Mary Brave Bird (September 26, 1954 – February 14, 2013) dictated her life story in the two books Lakota Woman and Ohitika Woman to Richard Erdoes, a photographer and illustrator who himself became involved in political activism through having taped and transcribed her story.
In these two books, written 15 years apart, Brave Bird told how the American Indian Movement (AIM) gave meaning to her life.
Lakota Woman, written under the name Mary Crow Dog, portrays her life from her birth to 1977, and Ohitika Woman written under her current name of Mary Brave Bird, covers events up to 1992 and adds new details to the earlier history.
Mary Brave Bird’s mother, Emily Brave Bird, had been raised in a tent in the village of He-Dog on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, then taken to St. Francis Mission boarding school where she was converted to Catholicism.
While she studied nursing in Pierre, South Dakota, her four children were raised by their grandparents. Robert Brave Bird trapped in the winter and farmed in the summer.
He was a descendant of the legendary warrior Pakeska Maza (“Iron Shell”), who became chief of the Wablenicha (“Orphan Band”) of the Brule or Sicanju tribe of the Lakotoa Sioux.
Growing up on the Rosebud Reservation, Brave Bird faced poverty, racism, and brutality from an early age.
Although she descended from a distinguished family, she was not taught a great deal about her heritage. Her mother would not teach her their native language because she said, “speaking Indian would only hold you back, turn you the wrong way.”
She was sent to St. Francis Mission boarding school at the age of five, where she reported that nuns beat Indian students who practiced native customs or spoke their native languages. She later ran away from the school and began her teenage life drinking heavily and getting into fights.
While still a teenager, Brave Bird became involved in the protest activities of the American Indian Movement, where she began to find new spirit and meaning in being Indian.
In 1972, at the age of 16, she participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties march on Washington D.C., after which protesters occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building.
At that time, Brave Bird met Leonard Crow Dog, a Sioux medicine man who was active in AIM and taught her much about Indian traditions. They were married the following year.
In February 1973 in Custer, South Dakota, Sarah Bad Heart Bull protested the release of the murderer of her son, Wesley Bad Heart Bull, and requested AIM’s help at the Custer courthouse.
When AIM protesters in Custer learned that the police had used violence on Bad Heart Bull’s mother, they rioted.
The riot was followed by a meeting attended by medicine men Frank Fools Crow, Wallace Black Elk, Henry Crow Dog, and Pete Catches, all there to consider how to protest this incident. At the time the Pine Ridge Reservation was calling for AIM to help protest the corrupt rule of Richard Wilson, the elected chairman of the reservation.
Two elders suggested that they take a stand at Wounded Knee, where the U.S. cavalry had massacred hundreds of Sioux in 1890.
On February 27, under AIM leadership, a group of Native Americans, Brave Bird and Crow Dog among them, did take a stand at Wounded Knee. Mary Crow Dog gave birth to her first child while there.