In this stirring sequel to the now-classic Lakota Woman, Mary Brave Bird continues the chronicle of her life with the same grit, passion, and piercing insight. It is a tale of ancient glory and present anguish, of courage and despair, of magic and mystery, and, above all, of the survival of both body and mind.
Having returned home from Wounded Knee in 1973 and gotten married to American Indian movement leader Leonard Crow Dog, Mary became a mother who had hope of a better life. But, as she says, “Trouble always finds me.” With brutal frankness she bares her innermost thoughts, recounting the dark as well as the bright moments in her tumultuous life. She talks about the stark truths of being a Native American living in a white-dominated society as well as her experience of being a mother, a woman, and, rarest of all, a Sioux feminist. Filled with contrasts, courage, and endurance, Ohitika Woman is a powerful testament to Mary’s will and spirit.
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Like a Candle in a Storm
I was like a candle in a storm, a little candle in a big storm, barely flickering, almost snuffed out. On March 28, 1991, there was a power outage on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. As the light bulbs went out in my mother's house she said: "I wonder if anything happened to Mary?" She still doesn't know what made her say this. Then she heard it on her scanner, with which you can listen to the tribal police band. She heard a policeman say: "Mary Crow Dog has been in a terrible wreck. She's dying. She's gone."
I had been drinking heavily, like most everybody else on the res. To drown my sorrows. To forget. To wash away despair in a flood of Jack Daniel's and "Buddy Wiser." I had no place to stay. Part of the summer I had lived in a dilapidated one-room cabin with an earth floor, a kerosene lamp, and a toppling outhouse, a veritable Tower of Pisa. Before that, for months at a time, I had lived with my children in a tipi at Grass Mountain. The advance money from the book was long gone. Every week I had to borrow money from Richard, my wasichu coauthor.
Because of some of the things I'd said in Lakota Woman, women on the res had liked my book. Some men had not and were giving me that "death look." One had sneered at me: "You are nothing and your book is nothing." Woman beating is part of everyday life on the reservation. The white man oppresses the half-blood, the half-blood oppresses the full-blood, and everybody takes out their anger, despair, and feeling of helplessness on the women. The men have a good and an evil side. Sober, they are angels. Drunk, their evil side comes out, and they are drunk a good part of the time.
Men and women drink because there is nothing else to do. There are no jobs. The poverty is unbelievable. Everybody is on public assistance, which is not enough to hold body and soul together. There is nothing to occupy one's time except partying and playing "quarter pitch." Partying means visiting back and forth in groups while getting drunk. Getting drunk means getting mean, and partying often ends in violence. Men fight men, women fight women, friends fight friends, big guys beat up on little women. They seldom beat kids. I will give them that. Sometimes a fight ends in death or serious injury. Most fatalities on the reservation are caused by DWI, driving while intoxicated. More people die because of this than heart disease and cancer combined. Some kill themselves by drinking "Montana gin," a deadly mixture of Lysol and water that is becoming popular on some reservations.
I have many faults, but dishonesty is not among them. I tell it like it is. I don't make myself better than I am. Being beaten up sometimes was my own fault. I don't have to go partying. I don't have to drink myself into insensibility, though given conditions on the res, insensibility can be bliss. When I am in that state my anger comes out. I get rowdy and foulmouthed. I talk back to the men and get hurt. Many a night I wind up in the drunk tank. I wrecked several cars while being "lila itomni."
On that night, March 28, I had been partying with some of my friends. We had already downed a few and went to the "club," where we had shots of Jack Daniel's and margaritas on top of that. Then I went to a girlfriend's house, where they were drinking beer. I joined in. Everything was covered with empty beer cans. When I got up to leave, everybody said: "Don't go. You're in no condition to drive." But I went anyway. I wanted to pick up my cousin, Mike, who is part Navajo, and have some more Buddy Wisers with him. I never made it.
Somehow I got on the road leading to the trailer of my sister Barb and her old man, Jim. It was about one o'clock. I was on a gravel road, real loose gravel. I took the wrong turn and must have been going real fast, because I lost control of the car, and when I saw that utility pole coming at me, I said: "Oh, shit!" And that's all I remember.
When I came to I couldn't move. I yelled for help, but nobody heard me. Then I lost consciousness again. I had wrecked near a house. The man who lived there got up early in the morning and noticed my car from his window. He also saw the utility pole down and broken in half. Luckily he had a phone and called the police.
High-voltage wire was wrapped all around the car, and to get me out they had to call the electric company to turn off the power. I was pinned inside the car, drifting in and out of consciousness. I did not know where I was or what had happened. They thought I was dead, but one man noticed a pulse beating. When they moved me there was a terrible surge of pain that shot up all the way from my feet into the roots of my hair. Cuts from the glass of the splintered windshield had left tiny drops of blood all over my face. My mother said it looked like freckles. One of my ears was nearly severed. Six of my ribs were broken. One had punctured and collapsed my left lung. Another had ripped open my aorta, but this they didn't find out until later. At the tribal hospital they thought that my neck had been broken. They called my condition "code blue." They knew that my injuries were too severe for them to handle and that they would have to fly me to the big hospital at Sioux Falls, our largest city. They phoned my mom, and she came down from He Dog to be with me. My oldest son, Pedro, also came, together with my sister Barb. They all flew with me. I fantasized that I phoned my kids to tell them where I was, but of course I was hallucinating. I was dehydrated and terribly thirsty, but they wouldn't give me any water on account of my injuries. In spite of the state I was in I got rowdy and kicked the nurse. Barb took this as a good sign that at least I was not paralyzed. Pedro, on the sly, gave me some fluid to drink from an IV bottle.
When we arrived at Sioux Falls, Mom had a priest give me the last rites before they wheeled me in for surgery. The doctors gave me only one chance in ten to survive the next twenty-four hours. They performed open- heart surgery to put a graft around my ripped aorta. They told me later that for some twenty seconds I had been clinically dead with my arteries disconnected. I could not breathe by myself, and they had to perform a tracheotomy. I was also put on a respirator. They put a tube in my left side to drain the lung and a catheter in my urethra, and pumped antibiotics and God knows what else intravenously into both my arms. They did not bother with my lesser injuries. Even now, ten months later, there are "no strings attached" between my left shoulder blade and upper arm bones, where most ligaments were torn and never repaired. To this day, it hurts and the arm is weak.
Before the accident I had been going through a lot, was depressed and did not want to go on with my life. That is why I got drunk and wrecked in the first place. So, during open-heart surgery, I had a vision. It was very real, like a down-to-earth experience. I went to see my grandma who had raised me. I was in a room with her in the house where I had spent my early childhood. I said: "Grandma, I came to stay with you." She said: "No, you can't." I told her: "I don't want to stay in the world anymore. I miss you." But Grandma insisted: "No, you can't. You have kids to take care of. Think of them. You have to go back. I'll be here for you, someday, when you're ready to come over. I'll always be here for you." So my grandmother was telling me to go back to the world and my responsibilities. After surgery I thought I was dying and I wouldn't let Mom let go of my hand. They took a CAT scan the next day, putting me into something like a giant tube to take X rays of my head. I thought I was dead and someone was putting me in the freezer.
They performed a series of operations on me, but every time they thought they were through with me, they found new injuries to fix. They discovered that my womb was injured and took out one of my ovaries. Before they did this they made me sign a paper: "I understand that after this operation I will never be able to have a baby," or something to that effect. At first I refused, saying: "Can't you avoid it?" They asked me: "Do you have any children?" I told them: "Yes, three boys, one girl, and a granddaughter." "Well, you've done enough," one of the doctors said. "Herewith we retire you from that messy childbearing business!" Ten months later I was pregnant again. That shows you how much you can rely upon what those big-shot doctors tell you. Here I was thinking that I didn't have to be careful anymore and then there was someone kicking again inside my belly. So it goes.
I stayed a month in the hospital. They put staples in my back and in other spots where I had surgery. They hurt whenever I moved. At first I couldn't move at all. I just lay there. If I wanted to change position I had to call the nurse. One night I got so tired of lying on my back that I somehow managed to turn over on my stomach. That was a mistake, because I got all tangled up in the sheets like a mummy. I couldn't reach the button to call for the nurse. I yelled for help, but nobody heard me. I finally managed to push the button with my foot. The nurse came and laughed seeing me in my mummified state. I didn't think it was all that funny. But the nurses were good to me. After a week or so they took out the catheter and the tube in my trachea. I could breathe again and go to the bathroom by myself They took the IVs off because I could now eat solid food. They took me to the rehab place for physical therapy. I was still in great pain but considered myself blessed having all my body parts in the right place and functioning again. There were a lot of other skins in that hospital for the same reason as myself ... DWI! Some were missing hands or legs, and others were blinded or brain damaged. They were much worse off than I. A lot of people were sending me get-well cards. I didn't realize how many people were praying for me. One guy, George, who partied a lot, even conducted a sweat for me. He later told me: "I thought of you every day. Even when I was drunk I prayed for you."
Once I was able to get around I even enjoyed myself, up to a point. I had hot and cold running water, a bathtub and flush toilet, all the conveniences of a middle-class wasichu home. I could order any food I wanted and raid the fridge whenever I felt like it. But I got restless and tired of being cooped up in a hospital. I missed my kids and friends. So, over the protests of some doctors, I checked myself out and had Barb and Jim drive me the three hundred miles home. I stayed at my mother's place, and she took good care of me. I still hurt, so the doctors gave me painkillers, Demerol and other highly addictive narcotics. The more you take, the more you want. I told them: "Take me off that stuff. I don't want to end up as a junkie." I drank to deaden the pain. When the pain stopped I quit drinking. Sometimes my heart muscle cramps, mostly when I am stressed out. So on certain days I still have trouble breathing. Singing with others at the drum during last summer's sun dance, I got short-winded and had to sit down. But that's my own fault, because I still smoke cigarettes. I smoke a little pej, too. I look upon it as a natural medicine that was put there for us. I never did drugs like crack, cocaine, or heroin. I never got into the hard stuff. It used to be that I couldn't get out of bed and through the day without a joint, but I put it away because it was no longer doing anything for me. I pray to Wakan Tanka, the Creator, and I'm honest with him and with myself.
Finally this episode in my life came to an end. I never was the same again after it. It changed my life-style for sure.
Three things stand out in my memory regarding my car wreck. Two are funny and one is very strange. I got a bill for fifteen hundred dollars — to pay for a new telephone pole. That struck me as tragicomical. After the wreck, when I got a trailer house for myself and the kids, the utility company wouldn't turn on the electricity until I signed an agreement to pay for the pole in monthly installments.
The second incident isn't quite as funny, come to think of it. Debbie, the person whose house I wrecked in front of, owns what calls itself a nightclub in Mission. Don't imagine that it's like a club in New York or Chicago. It's just a small, humble drinking joint for skins. Debbie is an old friend. I grew up with her, and we are really close. After the wreck, while I was recovering, I stopped in and saw her at the club. She said: "I'm so glad you survived! We were rooting for you! Drinks are on the house!"
The third thing that happened, the strange one, was this: As I was hallucinating on the operating table, I imagined that I phoned my children, telling them where I was and what had happened to me. At that time the children were staying with my sister Barb. When Barb came home from Sioux Falls, my son June Bug told her: "Mom called. She said that she was in a car wreck and is in surgery. She also said not to worry, that she'll be all right." The spirit works in strange ways.
That is all I can say about this accident that almost killed me. White readers will probably look upon it as something out of the ordinary. On the res it caused no ripple. DWI wrecks like mine happen all the time, to be dismissed with a shrug.CHAPTER 2
I am an iyeska, a half-breed, and there are some on the res who won't let me forget it. The full-bloods, the ikche wichasha, the "wild, natural beings," often look down upon the half-breeds as no longer living in the traditional Indian way, as being "apples," red on the outside and white inside. The half-breeds, in turn, look upon the full- bloods as backward. All this doesn't mean much. Ikche wichasha or iyeska, we are all no longer living like the old Indians — we all go to the same stores and supermarkets and have had to compromise, with one foot in the white and the other in the Indian world. Also, at Rosebud we are all related in some way, particularly as we recognize fourth, fifth, and sixth cousins as relatives. I am a half-breed. So what?
We are all descended from Chief Iron Shell, Pankeska Maza, a son of a warrior called Bull Tail. Iron Shell was a legendary fighter. In 1843 he killed eleven Pawnees during a single battle. He counted many coups* and received many war honors. In 1849 a band of Lakotas went on the warpath and fell into a trap. Over eighty of their party were killed, and the survivors and their families were from that time on known as the Wablenicha, or Orphan Band. Eventually Iron Shell became the chief of the Wablenicha. In 1855, after a heroic defense, Iron Shell and his band were defeated at the battle of the Blue Water River. In the retreat, one baby was lost but was found by an officer and later returned to his father, Iron Shell. The baby, whose name was Hollow Horn Bear, grew up to become a great chief.
Iron Shell had seven sons — Bear Dog, the oldest, Hollow Horn Bear, Peter Iron Shell, Bird Necklace, He Frightens, Pretty Bird, and my great-grandfather, Stephen Brave Bird. At some time late in the nineteenth century, everybody got a permanent last name and a Christian first name. Brave Bird had only one son, and that is why there are so few Brave Birds left.
Each of Iron Shell's sons formed his own tiyospaye, the extended Lakota family that includes all people descended from a common father. Of all these sons of Iron Shell, Chief Hollow Horn Bear, Mato He Oglogeca, was the best known. He was a magnificent-looking man. His face appeared on an old fourteen-cent postage stamp and on a five-dollar bill. He was invited by President Teddy Roosevelt to come to his inauguration. As a young man he had been a great warrior. When only sixteen years old he counted his first coup on a Pawnee brave. As befitted a great chief he had a harem of seven wives. As a chief he had to be generous, feeding all visitors and giving away fine buffalo robes. One single wife could not have done all that cooking and hide tanning. One wife's name was Good Bed. He had his camp at Cut Meat, a small settlement so named because it was where the government-issued cattle were butchered.
In 1912, the chief had his first ride in a motorcar. Studying our ancestors' history, I am always struck by the fact that my great- grandfathers and great-grandmothers made the jump from the Stone Age to the industrial age in one single lifetime. Iron Shell and Hollow Horn Bear grew up making their fires with flint and steel and had gone to war with bows and stone-tipped arrows. They lived off the buffalo. In their old age they rode in cars, made telephone calls, posed for photographs, and had dinner with journalists and politicians in fancy East Coast restaurants. Hollow Horn Bear died in Washington of pneumonia during the inauguration of President Wilson. His body w as shipped back to Rosebud, where he was buried in 1913.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ohitika Woman"
Copyright © 1993 Mary Brave Bird and Richard Erdoes.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Instead of a Foreword,
1 Like a Candle in a Storm,
3 A Little Backtracking,
4 Life in Paradise,
5 Womb Power,
6 Song of the Waterbird,
7 Peyote Memories,
8 Wrapped in a Hot, White Cloud,
10 The Granddaddy of Them All,
11 Big Mountain,
12 Under the Tempe Bridge,
13 Living on Beer, Commodities, and Love,
14 On a Tear,
15 Bleeding Always Stops If You Press Down Hard Enough,
16 Moon Power,
17 The Land Is Our Blood,
18 Selling the Medicine,
19 A New Love,
20 The Iron House,
21 Skin Art,
22 Here and Now,
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