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Vi Waln
Special to Indian Country Today

EAGLE BUTTE, South Dakota — The Lakota Oyate are mourning the loss of matriarch Marcella Rose LeBeau, who died Nov. 21 at a Cheyenne River hospital just days after being inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame. She was 102.

LeBeau, a nurse in World War II and later with the Indian Health Service, went on to serve as a council representative for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and as an advocate for the Lakota people.

The family posted a statement on social media announcing her death at the Cheyenne River (Wakpa Waste) IHS hospital Family members said she died “after experiencing problems with her digestive system and losing her appetite.”

“It is with tremendous sadness that the Tiospaye (family) of our beloved Lakota Matriarch Marcella Rose Ryan LeBeau Wigmunke Waste Win (Pretty Rainbow Woman) of the Cheyenne River Oohenunpa (Two Kettle) Lakota nation, regret to inform you that she has begun her journey to the star nation to be welcomed by our ancestors on the evening of Nov. 21, 2021,” according to the statement.

“Her life was so beautifully lived for 102 years and we would like to extend our gratitude to friends, relatives, and the community for the prayers and care offered as we mourn the loss of a precious woman who filled our lives with love and significant meaning.”

LeBeau was widely known for her work as a nurse in WWII. She enlisted when she was 24 years old, and was stationed in Minster, England, at the U.S. Army Nurse Corps’ 76th General Hospital. She continued to serve her people as a nurse with the Indian Health Service for more than 30 years.

She also served as a council representative for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and was an advocate for issues important to the Lakota people, such as better control of commercial tobacco.

She was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame and had received the Women in History Award in 2016 from the Spirit of the Prairie Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

She celebrated her 102nd birthday on Oct. 12.

She spent six years working with The Canli Coalition of CRST advocating for a reservation-wide smoking ban in all indoor public places. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council approved the Smoke-Free Air Act in 2015.

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The coalition posted a video on its Facebook page with several video clips of LeBeau speaking about cigarette smoking.

“As a retired nurse I know the ill effects and dangers of smoking,” LeBeau said in the video. “As Lakotas, we uphold elders and children with the utmost respect. We should not smoke in their presence and subject them to second- and third-hand smoke.”

LeBeau was also known for her work in pressuring Congress to revoke Medals of Honor awarded to soldiers present at the Wounded Knee massacre.

Her work for the people was acknowledged in many ways. The Historic Mother’s Mural was completed in October by artists Focus Smith and Grow Love, honoring LeBeau and Natalie Stites Means, also a Cheyenne River citizen. The wall of images includes the two women with a landscape of flowers, an eagle flying in a blue sky and buffalo. 

The Lakota Women Warriors, a group of veterans who serve the people as color guards at many events, posted a tribute to LeBeau on their Facebook page.

“Having received many honors throughout her life,” the group posted, “she is a recipient of the French Legion of Honor given to her in 2004 on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, an inductee to the South Dakota Hall of Fame, and a founding member of the Native American Indian Women’s Association."

The group noted that her great-grandfather, Chief Four Bear, was one of the Fool Soldiers who rescued women and children captured during the Dakota Uprising in 1862, and said she helped to bring home from a Scottish museum a Ghost Dance shirt that had been taken from a body at the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.

LeBeau traveled to Oklahoma City to accept her nomination into the National Native American Hall of Fame on Nov. 6 for her work in the medical field.

She is “highly regarded for her health policy leadership spanning eight decades,” the hall's website states. “Her fortitude and courage were recognized with the awarding of six highly distinguished medals ... LeBeau has contributed to the health and well-being of Lakota people, World War II soldiers, and diverse populations of people.”

A funeral service is set for 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 27, at the Cheyenne-Eagle Butte School Auditorium. Burial will be at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cemetery in Promise under the direction of Kesling Funeral Home of Mobridge. Visitation will start at 5 p.m. Friday with a prayer service at 7 p.m.

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This article contains material from The Associated Press.