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Lakota linguist leaves a language legacy

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MISSION, S.D. - A woman many in the nation remember only for her role in the production of the movie "Dances With Wolves" leaves a living legacy of students who learned the Lakota language, and a theatre project.

Doris Leader Charge of Parmelee, the Lakota language educator who translated the script and appeared in the Oscar-winning film, died Tuesday, Feb. 20, at Sinte Gleska University in Mission where she had taught Lakota studies for more than 28 years.

Leader Charge, 70, portrayed Pretty Shield, wife of Ten Bears in the movie filmed in western South Dakota in 1989.

In addition to serving as a Lakota-language consultant and instructor for the Blake-Costner epic, she was a special guest at the 1991 Academy Awards ceremonies. She appeared onstage to translate into Lakota part of screenwriter Michael Blake's acceptance speech for best screenplay. "Dances With Wolves" won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

"When I went up and picked up that Oscar for 'Dances With Wolves,' I finally showed the world Indians are here and we're here to stay," she said later.

"I felt very proud. There was a lot of controversy among people I knew. The majority of people were proud of it," said Robert Leader Charger, youngest of her sons.

"I was very proud of my mother. It was kind of a monumental undertaking to teach that many people to speak Lakota in that short of a time. There were certainly some errors in the language, but I was astonished and amazed by the work she and Albert White Hat did in that short time. She was very proud of that," her daughter Rita Millard Means said.

Leader Charge was born May 4, 1930, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. She attended a boarding school and St. Mary's School for Girls in Springfield. After rearing two daughters and four sons, she taught at Sinte Gleska in the mid-1970s while taking classes. She received an elementary education degree in 1984.

She was more than a celebrity linguist. Family members remember her best as a nurturing teacher of Lakota tradition and language. She demonstrated the Sioux way of giving on a daily basis, Robert Leader Charge said.

"She was always there for us. She always tried to do her best to give us what we needed. She didn't care what it took. She always managed to have food on the table and clothes on our back. She struggled through thick and thin with us."

Leader Charge said his mother went through many hardships, sacrificing for her children while they were growing up, but left them with many warm memories including how she often prepared traditional foods such as fried bread.

"The holidays were always special to her. The family was always together," he said.

"She always stressed education to us as children, which is why I went to college. As children, she brought us up in a traditional manner learning how to respect people, property and the elderly."

Leader Charge served on university board of regents alongside her daughter, Rita Millard Means, a founding chairwoman. Her pursuit of a degree in her senior years demonstrated a deep commitment to education.

"She did a great deal for the students at Sinte Gleska University and other universities across the United States. She always wanted her people to have things better than what she had in her life," Richard Leader Charge said.

Jeff Kellogg, university coordinator for Project HOOP, an initiative to develop academic and artistic programs, said Leader Charge helped fuel efforts for the collaborative project which brought theater and a theater curriculum to the university.

"She was instrumental in getting Project HOOP at Sinte Gleska University. She was in on the very early discussions and supported the program," Kellogg said. "The few times I worked with her, I found her to be very knowledgeable. She was glad and happy to pass that knowledge on."

Other university officials said she was a highly respected tribal elder and cultural leader.

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"Leader Charge's death will be a big loss for the Rosebud community. She was pretty much the expert for our language," said fellow teacher Lisa Bryan.

"Everybody always turned to her for advice."

"She was so many things. She raised six children and was a single mother for a long time. She was a wonderful person. My mother was a person who always wanted to live her life to the fullest no matter what she was doing. She has accomplished some really great and wonderful things in her life," Means said.

Means admired her mother's ability to forge ahead. Watching her mother achieve her baccalaureate degree in her 50s was one example of Leader Charge's persistence.

Means said her mother gave her most precious gift - time.

"My mother was a traditional person. She was a person who extended herself to many people ... students and tribal colleges. She always made time for her colleagues and her students," Means said.

"She never didn't have time for somebody. She always made time."

Cheryl Crazy Bull, former university vice president and a close friend, said, "She was a great storyteller. I would sometimes ride with her for 10 or 12 hours on a trip and the whole time she would tell me stories about things she experienced, ceremonies that she saw and then she would tell me Indian stories of how things came about. It's one of the things I will really miss."

"We were very, very close. She was like a mom to me. It's a heart-breaking loss for me. I've been thinking about her and thinking about her. She treated me like a daughter and I thought of her like my mother. We spent a lot of time with her. She introduced me to my own Lakota spirituality. She always gave me a lot of support for my leadership as a woman."

Crazy Bull said, "Her sense of humor and her perseverance is what I most admired.

"She was really devoted to keeping our language and our spiritual practices alive. She was really a deeply spiritual person. She was a Sun Dancer and she went to sweats ever since she was a little girl. Her dad was a singer so she was a part of that all of her life. She was a person who withstood much adversity in her family life."

Crazy Bull said she went through tremendous life changes including the loss of her husband, a second marriage, raising children from both marriages and the loss of her oldest son, LeMoyne Millard, a Vietnam vet who died more than a decade before his mother.

"Through it all she kept her sense of humor, charm and kept her friendships. She developed lifelong friends from people she met in the movie industry, the community and the education community.

"She and her husband, Fred, were very devoted to each other. I feel a real loss for him because they took care of each other," Crazy Bull said.

Though her health was failing in recent years, Crazy Bull said Leader Charge continued to make strong contributions to everyone whose life she touched. She and her husband raised their grandchildren.

The loss for the community was a rare and talented linguist who helped take SGU to a higher level. "The loss of her fluency and her understanding of language instruction is significant. She helped the university improve its ability of its staff to instruct the language," Crazy Bull said.

Family members have been fielding phone calls from across the nation. SGU has set aside time in memory of her. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe asked a local radio station to play a song in her honor. Mary McDonnell, who starred with Costner in the movie, called the family to convey her respects to the family, Means said.

She is survived by her husband Fred Leader Charge Jr. of Parmelee, Mary Millard, Gerald Millard and Richard Leader Charge.

Funeral arrangements included a wake at the SGU multipurpose building in Antelope Feb. 22 and St. Agnes Hall Feb. 23. Services were scheduled Feb. 24 at 1 p.m. at St. Agnes Hall, with burial at the Holy Innocent Cemetery, in Parmelee, under direction of Sandoz's Chapel of the Pines in Valentine, Neb.