Truthdigger of the Week: David Bald Eagle, Lakota Chief and Native American Rights Activist
Posted on Jul 30, 2016
By Emma Niles
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
Although many are familiar with Bald Eagle for his acting work, including his role in “Dances with Wolves,” his activism in Native American communities and his connection to his Lakota heritage often were overlooked.
His Lakota name translates as “Wounded in Winter Beautiful Bald Eagle.” Born in 1919, Bald Eagle was raised by his grandfather, Chief White Bull. White Bull fought with Crazy Horse in the battle of Little Big Horn, and Bald Eagle was reportedly “inspired by stories of White Bull’s friend Crazy Horse” and “keen to make his mark.”
Bald Eagle was 5 years old when he was granted U.S. citizenship (although he was born in South Dakota, as an American Indian at that time he was not considered a citizen at birth). He didn’t learn English until age 12. He grew up on the Sioux tribe’s Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, back when the prairies were still vast and open. “When I was a boy, there weren’t even any fences; no electricity lines or phone lines, no roads—nothing,” he once said. “You could head out across the country and you wouldn’t have to open any gates or anything like that. All just open prairie.”
At 17, Bald Eagle joined the U.S. Army’s dwindling remnants of mounted cavalry. During World War II, he re-enlisted and joined the 82nd Airborne Division.
According to the BBC, “[H]e fought in the landings at Anzio in Italy and won the silver star,” and was later severely wounded in Normandy. He went on to become a musician and dancer; after the death of his first wife, he engaged in car races, rodeos and stunt-double work. He eventually remarried and went on to raise numerous children, including adopted children. He is survived by scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Throughout his eclectic career, which led him to Hollywood, Bald Eagle tried to educate others about his Lakota heritage. Sonny Skyhawk, an actor and member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, explained Bald Eagle’s passion to NPR:
Skyhawk explains that many of the roles offered to Native American actors or stunt workers presented indigenous people in a bad light. But as Richard Bullock notes in an obituary on Facebook, Bald Eagle “somehow seemed to embody what was great about the culture of the American West, as well as his own Lakota spirit.”
That role took Bald Eagle across the United States, but it wasn’t an easy responsibility for him to shoulder. It took him four days to decide whether to accept the position. He recounted what it was like to finally accept the post and address an audience of 900 representatives of indigenous American people:
“Chiefs are chosen by acclamation, but they have to meet certain criteria: being humble, being brave and other values we embrace as a people,” Skyhawk said. “Dave Bald Eagle qualified in all those values. We don’t have many chiefs left because most of them have made the journey to the spirit world, but Dave carried the name of chief very well.”
For many years, Bald Eagle also served as the face for Mount Rushmore’s state tourism ads, and even landed on the cover of the Australian edition of National Geographic Traveller in 2015.
In April, Bald Eagle was admitted to the Rapid City Regional Hospital with double pneumonia. Dozens of family members visited him, filling the halls of the hospital with laughter and singing.
Indian Country Today Media Network reported on his final days:
“Dave encountered many forms of prejudice and discrimination,” Bullock writes, but “he never showed bitterness, and met adversity with invincible courage and humour.” Many expressions of grief and love have been posted on Bald Eagle’s Facebook page.
For his decades of contributions to Native American communities throughout the United States and his commitment to sharing his culture and love of adventure, Chief David Bald Eagle is our Truthdigger of the Week.
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