Firsthand account from the life of a Sioux woman. Mary Brave Bird grew up on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, in a small overcrowded house with no running water and few prospects around. She tells about life on the reservation, the lack of jobs or anything to do, the poverty and drunkenness all around her, and the embracing family groups. She tells about the culture and history of the Lakota people, but mostly how it was in modern times- how the people fared after their tribal lands had been taken and their sacred ceremonies forbidden. Not well. She was sent to a boarding school and that was miserable but she had a fierceness and refused at some point to let the nuns beat her anymore, ran away as a teen and roamed. Mostly the narrative is about her involvement with the American Indian Movement, which sprang up in the seventies, to defend Native Americans’ civil rights and revive their culture. Mary was at several key incidents including when AIM occupied Wounded Knee in 1973 and was besieged by the FBI. For years and years there had been continual violence between Native activists (or just ordinary people who did not want to put up with being looked down upon and pushed around anymore) and white police forces. She tells how many people from other tribes even far away, came to join the movement. How she met and eventually married Leonard Crow Dog, who was a revered medicine man, and how he worked to bring back their religious ceremonies that had been illegal- including the Sun Dance and the Ghost Dance. And what it was like when her husband was imprisoned for several years.
I did not know I was going to be reading so much about activism and Native American rights. Normally with so much violence, mistreatment and abuse on the page, I would perhaps turn away to an easier read, but there’s so much humanity in this story. It skips around in time however in a way that flows smoothly- as if from a continual narrative spoken aloud. (In fact I wondered at that- was this an oral account, and the co-author transcribed her words directly? I don’t know, but that’s how it reads). It was really intriguing to see from the inside view the Lakota perspective, including the friction between tribes or even families on the reservation- people who were half or full-blood, people who lived in the traditional old ways or with the new times, or somewhere in between. None of it was a smooth road, but they did get somewhere. I wish I could articulate this better because really it was a striking book that I found hard to put down, though not my usual type. Admirable what this woman went through, and stood for, so relatively young- she was thirty-seven at close of the memoir, and had already lived so much.