Joanne Shenandoah-Tekaliwakwah, one of the most renowned Indigenous musicians on the Native American music scene, died Nov. 22, 2021 at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona at the age of 64.
She received countless awards and was known as a matriarch of Indigenous music. Joanne also composed for a couple film and television shows, including “Indian in the Cupboard” and “Transamerica.”
Her husband Doug George-Kanentiio said, “She was not only exceptionally beautiful but gracious, remarkably talented and blessed with natural charisma; she was also given to marvelous laughter.” READ MORE
Many more prominent and important figures died in 2021 such as Coquille Tribe Indian Chief Donald Boyd Ivy, who was well known in Oregon as a champion of Indigenous people and a scholar of tribal heritage. He died July 19 after a seven-month battle with cancer.
His wife Lucinda DiNovo said he “ always said ‘leader’s don’t always lead from the front, they lead from behind.’” READ MORE
And it was announced on Nov. 29, David Dalaithngu, famed Indigenous actor, died at 68 from lung cancer. He garnered about 50 years of experience and appeared in many films such as "Crocodile Dundee" and "Australia."
“It is with deep sadness that I share with the people of South Australia the passing of an iconic, once-in-a-generation artist who shaped the history of Australian film and Aboriginal representation on screen,” South Australia state Premier Steven Marshall said. READ MORE - Associated Press
In addition, the U.S. passed 800,000 deaths related to COVID-19. The beginning of the year started at 350,000 deaths, when the country was in the midst of the winter surge causing backups in hospitals.
Vaccine rollouts caused some sighs-of-relief and case numbers beginning to fall. However, the delta variant and stalling vaccination rates put the hopes of returning to normalcy to a pause. It's a sad coda to a year that held so much promise with the arrival of vaccines but is ending in heartbreak for the many grieving families trying to navigate the holiday season.
Here is a list of those who died in 2021 that appeared in Indian Country Today:
Carrie Dann, western Shoshone leader and land activist died Jan. 1 from natural causes. Most notably, she and her sister were at the forefront of efforts to reclaim land spreading across four Western states that was seized by the United States.
“Carrie Dann and Mary Dann fought tirelessly to defend Indigenous land rights as outlined in the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley between the U.S. and Western Shoshone leaders," Wolfe said in an email. READ MORE - Associated Press
John Amos Jollie had a passion to work with tribal governments as they pursued economic opportunities for their people-- through economic development, job training, job creation, and improved education.
He died Jan. 10. READ MORE
Laura Waterman Wittstock was an esteemed journalist and advocate who empowered many.
She died Jan. 16 at the age of 83 after battling a long-term illness, according to her family. READ MORE
Albert Hale was a former Navajo Nation leader and Arizona state lawmaker. He was remembered for his years of service and many contributions to his tribe.
He died Feb. 2 of complications from the coronavirus, according to the Navajo Nation. He was 70. READ MORE
Claudette White, Fort Yuma Quechan Tribal Council member and former San Manuel Band of Mission Indians judge, was hailed as one of her tribe’s ‘greatest minds.’
She died Feb. 5 due to complications from COVID-19. She was 49. READ MORE - Special to Indian Country Today
John C. Sackett was a former legislative powerhouse and a champion for rural Alaska. He died March 3 at the age of 76.
“John was a hard worker, very bright and funny,” said Sackett’s friend and colleague, Emil Notti, Athabascan. “He was one of the great leaders, and a tough negotiator with the oil companies. He was very brave.” READ MORE
Ethel Bellas, 80, died Feb. 25. She was a recruiter in the Navy career and a secretary in the Pentagon.
“For those who knew Ethel well, found her to have a great sense of humor, kind words of encouragement, a generous and giving heart, as well as attending or hosting family dinners anytime of the year.” READ MORE
Loretta 'Chet' J. Halfmoon valued treaty and fishing rights as one of the female woman warriors who was recognized as one of the 'Indigenous Women of the Columbia River.” READ MORE
Anna Mae Morris prayed and courageously fought to survive her battle with COVID-19. She died Good Friday, April 2, at 60 years old.
“She was a fearless, funny and beautiful Otoe-Missouria and Choctaw woman. She was the epitome of small but mighty, a trailblazer and an unconquerable woman of faith,” her family said. READ MORE
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, water protector, tribal historian and founder of the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock died on April 10 after a long battle with brain cancer. The Standing Rock Sioux citizen was 64 years old.
“LaDonna dedicated her life to the protection of the water; she never stopped that fight all the way up until the day she died,” Kandi Mossett White said. READ MORE
Julia Louise Bogany, Tongva elder, educator and language-keeper — known as "Wiseone" — died March 28 of complications from a stroke. She was 72.
“Julia was passionate about education and worked tirelessly as a Tongva Cultural Consultant, an advocate for her tribe and held various educational workshops for over 20 years,” the Gabrieleno Tongva Band of Mission Indians wrote in a statement. READ MORE - Special to Indian Country Today
Robert Begay, Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Diné, died at the age of 63 from COVID-19 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on March 4.
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.” READ MORE
Chief Leonard Crow Dog, renowned (Rosebud) Sicangu Oyate spiritual leader and activist died June 6 at Crow Dog's Paradise on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota after a battle with cancer. He was 78. READ MORE
Rena Ann George was the matriarch of the family, someone who fully committed herself to her family, which included her 16 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. She died from COVID-19 complications on February 14 at 75 years old. READ MORE
Eula Acurunaq David, elder of Bethel and co-author of English-Yup’ik medical dictionary died on May 29 at the age of 90.
“Her life was about service to others. She stayed behind at Tacoma Indian Hospital and gave up her time so others [could] get treatment for [tuberculosis]. She stayed longer than she had to in order to translate,” her daughter Eva Malvich said. READ MORE - KYUK
Darryl Lazore, the Akwesasne Mohawk Chief, represented Akwesasne’s district north of the Canadian border for six years and had a 35-year career as an ironworker in New York City. The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne announced his death on June 14. READ MORE - North Country Public Radio
Rex Tilousi, longtime Havasupai leader died late June of natural causes with his family at his side, his niece, Carletta Tilousi said. He was 73.
"He was very committed to voicing concerns on behalf of the animals and the water and the people," she said. "He committed all his time to public service, and that was very impressive." READ MORE - Associated Press
Joe Sam Scabby Robe, Aamous Blackfeet grass dancer, died at 62.
"His style was so smooth, like he was dancing on water. He was very balanced. He would go low and then high, he would go left then right," Rainbow Azure, Scabby Robe's dance partner, said. "Everywhere he went, he brought that energy – that dance, it's medicine." READ MORE - Great Falls Tribune
Cora "Nicky" Solomon, 88, of Winnebago, Nebraska died peacefully on April 27 at Winnebago Treaty Hospital (Twelve Clans Unity Hospital). She was a First National Director of Community Health Representatives for 12 years in Washington, DC, leading the development of an infrastructure to reorganize and better meet dire healthcare needs of tribal peoples throughout the United States. READ MORE
Saginaw Grant, a hereditary chief of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, died on July 28 at 85 years old. The actor died peacefully in his sleep at a private care facility in Hollywood, California, according to Lani Carmichael, Grant’s publicist and longtime friend.
“He loved both Oklahoma and L.A.,” Carmichael said. “He made his home here as an actor, but he never forgot his roots in Oklahoma. He remained a fan of the Sooner Nation.” READ MORE
Lorraine Loomis, chairperson of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, died at 81 on Aug. 10. She fought diligently to protect salmon habitat and fishing rights for Washington’s Indigenous people.
“She was really one of a kind,” Nisqually Tribe Chairman Willie Frank III — son of longtime civil and environmental rights leaders Billy Frank Jr. — said Saturday, Aug. 14, as he arrived at Swinomish for a memorial service for Loomis. READ MORE - Special to Indian Country Today
Rita Blumenstein, traditional healer and Yup’ik elder, died Aug. 6. As a mentor and speaker, she brought Yup’ik values to the international arena.
Blumenstein was one of the first members of the International Council of Indigenous Thirteen Grandmothers, a “global alliance of prayer, education and healing for Mother Earth.” As Alaska’s first certified traditional healer, she mentored other healers. READ MORE
William S. Yellow Robe Jr., playwright and prolific author of over 45 plays centering the Native American experience died on July 19. A citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, Yellow Robe was an educator at the University of Maine. He was 61 when he died in Bangor after a long battle with health problems including diabetes and congestive heart failure. READ MORE
Janine Marie Maddux died on Sept. 9. In the early part of 2021, Janine's family found out that she was very sick. Janine's sickness is what eventually ended her life at the early age of 39.
“She was a jokester…we would joke around a lot,” Janine’s husband, Jevon said. Janine loved spending her free time fishing with her husband and her two children, Ricky and Amaya. READ MORE
Michael Gavin, a 39-year-old citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, died Aug. 7, some 17 months after the Tribes initially declared a state of emergency.
Fred Dakota, whose garage casino in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1983 was a milestone for gambling, died at age 84.
“It was an honor and a privilege to stand shoulder to shoulder with one of the greatest leaders in Indian country,” tribal President Warren “Chris” Swartz Jr. said. “Fred impacted not only KBIC, but many tribal communities with his leadership abilities.” READ MORE - Associated Press
Nytalia Ashes was like a sunflower. Her mother Nyssa Ashes said even as a baby she was outspoken, happy and an old soul.
The 4-year-old from the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota was killed when a tree branch fell onto her tent during a storm on the morning of Sept. 17. READ MORE
Myron Dewey, the award-winning filmmaker, was doing what he enjoyed most: Helping others.
The founder of Digital Smoke Signals, known for his visual work on the No Dakota Access Pipeline movement in Standing Rock, was tragically killed in a car crash on Sunday in Yomba, Nevada. He was 49. READ MORE
Barney Furman Bush, Shawnee and Cayuga, of Herod, Illinois, died Sept.18. He was a renowned poet, environmental activist and educator. He was 77.
Bush taught English literature and writing at tribal schools and colleges across the nation including the Rough Rock High School on the Navajo Reservation, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and in Europe. READ MORE
Leanne Kaʻiulani Ferrer was described as fun, smart, genuine, kind-hearted and a true champion.
For nearly 30 years, she worked in the film and television industry, creating lasting impressions. She died Aug. 12 and is survived by her husband Frank and their two children, Kaʻiulani and Keolalaʻi. READ MORE
David Kennedy, co-founder of famed independent advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, died Oct. 10. He was 82.
Though he left the firm that bore his name in 1995, he continued to work on causes important to him until his death. He passed away just hours before the launch of an important, high-stakes ad campaign that he had helped develop for the American Indian College Fund. READ MORE - The Oregonian/OregonLive
Earl Old Person, Blackfeet Nation Honorary Lifetime chief died. He was a tireless advocate for the advancement of the Blackfeet people and the preservation of cultural traditions.
At 92 years old, he was the longest-serving elected tribal official in America. The tribe announced on Wednesday evening that Old Person died at the Blackfeet Community Hospital after a long battle with cancer. READ MORE - Great Falls Tribune
Marie Wilcox, a Native woman in California who saved her tribe’s dying language, died Sept 25. She was 87.
Wilcox was once the last fluent speaker of Wukchumni but she worked for more than 20 years to produce a dictionary of the language spoken by her tribe in California’s San Joaquin Valley and taught her family. Now there are at least three fluent speakers of the language, including her daughter. READ MORE - Associated Press
Mary Toya, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland's mother and a longtime civil servant and U.S. Navy veteran was confirmed dead on Oct. 16.
“We celebrate Mary Toya’s long life and are grateful for her 25 years of service to Native students as a member of the Interior team within Indian Affairs," department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said in a statement. READ MORE - Associated Press
Steve Russell, a longtime opinion-editorial contributor to Indian Country Today, died Sept. 26 after a battle with cancer. He was 74.
One of Russell’s longtime claims about the ability to succeed against the odds was his own story. As a ninth grade high school dropout, Russell turned over a new leaf and became an attorney, recognized book author, a journal article writer and a strongly opinionated contributor. READ MORE
Leon “Lee” Cook, a lifelong advocate for the betterment of Native people, champion for Indian education and former National Congress of American Indians president, died Oct. 13. He was 82.
Cook, a citizen of the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota, was a larger-than-life figure, a groundbreaker who impacted many people in and beyond Indian Country. READ MORE
The Lakota Oyate mourned 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. READ MORE -Special to Indian Country Today
The Associated Press contributed to this report