This is one of the best biographies I have ever read. You shouldn’t be surprised if I refer to it in more than one post in the weeks to come because it was rich in material on many, many levels. I first came across this story several years ago in the form of a movie (based on the book) made by TNT. Remember when TNT actually started the trend of original programming and that genius Ted Turner had a love for the West? Well, Jane Fonda produced the movie and it was a great movie but only covered a part of the book. By the way, for whatever reason, the movie isn’t on DVD but I managed to lay ahold of a VHS copy somewhere. I think it is still in a storage trunk but back to the book.
The great part of this book is the honesty in which it is told. Mary Crow Dog (she later changed her name to Mary Brave Bird) and Richard Erdoes relate the story just like you have sat down to have a cup of coffee together and there is nothing held back in the sense she details her triumphs, her fears, hardships and even what she perceives as her failings. In this way the reader feels as though the have really gotten to know the person.
This book isn’t long at under 300 pages but I was astonished by how much was crammed into it. She tells of what it is like to grow up on what is essentially the poorest place in the United States, the Sioux Reservations of South Dakota. These are places that even now don’t have running water or indoor facilities. Unemployment never dips below 50% and cultural prejudice is a given. The truth is, white Americans have never come to grips with their history of American Indians. I say that having visited several different reservations over the years and knowing that many of my ancestors fought certain Indian tribes but also know that they had mutual respect. Some of the ancestors were often requested to act as negotiators by the tribes because they were trusted. How we have let American Indians languish in such dire circumstances is a national and moral embarrassment.
This book lets you see this through the eyes of one who lived it but also lived it at what was probably the most turbulent time for American Indians in the 20th century, the 1970s. Mary Crow Dog talks about the white run schools that were meant to Christianize the Indians and how Indian rituals were illegal. She talks about the poverty and the violence that grows out of that on the reservations and the rampant alcoholism that ensues. That part was her childhood.
She is most famous though for having been at the Wounded Knee Siege in the 1970s and for actually having given birth to her first child while gunfire raged about her and bullets whizzed on by. By the way, she offers up an excellent description of how native Sioux women use to give birth. I confess, I cringed. She also touches on the forced sterilization policy against Indians. Besides being at Wounded Knee, she was at the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in D.C. and in the middle of AIM (American Indian Movement) when it was on the rise. She also touches on why it may have had troubles later. There is also a good deal about her good friend Anna Mae Aquash who was with her at Wounded Knee and who later was murdered and then had her hands cut off by the FBI when the body was discovered. This murder has never been solved and is the subject of much controversy that still goes on today. Mary Crow Dog was in the heart of a very turbulent decade and gives an eyewitness account like few can. That was her becoming an adult stage.
The other area was Indian spirituality. The man who became her husband about halfway through the story was Leonard Crow Dog. He is a renown Sioux Medicine Man. The real deal one might say. She talks in great detail about Sioux traditions and tells you what you do during a Ghost Dance, a sweat lodge and other sacred ceremonies. She describes traditional Sioux medicines and cures and for all you doctors or medics, the part on how they treated bullet wounds at Wounded Knee without modern medicines, well, you might want to take notes on that. That part sort of blew me away.
As you can tell, this was not a boring read. Sadly, Mary Crow Dog died in February of this year. She has a sequel to this book based on her later life and I hope to read that at some point. Like I said when I started this post, this book is one of the best biographies I have ever read and I intend to share it with 3-4 of my friends if I get the chance. It is worthy of your time and will broaden your horizon.