By Mary Crow Dog
with Richard Erdoes
Grove Weidenfeld. 263 pp. $18.95
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.
The reviewer is chairman of the Department of English at Arizona State University and co-author of "American Indian Women Telling Their Lives." She is working on a biographical dictionary of American Indian women.