom of the American barrel. Easier to digest are Brave Bird's accounts of Native American rituals, including sweat lodges, spirit communication, and sun dances (during one, Brave Bird is suspended from a tree by thongs skewered through her back). Once again, the author presents a fierce feminist brief, offering biographical tributes to a number of Native American women and celebrating her own "womb power," which brought her five kids—the last by her new husband, Rudi, a tattoo artist.

Without the intrinsic excitement of the first installment, with its firsthand history of AIM and siege at Wounded Knee; still, a forceful presentation of Native American life today.

Pat Monaghan (review date 1 September 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 272

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 (then Crow Dog) refused. That manuscript became the best-selling Lakota Woman (1990), which related Brave Bird's life as a rebellious, hard-drinking reservation girl who gave birth to her first child while a teenager on the embattled Wounded Knee reservation. Lakota Woman closed when Brave Bird was a partner to radical shaman Leonard Crow Dog. Ohitika Woman picks up Brave Bird's life from then to the present. Far from rising above all the problems of poverty and alienation on the reservation, Brave Bird eventually found herself overwhelmed by them. The book opens with Brave Bird crashing, drunk, into a power pole and ends with her "enduring," as she says. In between, we learn of the difficulties facing Native American women today: the domestic brutality, the abandonments, the assaults. But we learn as well of the medicine and rituals that strengthen women of Native American heritage. Despite the pain that courses through it, the book is ultimately hopeful, even if the hope is just that Native American women can continue to endure.

Gretchen M. Bataille (review date 3 September 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

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 continues her history. She tells of her experiences through the artist and writer Richard Erdoes, who along with his wife, Jean, befriended Brave Bird and supported efforts of the American Indian Movement and tribes to gain redress for the grievances of 500 years.

That two books telling the life of one Lakota woman should be published in such a brief period, and that the first should have already received the American Book Award, is testimony to the public interest in the lives of women at the margins of mainstream society, women who are immersed in their own societies in spite of the hardships and deprivations.

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.

Ohitika Woman begins in 1991. Brave Bird has survived a near-fatal automobile accident and credits her will to live to a vision of her grandmother telling her she had to survive to care for her children. Brave Bird places herself within family and tribe, tracing her lineage and remembering past events in her life, and then comes back to the present.

As she writes this book, her life is stable: She has remarried, she has stopped drinking, she has reached a level of understanding with her mother, and she is committed to caring for her children. By the end of the book, the reader wants her to succeed and to bring other women with her.

It won't be easy, however. Brave Bird catalogs the abuses Indian women face—at the hands of their men and at the whim of federal bureaucracies, such as the Indian Health Service, and local social service agencies. She poignantly describes Indian women as "always pressing down hard to stop the bleeding of their hearts."

In addition to one woman's life story, the book provides a walk through the darkest pages of Indian-white history in the United States. This history is the backdrop for contemporary Indian reality: It explains why the Sioux have turned down money for their land and why many have rejected Christianity for traditional religions and ceremonies, such as sweat baths and the sun dance.

An increasing number of American Indians are writing about their lives and experiences, and many of them are college-trained professionals. In The Broken Cord (1989), Modoc writer Michael Dorris tells the devastating story of fetal alcohol syndrome; he has seen in his adopted children the results of the life Brave Bird describes. There cannot be a redeeming justification for alcoholism and crippling poverty; however, Brave Bird helps the reader understand why the conditions exist.

In a final irony, Brave Bird discusses the increased interest in Indianness, manifested in modern Indian medicine shows, crystals, channeling, and backyard sweat lodges.

None of this interest improves the lives of those Indians living in the poorest counties of the US, and "new age" enthusiasm cannot remove uranium tailings from despoiled Indian land or provide Indians with uncontaminated ground water. All the sympathy in the world will not provide jobs for Indians at the Rosebud or Pine Ridge Reservations.

Brave Bird ends her account by saying, "in the end the spirit wins out." Although it is an appropriate literary ending, changes in the conditions of native Americans will come about only when there is a change in the "spirit" of those outside of American Indian cultures.

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