Leonard Crow Dog, a renowned spiritual leader and Native American rights activist who fought for language preservation, sovereignty, and religious freedom died of liver cancer on June 6 in South Dakota. He was widely known for serving in the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation, a clash between Native Americans and the United States.
The turmoil between the two groups originated in 1890 when federal forces killed hundreds of unarmed Lakota people. In February 1973, Dog, and other activists returned to the site, Pine Ridge Reservation, bearing a list of grievances and demanding that broken treaties be honored. There, he helped injured protestors and negotiated with federal forces throughout the occupation. He even lobbied for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and Indian Self Determination Act, which were laws that altered the relationship between Native Americans and the U.S government
“I think that this was the greatest moment in my life,” Chief Crow Dog said in reflection of the Wounded Knee event. “And that our 71-day stand was the greatest deed done by Native Americans in this century.”
Dog was born on August 18, 1942, to Henry and Mary Gertrude Crow Dog on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, home to the people also known as the Sicangu Lakota. As a child, he was taught cultural traditions and ceremonies from his father and Lakota elders. His mother was one of the first female singers in The Native American Church and his father was an Eagle Dancer. In a statement, Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Rodney Bordeaux commented, “He did not go to school. Instead, his parents enlisted four medicine men to guide his education.”
Leonard’s parents kept him out of American schools, to ensure that he learned tribal traditions. In his autobiography, Crow Dog, Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men (1995, with Richard Erdoes), he recalled, “When the truant officers came to get me, my father chased them off with a shotgun.”
Bordeaux believed that Crow Dog was taught by everyday life lessons.
“Throughout his life, Crow Dog learned from the University of the Universe, as he would say, and he shared his understanding of WoLakota with our Sicangu Oyate, the Oceti Sakowin, and Peoples of all Nations.”
As an adult, he was drawn to activism work. In 1968, Leonard joined the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.). He had an early marriage to Francine Cloudman, and then married Ellen Moore, a fellow Native American rights activist best known for a 1990 memoir, Lakota Woman.
Crow Dog attended and spoke at countless rallies, marches and protests over the years. In 1972, he took part in the Trail of Broken Treaties, which included the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.
A leader in the Native American Church, which combines tribal and Christian elements, he oversaw traditional peyote rituals. The activist and his father drew from those spiritual practices, and collaborated on a 1971 album called, “Crow Dog’s Paradise: Songs of the Sioux.”
“Crow Dog gave his life for the people through ceremony, songs, Sundance, political action and bold leadership,” said Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota, and president and CEO of NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led advocacy organization. “This is a loss that hurts us all deeply. His legacy will be carried forward with what we all do with the things he taught us through his love for the people.”