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Oglala Lakota mother carries on with her daughter's hope

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PINE RIDGE, S.D. - On the morning of Feb. 9, 1992, on a lonely stretch of Interstate 90, Leatrice 'Chick' Big Crow and her daughter, SuAnne, were returning home from Sioux Falls to Pine Ridge.

Suddenly, without warning, the two were involved in a single-car accident. SuAnne, 18, did not survive.

She was a high school basketball standout who helped lead the Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes to a state championship in her senior year. The young Oglala Lakota was also an outstanding student and natural leader who, her mother says, made plans early on about how she would try to help improve the quality of life for other Lakota children.

A major part of that dream was a youth center. Just seven months after her daughter's death, Chick Big Crow helped oversee the first step in making her daughter's dream a reality. In September 1992, Happy Town, the first Boys and Girls Club in Pine Ridge, opened its doors to local children.

With construction about to start on a new, $4 million facility, Chick Big Crow sees a bigger, brighter, future. "I don't know where or when it happened, but I just realized it awhile back. It started out as SuAnne's dream, but now it's mine, too."

Amid the excitement of construction drawing near, after a little prodding, Big Crow paused to share some thoughts of the special qualities about her daughter. "A lot of people used to notice that whenever she entered a room, there was a sparkle that entered, too. You knew where she was all the time.

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"Wherever she was, she stood out. And I thought that was just a mother's pride, you know. But it turns out it wasn't. Since she died, a lot of people have told me they felt that way," said Big Crow. "She made it look so easy. I can't explain the pride and the joy I had when I watched her.

"There were people that never went to games, but they went to watch her."

Big Crow tells the story about an annual award instituted in honor of her daughter. "One year when I gave the Spirit of Su Award away, this little boy was jumping up and down. I made my way to him and he handed me a piece of paper, but he wouldn't let go of it. It was her autograph. He had gotten it several years before and now he won her award." Big Crow became quiet.

However easy and natural SuAnne Big Crow made it seem, her mother cautioned against the idea that raw talent accounted for everything. "I can't say there was no effort because she really worked hard. She was running and going to the gym every day. Once she set her goals, that was it. She was self-motivated."

Chick Big Crow also recalled that she got pretty excited at her daughter's games. "At SuAnne's first game, I fell out of the bleachers," she says, with a laugh. "She'd go down the court this way and I bounce this way, then she'd go down the court that way and I bounce that way. Pretty soon, I bounced one bounce too many and I bounced off."

Asked if there was something she thought people should know about SuAnne they might not know, Big Crow said, "A lot of people write about the reservation, but it's usually something negative. One thing SuAnne tried to get across was that there are people who are working at making it positive, that there are good things here.

"In 1989, when (NBC anchorman) Tom Brokaw did 'Tragedy at Pine Ridge' it angered her. She wanted people to know that there are not only tragedies here, but that they are all over. A lot of times we're just stereotyped - that this is a desolate and hopeless place. But every time you look in our kids' eyes you see hope. It's here and I think people need to realize it."