MISSION, S.D. - Eight years ago family members who call the revered Lakota warrior Crazy Horse grandfather, became upset that his name and an American Indian image were used on a bottle of malt liquor. They could hardly have imagined a historic apology would take place in their lifetimes.
At a lengthy ceremony that featured an apology to the Crazy Horse estate, it was obvious to many people and to the relatives that the spirit of Crazy Horse was present.
John W. Stroh III came from Detroit and, for the first time in his life, stepped onto an American Indian reservation. The purpose of his visit was to deliver the apology.
"This is a great honor and an extraordinary experience," Stroh said.
Stroh's Brewing Co. bought G. Heileman Brewing Co. of La Crosse, Wis., in 1995 after it declared bankruptcy. G. Heileman bottled and distributed Crazy Horse malt liquor under contract with Hornell Brewing company of New York.
Stroh said it was only right to apologize for the bottling and distribution of Crazy Horse Malt Liquor. "When somebody asks for an apology to heal the spirit of their ancestor, how do you say no to that? Our family values are not that different. I was taught to honor and respect."
Stroh's brewing sold the Heileman assets, but some of the liability, including a lawsuit to stop distribution of the malt liquor was held by SBC Holding, the company Stroh heads.
The ceremony was to present a an official letter of apology from Stroh to Seth Big Crow, administrator of the Crazy Horse estate.
Keeping with cultural sensitivity, Stroh's company also presented the family with 32 Pendelton blankets, 32 sweet grass braids, 32 tobacco ties and seven thoroughbred horses. Seven breweries produced and distributed Crazy Horse Malt Liquor in 32 states.
"We understand your deep and sincere feeling that the marketing of the malt liquor beverage bearing the name of the revered Lakota leader and your ancestor disparaged his spirit and caused you and his other descendants emotional distress," Stroh said as he read from the letter of apology.
"We hope that you will accept these items, as our apology for the offensive conduct of the G. Heileman Brewing Co."
"This means more to me than another Pendleton blanket," Big Crow said as he held the letter high. "They don't have permission to take someone else's name, someone else's image, someone else's property rights."
The apology from Stroh is not the end of the story. A federal civil suit still exists with the name of Hornell Brewing Co. of New York and the owners Ferolito, Vultaggio & Sons. The company also bottles and distributes AriZona Iced Tea against which the Crazy Horse Defense Project has established a nationwide boycott.
Many people and lawyers have either volunteered or worked for a fee on the project over the years, and will do so in the coming months and years it will take to stop the distribution of the malt liquor, attorneys said.
"I am pleased that Strohs came to apologize. Tribal law says to bring peace and harmony," said Bob Gough, lead attorney for the estate.
Gough said Big Crow started in a good way at the beginning of the process with Hornell and G. Heileman Brewing Co. He said Hornell was approached with an explanation about the use of Crazy Horse's name.
"Hornell chose not to do the right thing. They claimed they had the right to use the name," Gough said. "Hornell didn't know Crazy Horse was a real person or that there were any Sioux Indians alive.
"Representatives from Strohs came here out of respect and came here to meet with the people. This is a very good day."
It was when there was no action by Hornell that family members from the Cheyenne River Sioux, Oglala Sioux and the Rosebud Sioux tribes asked what could be done and the legal process began, in tribal court.
"What I've learned is that Crazy Horse' spirit is alive today and you don't insult the spirit," Gough said. "Appellate courts overruled tribal court decisions because the malt liquor was neither bottled nor distributed on the reservation."
But, since Crazy Horse was a Lakota, Gough said Lakota law applies and that is what makes the case different. "We aren't talking about the past. The spirit is alive today. Under Lakota law, because the person passed on, you still can't insult the name."
In November of 2000, a federal civil lawsuit was filed against the company taking the matter to another level.
The large crowd at the multi-purpose building on the Sinte Gleska University campus was not thinking about a lawsuit. Many of those gathered were family members who could claim some genetic ties to Crazy Horse even though there are no direct descendants.
The songs that honored those who worked toward the day of reconciliation with the brewing companies and the song that honored Crazy Horse were paramount to the celebration.
"Today means a lot to me as an Indian lawyer," said Jonny BearCub Stiffarm, Assiniboine Sioux from Fort Peck. She was one of the six lawyers on the team and one of the first to take up the case.
She said when Gough, Stuart Taylor, another of the lawyers, and she went to Albuquerque to a bar meeting, they asked American Indian lawyers to join, but were laughed at because the case was from the old culture.
"That hurt. You can never take out of my soul what makes me Indian. You have to have faith," she said in an emotional speech.
"When you are knocked down you pray. Someplace out there, some Indian is praying for us. They and I believe if our customary law is valid we are valid," she said.
Blankets and the other gifts were distributed to those who have helped with the project and to some of the elders and family members.
"We go forward and talk about the future and the youth, and we will take these ideas and values and we will be strong knowing that Crazy Horse walked our land," said Lionel Bourdeaux, Sinte Gleska University president