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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Renowned (Rosebud) Sicangu Oyate spiritual leader and activist Chief Leonard Crow Dog died Sunday at Crow Dog's Paradise on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota after a battle with cancer. He was 78.

Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Rodney Bordeaux, Sicangu Lakota Oyate, issued a statement saying, “as a young man, Leonard Crow Dog learned from his father Henry Crow Dog and Lakota elders. He did not go to school, instead his parents enlisted four medicine men to guide his education. Throughout his life, Crow Dog learned from the University of the Universe, as he would say, and he shared his understanding of WoLakota with our Sicangu Oyate, the Oceti Sakowin, and Peoples of all Nations.

“Leonard was in touch with the sacred power that connects all of us and the Creation. Leonard Crow Dog was the spiritual advisor to the American Indian Movement (AIM) and close friends with Russell Means. He stood for human rights, and he knew that the Lakota received our rights from the Creator—our Breath of Life, Freedom to dream and live our visions, and our sacred duty to protect Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth,” Bordeaux said.

Shakopee Mdewakanton Chairman Keith B. Anderson issued a statement saying, “We join others of the Oceti Sakowin from around Indian Country, and throughout the world in celebrating the life of Chief Leonard Crow Dog who recently passed. 

"For many years, our tribe and its leaders worked with Chief Crow Dog and many others of the Oceti Sakowin as we came together to protect and restore land known as Pe Sla, a part of the sacred Black Hills," Anderson said. "Chief Crow Dog provided cultural and spiritual knowledge to tribal leaders and representatives that guided their work as the Tribes restored their rightful authority and care over the sacred land that was promised to the Great Sioux Nation in the Ft. Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 and thereafter illegally taken." 

NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota, stated, “Crow Dog gave his life for the people through ceremony, songs, Sundance, political action and bold leadership. This is a loss that hurts us all deeply. His legacy will be carried forward with what we all do with the things he taught us through his love for the people.

“We will never allow our ceremonies to be outlawed again,” Tilsen continued. “We will fight for our lands, revitalize our languages and stand up for our people. We will do so as proud Native people standing on the shoulders of this fearless leader uncle, dad, grandpa and brother. We must be good to one another, love one another, and lead with our hearts. Our deepest condolences to all of his family, loved ones, Sundance circle and children.”

NDN Collective is an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power and sustainable solutions.

Crow Dog is the co-author, with Doug Erdoes, of the 1995 book, “Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men.” It tells the story of Crow Dog’s ancestors and his life up to his release from prison in 1976. It spans 200 years of wars, battles, displacement, starvation, and renewal.

In the book, Crow Dog said in the late 1960s police were not investigating or pressing charges in the murders of American Indians. He said young men caught off the reservation were charged with misdemeanors and thrown in prison with adult prisoners, and police harassed young American Indian women.

That was happening against the backdrop of the Indian Relocation Act and Indian Termination Act. The two laws revoked tribal sovereignty, and removed Indians from their land for relocation to urban areas.

— Harry S. Truman: Beginning of Indian Termination Era
— Native History: AIM Occupation of Wounded Knee Begins)

Crow Dog said after joining AIM, he spoke to his people on Rosebud, saying, “I’m concerned for you. I’ve seen how much hardship you’ve endured. I don’t want you to be left out. I don’t want to see you in old folks’ homes. I don’t want to see you poor and hungry. You are the real Indians, the real Lakota, the backbone of the nation. You know the language and the ways of our people but your voice has not been heard. We must stop letting the government and the tribal council talk for you. We must stop letting them tell you how to run your lives.”

He revived Lakota traditions, including the Ghost Dance. Created in the late 1800s, it was meant to bring peace and prosperity, as well as unity with those who have passed on. Crow Dog said, “We danced so that our Lakota Nation should live.”

Crow Dog attended and spoke at countless rallies, marches, and protests. He helped add the renewal of cultural traditions and spirituality to AIM’s goals. He took part in The Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972, which included the occupation of Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington. He was part of and arrested after the 71-day occupation at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973.

Crow Dog served two years in prison. After his release, he returned to South Dakota to hold sweat lodge and peyote ceremonies, Sundances and other spiritual activities. He counseled countless people during times of loss or hardship. He lobbied for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and Indian Self Determination Act, two laws that altered the relationship between Native Americans and the United States.

In 2016, Crow Dog joined and held ceremonies with Native Americans from across the country who gathered at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. When some 2,000 veterans visited and asked forgiveness for centuries of attacks against Native Americans, Crow Dog told them they are forgiven and urged world peace.

(Related: OCETI SAKOWIN: Lighting the Sacred Fire at Standing Rock)

Crow Dog is widely praised as a visionary, a powerful spiritual leader who fought for sovereignty, language preservation, religious freedom, and traditional ways of life. His book ends with the words, “Grandfather, behold me. This is me, I am standing, grandfather behold me, this is me, standing up.”

Monday flags flew at half-mast on Rosebud, and classes were canceled at Sinte Gleska University.

Condolences are pouring in to his family from people he prayed with or counseled, as well as groups and individuals as varied as the Rapid City Police Department, National Indian Gaming Association, actor Mark Ruffalo and long-time prisoner and activist Leonard Peltier.

Leonard Crow Dog is survived by his wife, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, other relatives and many friends and followers. 

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Updated to show death came after battling cancer.