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Survival of the Spirit


I am Mary Brave Bird. After I had my baby during the siege of Wounded Knee they gave me a special name--Ohitika Win, Brave Woman--and fastened an eagle plume in my hair, singing brave-heart songs for me. I am a woman of the Red Nation, a Sioux woman. That is not easy.

-- Mary Crow Dog, "Lakota Woman"

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be watching my life on screen," says Mary Crow Dog, who wrote the 1990 bestseller "Lakota Woman" with Richard Erdoes.

Crow Dog, who was born Mary Brave Bird, was on the set nearly every day last fall for the filming of "Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee." The drama, which premieres Sunday on TNT, was shot in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota. "It brought back a lot of memories," Crow Dog says softly. "It was pretty powerful."

Born on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, Crow Dog, 41, grew up, fatherless, in a one-room cabin. Like most Native American children at that time, she was sent to Catholic missionary school, where students were forced to assimilate into the white culture. Their hair was cut. They were taught English and Catholicism.

"The boys were mistreated," Crow Dog says. "We got whipped too, but the boys got their heads shaved and they got whipped really hard. It was hard."

Eventually, Crow Dog rebelled and joined the then-fledgling American Indian Movement, the controversial organization that seeks to restore pride in Native American ways. In 1973, Crow Dog was one of 2,000 Native Americans who occupied the sacred Wounded Knee burial ground for 71 days to protest alleged violations of Native American rights and demand a U.S. Senate investigation. The occupation ended after two AIM members were killed and two federal agents wounded.

Amid the protest unity and turmoil at Wounded Knee, Crow Dog gave birth to a son, Pedro.

"Lakota Woman," produced by Jane Fonda's Fonda Films, features virtually an all-Native American cast. The crew is 44% Native American--the highest proportion of Native Americans ever to work behind the camera on a major film. "Lakota Woman" also is part of Turner Broadcasting Inc.'s company-wide Native American initiative this fall.

Director Frank Pierson, whose previous films have included the controversial TV movies "Citizen Cohn" and "Somebody Has to Shoot the Picture," did not want to impose his own point of view.

"I felt very much I was trying to express a feeling that relates to what it feels like to live in that Indian culture within the language, the tradition, the habits and the way daily life is lived there," he explains. "It was very important that I listen, hear and see as much as I could that was there and put it faithfully on screen."

Making the film proved to be a learning experience for Pierson. "There's a sequence (in the film) in which little Mary is being sent to a boarding school in which she is not allowed to speak her language," he says. "She lost contact with her family, her traditions and her tribe. They supplied her with nothing to take their place. That's the case with many Indian children. That's one of the reasons why there's a very high rate of alienation and alcoholism. They descend into this kind of abyss. They become lost generations. The survivors are like Mary. She is a survivor and she found the solution through the American Indian Movement and especially her experience at Wounded Knee."

Crow Dog, who is the mother of six and grandmother of two, still lives on the Rosebud reservation. "I just got electricity and a bath," she says. "I have lived in cities. I have lived in Phoenix for a while. I live on the reservation by choice. We have clean water and our own self-government. We are the majority--you know what I mean."

She would never live in nearby Rapid City. "There is a lot of prejudice," she says firmly. "It's really bad. It's like the Deep South. You couldn't pay me to live in that town. There is no justice."

Though Crow Dog says Native Americans are still oppressed, she believes that life for Native Americans has gotten better and points to missionary schools being a thing of the past as an example.

"The school I was in, now it's an Indian school," Crow Dog says. "They have Indian people on the board and parents are involved with their children and have a say-so. Before, our hair was cut, and now you can still be in athletics and have long hair. We had to fight to have long hair. We grow our hair for religious reasons."

Her grandparents, she says, thought it was in her own best interest to assimilate, "so I would be better off in this society. A lot of my mom's generation are assimilated."

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