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A Brave Woman's Saga Of Survival Continues

By Gretchen M. Bataille. Gretchen M. Batailleassociate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University where she teaches American Indian literature, is the author of ``Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary.'' / September 3, 1993



MARY BRAVE BIRD is Ohitika Win, or Brave Woman, the name she earned as a result of her commitment to her people and her community. The badge was not won easily, as this account of a hard life shows.

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Brave Bird's story up to 1977 was recounted in ``Lakota Woman'' (1990), and ``Ohitika Woman'' continues her history. She tells of her experiences through the artist and writer Richard Erdoes, who along with his wife, Jean, befriended Brave Bird and supported efforts of the American Indian Movement and tribes to gain redress for the grievances of 500 years.

That two books telling the life of one Lakota woman should be published in such a brief period, and that the first should have already received the American Book Award, is testimony to the public interest in the lives of women at the margins of mainstream society, women who are immersed in their own societies in spite of the hardships and deprivations.

In her Lakota society, Brave Bird has found strength and support as well as a shared history. In spite of the poverty, alcoholism, and routine beating of women that she has witnessed and been a victim of, Brave Bird is a survivor who understands the context of her life. She is communicating her pain as well as her joys to people who see only curio shops on their trips through South Dakota.

``Ohitika Woman'' begins in 1991. Brave Bird has survived a near-fatal automobile accident and credits her will to live to a vision of her grandmother telling her she had to survive to care for her children. Brave Bird places herself within family and tribe, tracing her lineage and remembering past events in her life, and then comes back to the present.

As she writes this book, her life is stable: She has remarried, she has stopped drinking, she has reached a level of understanding with her mother, and she is committed to caring for her children. By the end of the book, the reader wants her to succeed and to bring other women with her.

It won't be easy, however. Brave Bird catalogs the abuses Indian women face - at the hands of their men and at the whim of federal bureaucracies, such as the Indian Health Service, and local social service agencies. She poignantly describes Indian women as ``always pressing down hard to stop the bleeding of their hearts.''

In addition to one woman's life story, the book provides a walk through the darkest pages of Indian-white history in the United States. This history is the backdrop for contemporary Indian reality: It explains why the Sioux have turned down money for their land and why many have rejected Christianity for traditional religions and ceremonies, such as sweat baths and the sun dance.

An increasing number of American Indians are writing about their lives and experiences, and many of them are college-trained professionals. In ``The Broken Cord'' (1989), Modoc writer Michael Dorris tells the devastating story of fetal alcohol syndrome; he has seen in his adopted children the results of the life Brave Bird describes. There cannot be a redeeming justification for alcoholism and crippling poverty; however, Brave Bird helps the reader understand why the conditions exist.

In a final irony, Brave Bird discusses the increased interest in Indianness, manifested in modern Indian medicine shows, crystals, channeling, and backyard sweat lodges.

None of this interest improves the lives of those Indians living in the poorest counties of the US, and ``new age'' enthusiasm cannot remove uranium tailings from despoiled Indian land or provide Indians with uncontaminated ground water. All the sympathy in the world will not provide jobs for Indians at the Rosebud or Pine Ridge Reservations.

Brave Bird ends her account by saying, ``in the end the spirit wins out.'' Although it is an appropriate literary ending, changes in the conditions of native Americans will come about only when there is a change in the ``spirit'' of those outside of American Indian cultures.