53 pages 1 hour read

Mary Crow Dog

Lakota Woman

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1990

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Published in 1990, Lakota Woman is a memoir by Mary Crow Dog, member of the Brule Tribe of the Western Sioux and activist in the American Indian Movement. Crow Dog’s book recounts her increased awareness of the subjugation of her people and of women within her own tribe. It also discusses how poverty, alcoholism, and crime on the reservations are the inevitable results of government regulations that have oppressed and dehumanized Native Americans, forcing them to assimilate into a society that does not accept them. Crow Dog grows up with a nebulous sense of identity and finds comfort in the American Indian Movement, which revives in her the connection to her religion and traditions and provides her with a sense of purpose. Her book is an account of the journey by which she becomes “a traditional Sioux woman steeped in the ancient beliefs of her people” (251) and of how she reconciles her history with the changing world around her.

Mary Crow Dog is from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. The daughter of a white father who abandoned the family and a Sioux mother, she is teased by white people and Sioux alike and grows up feeling that she doesn’t belong in either community. Her family is poor, living in a one-room shack with no electricity or plumbing. Her mother and grandmother believe adopting white, Christian ways will lead Crow Dog and her siblings toward a good life, and Crow Dog and her mother frequently clash over these cultural differences. Crow Dog learns from an early age that Native Americans are treated differently. She experiences racism and discrimination as a child but doesn’t fully understand them yet.

Like most Sioux children, Crow Dog is required to attend boarding school, where the children are taught unfamiliar customs. They are also beaten, punished, and humiliated by the nuns. After one incident in which Crow Dog retaliates against a lascivious priest, she demands her diploma and is allowed to leave school.

Back home, and still feeling “aimless,” she spends time drinking, using drugs, and stealing with a large group of kids. She notices that in stores, she and her friends are watched more closely than white customers. Though others in her group are sexually promiscuous, she herself prefers to be alone, rejecting the sexual aggression of young men. When she’s fourteen or fifteen, Crow Dog is raped. Like many Native American girls, she doesn’t tell anyone; while rape is common, it’s rarely investigated, and the girls are rarely believed.

Crow Dog attends her first AIM—American Indian Movement—meeting in 1971 and is immediately fascinated by the pride and confidence of its speakers, who include her future husband, Leonard Crow Dog. Her connection with AIM inspires her to learn more about her religion and traditions, and she begins attending peyote ceremonies, where she connects with her ancestors and feels a sense of unity and belonging. After a brief relationship in which she becomes pregnant, she continues to join AIM at protests and later travels with them to Washington, DC, for the Trail of Broken Treaties, which is in part a response to the unpunished murders of Native American men. In 1973, Crow Dog, now eight months pregnant, travels with AIM to Rapid City to protest at the trial of a white man who’d murdered a Sioux man; their protest turns to a riot when patrolmen attempt to keep them from the courthouse. AIM then goes to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where opponents of Richard Wilson, the corrupt tribal chief, are being murdered. When AIM is met by heavily-armed marshals and FBI agents, they decide to take their protest to Wounded Knee, the scene of a massacre almost a century earlier. For seventy-one days, they occupy the town; several Native Americans are killed during gunfire. Leonard Crow Dog, the spiritual leader, revives the Ghost Dance, a sacred ceremony that had not been performed openly since before the first Wounded Knee in 1890. After Crow Dog delivers her son, Pedro, she leaves Wounded Knee to help prepare for a friend’s funeral. Despite promises made by the government, she’s arrested and separated from her baby, but is eventually released. Shortly after, negotiations end the siege, though the agreement is breached by the government.

After he persistently woos her, Crow Dog marries Leonard and moves to his compound, Crow Dog’s Paradise. She struggles to adjust to the life of a medicine man’s wife. Guests descend on their home and stay for weeks. Leonard is generous with their money, often depleting their own resources. Also, the Crow Dogs, a deeply traditional family, don’t immediately accept her, as she is unversed in many of their traditions and doesn’t speak Sioux.

In 1975, Crow Dog’s best friend, Annie Mae Aquash, an AIM leader and civil rights fighter, is raped and killed under mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, Crow Dog continues to learn from Leonard about Sioux traditions and rituals, such as the sweat bath and the yuwipi ceremony. That year, several violent incidents occur in which Leonard is forced to defend himself and his family. After one such incident, Leonard is arrested; as one of the leaders of Wounded Knee, he’d already been an FBI target.

During his time in prison, Leonard is subjected to psychological torture and racial discrimination. Crow Dog, with the support of a diverse group of friends and lawyers, actively advocates for him, and he’s released nearly two years later. Life after prison proves difficult; they must learn to get to know each other again after spending so much time apart. Leonard goes on a vision quest to gain some peace and clarity. She herself finally feels “wholly Indian” (260) when she participates in the sacred Sun Dance.

Though she tells her story chronologically, Crow Dog frequently inserts anecdotes from different periods of her life. These flashbacks tie together the lessons she imparts throughout. As she reflects on her experiences, stories of the people who have made a difference to her intertwine, suggesting her experiences inform each other and are dependent on each other. All together, these anecdotes make her story, and her perspective, whole. They impart to the work a conversational feel and help to connect the reader to the storyteller.