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Holy Road.

Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman passes

By Patti Jo King -- Today correspondent

LOS ANGELES - Floyd ''Red Crow'' Westerman, Dakota musician, actor and activist, passed away Dec. 13 at 5 a.m. PST at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after an extended illness. He was 71.

Westerman began his career in music in the 1960s. He went on to appear in dozens of movies, television productions and documentaries, and participated in grass-roots education and organizing across the nation, becoming one of the most recognizable American Indians of the 20th century.

He was born on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota, but was orphaned and sent to boarding school at the age of 7. He attended both the Wahpeton and Flandreau boarding schools. While most of the students went home during summer and winter breaks, Floyd and a handful of other students stayed year-round, performing custodial and maintenance duties. It was there he learned to play guitar, and made the acquaintance of another youngster, Dennis Banks. The two boys became lifelong friends.

After a stint in the Marine Corps, Westerman headed for college in Aberdeen, S.D., with his old guitar over his shoulder and a song in his heart. There he attended Northern State College (now Northern State University) majoring in secondary education, art and theater. After graduation he settled in Denver, where he supported himself by playing country music. While in Denver, he made another lifelong friend, Vine Deloria Jr.

In 1969, Westerman produced his first album based on discussions he was having about Indian affairs with Deloria. That album, titled ''Custer Died for Your Sins,'' became the background music of the emerging Red Power Movement.

In the early 1970s, Westerman joined Banks and the American Indian Movement, participating in the occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Later, as a spokesman with AIM's International Indian Treaty Council, he traveled the world working for social justice for Native people of all nations. His second album, ''The Land is Your Mother,'' released in 1982, reflected his deep concern for the rights of indigenous people everywhere.

He subsequently collaborated and performed with top musicians such as Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bonnie Raitt, Harry Belafonte, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne and Sting, to name just a few.

The album also paved the way for Westerman's foray into acting, and his film career took off in the late 1980s. He began with small bit parts in such TV programs and films as ''MacGyver'' (1988), ''Mask of the Wolf'' (1988), ''Pow Wow Highway'' (1989) and ''Renegades'' (1989). After his stunning performance as ''Ten Bears'' in 1990's ''Dances with Wolves,'' his career soared.

Throughout the ensuing years, he created many memorable characters in films such as ''Son of the Morning Star'' (1991), ''The Doors'' (1991) and ''Clearcut'' (1991). His character, Uncle Ray Firewalker, was so popular, he reappeared in a dozen episodes of the TV series ''Walker, Texas Ranger.'' Westerman also made repeat appearances in the 1990s TV series ''Northern Exposure'' and ''Dharma and Greg.''

His last performances on the big screen were as Chief Eagle Horn in ''Hidalgo'' (2004) and as Standing Elk in ''Tillamook Treasure'' (2006).

His third album, ''A Tribute to Johnny Cash,'' received stellar reviews when it was released in 2006, and he was awarded a NAMMY Award for the effort in 2007.

In November, after the passing of his friend Vernon Bellecourt, Westerman reminisced about their lives and work, and outlined what he saw as the most pressing concerns for Indians today.

''In the early days of the movement, Vern and I used to drive across the country in a little blue VW,'' he laughed. ''We would drive and talk our way from Minneapolis to Eagle Butte in one night, and would hole up in some little motel in a redneck town. Vern and Vine and Dennis and I - we never got tired. We saw injustice going on and we wanted to stop it. We all had an unspoken commitment to the struggle.''

Westerman also placed great emphasis on the importance of Indian youth. Having lost his mother at an early age, he was always mindful of the need to be a good role model for future generations.

''We have recently lost two of our greatest, most articulate leaders: Vine and Vernon. It's so sad, but we have to move on. We must have faith that strong, new leaders will rise up - they may come from a variety of directions. They may come in the form of journalists, activists, scholars or tribal leaders. Our young people must take the lead and so we have to set good examples for them to follow. It's our responsibility to be sure they are informed and inspired through knowledge of their culture and history. We have to do all we can to help them learn to love themselves and Indian people.''

As news of his passing spread throughout the Indian community, many of his closest friends were eager to express their sadness and sense of loss.

''I've known Floyd for over 60 years,'' Banks said. ''We have been fast friends since we were young kids together in boarding school, and we have grown closer as we have grown older. My heart is full of sadness. He was the greatest cultural ambassador that Indian America ever had - a real national treasure.''

''He stood for tradition, values, spirituality, perseverance and justice,'' said Lionel Bordeaux, president of Sinte Gleska University, who has known Westerman since their college days. ''Floyd was scheduled to deliver the keynote address at Sinte Gleska's 2007 commencement exercises. We planned to bestow an honorary degree on him at the ceremony, but he fell ill and was unable to attend. He didn't forget the young people, however. He sent a message to the students, congratulating them on their achievements and urging them to continue their good work.

''We are all much stronger today because Floyd walked this earth with us. Now he has joined the band of spiritual warriors. We are sad, but we celebrate his life and all that he stood for.''

In recent weeks, Lakota spiritual leader and longtime friend Leonard Crow Dog traveled to Westerman's home in Los Angeles, where he conducted a ceremony on his behalf.

Darrell Standing Elk, another close friend who attended the ceremony, said, ''Floyd was such a good man. He couldn't stand injustice, and he never condemned anyone. He just wanted to help wherever and whenever he could. It was hard to see him the way he was - in pain and all - but he's in a far better place now, with his mother and family and all those who have gone before him.''

''We will greatly miss our beloved friend and relative,'' said Michael Selvage Sr., chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. ''In this life he demonstrated true Dakota values through the medium of film, music and art. He was truly a wonderful role model for our young people.''

As Jake Thompson, Sisseton-Wahpeton vice chairman, recalled, ''When I came home from Vietnam in 1971, I walked in the door of my mother's house, and she had 'Custer Died for Your Sins' playing on the record player. He was from this tribe, but he was a man of the world. He took a position and stood his ground - a real pathfinder. He was loved by all.''

A private memorial service was held for his extended family and many friends at Westerman's home in Marina del Rey, Calif., after which he was escorted back to Sisseton, S.D. There, a two-day wake and memorial service was held at the Tiospa Zina Tribal School gymnasium. The service, during which many dignitaries and personal friends shared stories and fond memories, was open to the public.

Interment followed at St Matthew's Catholic Cemetery in Veblen, S.D., where he was laid to rest beside his beloved mother.