Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Robert Begay built things from scratch for his daughter like a raft made from tires, a basketball hoop out of a bucket, and the ultimate treehouse with a balcony and sliding door.

“My mom used to tell me that some of the other dads in Lower Brule would say ‘Geez Robert, you’re making us look bad. You’re always out there with your daughter, pulling her around in that wagon and getting me in trouble with my wife,’” his daughter Faith Begay-Dominique said.

He was a fun, positive person who was always happy, she said. And many people have told her how her dad helped them when they needed it.

On March 4, Robert Begay, Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Diné, died at the age of 63 from COVID-19 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

In his life he passed down his appreciation to his children, “making sure that we feel thankful for the littlest things and we recognize all the blessings we have,” she said.

Growing up, Faith said she and her father were like two peas in a pod where even people called her “little Robert” because she looked like him and was with him everywhere.

When he was the director of the Dakota Oyaté Challenge in the early 2000s, trying to include more all-Native high school basketball teams in the tournament, he brought Faith along to the meetings.

“I got to sit at the table with all the other people, or any other kind of big things that he was working on,” she said. “Looking back I appreciate that as a young girl, that he always empowered me and always told me that I could do whatever I wanted and always supported me.”

And he succeeded by making it the largest all-Native basketball tournament in South Dakota by expanding it to 32 teams from several states, both girls and boys, to participate. It was a way to give the students a purpose and to incorporate their culture through events on the side like traditional Lakota hand games, Faith said.

“It was really special that my dad created this tournament that was just all totally for Indian country,” she said. “This tournament was a way to bring something really special for the kids and then also help continue our culture and continue things on to the next generations.”

While he taught his daughter Lakota cultural morals and was very spiritual, he was also a devoted Christian.

“I feel he had more work to do in heaven and that’s kind of why he was called to the next level. That’s kind of [what] really helped me in my heart to get through this,” Faith said.

Begay was extremely supportive of his daughter’s goals like when she told him she would like to attend Harvard University as a teenager. He drove her three hours to a college outreach event for Native students. She later attended Stanford University.

Faith clearly remembers his joy when she told him she was accepted.

“Just the best dad ever. Always there for me,” she said. “Taught me so much; he taught me how to think outside the box.”

In the late 1970s, Begay served in the U.S. Army and took classes at the University of South Dakota. He worked a variety of jobs at the Lower Brule High School in Lower Brule, South Dakota for a number of years, one of which as a transportation supervisor.

One day he substituted as a bus driver and came across a burning house. He pulled over, called the fire department and told all the kids to stay on the bus while he ran inside to save a family.

“He came out of the house, and he ran back to the bus and grabbed the fire extinguisher and used that fire extinguisher to go back in there and put out the source of the fire which was a burning chair,” she said.

Faith said his extraordinary call to action was not unusual for him.

“It doesn’t even surprise me that he did that because he’s just somebody that is always thinking and is always on his toes if something’s going to happen,” she said.

He received a U.S. Department of Interior Exemplary Act Award for his actions that she didn’t know about until she found the award a few years ago.

“I was like ‘Oh my goodness like okay how did you not mention this? This is amazing.’ He was just super humble. You wouldn’t even know all the amazing things he did. He wasn’t somebody to brag like that,” she said.

Even after his heroic actions and the fire department arrived at the scene, he still completed his bus route. Faith said it was a sign of his responsibility and how that helped him with his jobs such as being the correctional program specialist at the U.S. federal government Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services for 13 years.

“He was one of the pioneers in OJS Detention to help create a standardized monitoring tool for Indian Country Jails. He was instrumental in drafting, establishing, and implementing health service memorandums of agreements (MOAs) for BIA/OJS facilities that are now mirrored nationwide in BIA corrections programs,” Faith wrote his obituary.

It wasn’t an instantaneous accomplishment, but a stairway to success.

He first started as a cook for a juvenile detention center in South Dakota. Faith said that many people compared him to Steven Seagal’s character in “Under Siege” because he surprised them with his seemingly secret policy skills.

“Even when he was just the cook, he wasn’t just the cook. He also took on a sanitation and policy role where he was making sure that their food policies and safety and sanitation policies were up to par,” she said. 

(Photo courtesy of Faith Begay-Dominique)

It was a job that required him to travel many places, handle a lot of tasks and to be a creative thinker. Begay, however, loved it because of the responsibility to the Native communities. And during his time at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he met with secretaries of interiors, senators and representatives on tribal corrections policies.

Interior Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, sent a letter to the family on March 18 that read, “Although words are inadequate at a time like this, please accept my heartfelt condolences on behalf of the employees of the Department of the Interior.”

Faith said receiving the letter “speaks to the impact that he made nationwide for OJS policy that the secretary would reach out with a letter to send her condolences. It was just really, really powerful.”

The trajectory of his life was exceptional considering he was in foster care during his childhood. He attended Holy Rosary Mission, an Indian boarding school, in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, that is now Red Cloud Indian School.

“He came from such humble beginnings and was able to build such a wonderful life for himself to help so many people and achieve so many things,” she said.

Battle with COVID-19

Around December 2020, Begay started experiencing COVID-19 symptoms like a head cold, muscle aches and tiredness. The family is unaware as to how he got it since he was practicing safety measures.

On New Years Eve, he was admitted to the Sanford Aberdeen Medical Center in Aberdeen, South Dakota for about 13 days. He and Faith were in constant contact over FaceTime.

“If anything's going on with him, I’m right there. If anything’s going on with me, he’s right there with me,” she said.

Then on Jan. 13 Begay was intubated, put on a ventilator and airlifted 200 miles southeast to the Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Begay noticed when she traveled from the east coast to visit him that many people were not wearing masks outside of Sioux Falls.

“It’s so disheartening and frustrating to see so many people not wearing masks and how that could have put my father [in] danger because even though he’s wearing his mask, he’s protecting everybody else but they’re not protecting him,” she said.

After nearly a three-month battle, Robert Begay died March 4 and is survived by four children, 11 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. His brother Johnson Deal Begay Jr. and his former sister-in-law died from COVID-19. 

Robert Begay with his family. (Photo courtesy of Faith Begay-Dominique)

Faith said a vivid memory she’ll remember is going moonlight sledding, as her dad called it.

“It was in the middle of the night so the moon was out really bright. I thought that was the coolest thing,” she said.

Begay was an adventurous person who liked to just cruise around, listen to music and talk with his daughter. She said it's something they always have done together, even up to last year.

Faith hopes his legacy will be what he has accomplished in his life.

“He certainly made an impact on this world, and I know that the people he’s impacted and the things he’s done are gonna continue to live on even though he’s moved on to the spirit world, or to heaven, to the next life. I know he’s still looking down on us and that gives me comfort,” she said.

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