Lakota Woman

Mary Crow Dog - Lakota Woman

This is the final project for my Ethics of Diversity class.

Lakota Woman:

I chose to read Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog for a couple of reasons. The first reason as to why I chose this book is fairly simple. During our graduate student discussions we had talked at length about the cooptation of Sioux words and imagery by the University of North Dakota. Our conversations stemmed from our having read an article about the use of Native American words and imagery as collegiate mascots/logos. I knew that I was against the use of Native words and images because I felt/knew that it was racist. What I did not know, was anything tangible regarding the history of the Sioux in either South or North Dakota. Lakota Woman is about Mary Crow Dog’s experience as a Native American woman who grew up on a reservation in South Dakota. The second reason as to why I chose this book stems from my own personal history. Growing up in Iowa, I was often told that someone in my family had been Native American. I was never informed as to who this person was or where they had lived. Most of my family is of German or Irish descent and I was always told that I tanned so well because of this almost mythological figure in my family’s history. When I found this book, I was immediately drawn to the fact that this was the autobiographical story of a Native woman from the mid-West. I guess that something from my own past as well as our previous readings by Ward Churchill and the subsequent discussions led to read this book.

Please note that I will use the following terms in this paper: Native American, Native, and Indian. These are all words that Crow Dog uses to identity herself and her people. Also, I will refer to Mary Crow Dog as either Mary, Mary Crow Dog or Crow Dog.

The book begins with the following quote, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how strong their weapons” (Crow Dog et al, 1991, p. 3). I spent a great deal of time trying to determine whether or not this quote was sexist. Eventually, I concluded that it wasn’t because I don’t feel that Crow Dog would have included it in her book if it had been sexist. The rationale for beginning the book with that quote is soon apparent as Crow Dog briefly recounts her experiences as a Sioux woman on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She tells of how bullets were “crashing” around her, of female friends who died of mysterious deaths, of physical assaults, and of forced sterilization (Crow Dog et al, 1991).

It is immediately clear that Crow Dog’s life has been difficult. She attended a Catholic boarding school where she was repeatedly beaten. When she was fifteen she was raped. On the second page of the book, Crow Dog states that “if you plan to be born, make sure you are born white and male” (1991, p. 4). Crow Dog was born an “iyeska,” a half-blood. She was half-Native and half-white.

She tells the story of her relatives who were near the massacre at the first Wounded Knee. Government soldiers killed 300 Sioux women, children, and men.

The Indians who assimilated in order to survive were “whitemanized.” Crow Dog’s mother was sterilized (without her permission). Crow Dog writes of how she wishes she could “purge it out.” She was referring to her own white blood.

In addition to her own internal struggles, Crow Dog writes about the oppression of Native Americans. According to Crow Dog (1991), “the fight for our land is at the core of our existence, as it has been for the last two hundred years. Once the land is gone, then we are gone too” (p. 10-11).

In Chapter 2, Crow Dog talks about the “tiyospaye” or the close-knit clan. She writes about how the Sioux “tiyospaye” included “the extended family group, the basic hunting band, which included grandparents, uncles, aunts, in-laws, and cousins” (1991, p. 13). Crow Dog states that the “tiyospaye” was intentionally destroyed by “wasiÄ?un” or white people who were intent on the assimilation of Native Americans.

When she was in third grade, Crow Dog recalls her first experience with racism. She had tried to buy an orange for a nickel. The shopkeeper said that she couldn’t buy the orange because this was a large orange that cost more than a nickel. Crow Dog’s white teacher “made a face” and said, “Why can’t those dirty Indians keep their hands off this food?” (Crow Dog et al, 1991, p. 21)

Crow Dog was sent to a Catholic boarding school for her education. She writes that it was like kidnapping and that she was forced to be on “white man’s time as opposed to Indian time, which is natural time” (Crow Dog et al, 1991, p. 29). During her time at the boarding school, Crow Dog began to hate white people. White priests sexually harassed her and her friends. White nuns beat her for holding hands with boys and for being Indian.

Chapter 4 is entitled, “Drinking and Fighting.” It basically talks about what happens to people who live on the margins or as Crow Dog says, people in the “corner.” Crow Dog writes about how “the average white person seldom gets into such a corner, but that corner is where the Indian lives, whether he wants to or not” (1991, p. 51). It is a sad chapter that is full of stories about accidents, alcohol, death, and horizontal hostility. When Crow Dog was 12 she could “drink a court of the hard stuff and not show it” (Crow Dog et al, 1991, p. 44).

In the next chapter Crow Dog writes about the patriarchal contradictions within her people. Women were revered but they were still seen as sex objects. A woman who is having her period or her “moon” considered to be “too powerful.” When she was 15, she was raped.

In 1971, Crow Dog had her first encounter with the American Indian Movement (AIM). It was at this time that she met her future husband, Leonard Crow Dog. He was a famous Sioux medicine man. Mary Crow Dog describes how AIM members would deal with anthropologists who “were digging up human remains from Indian sites” (1991, p. 79). The AIM members would threaten to “dig up white graves to display white men’s skulls and bones in glass cases” (Crow Dog et al, 1991, p. 79).

The next chapters give Crow Dog’s recounting of the second Wounded Knee at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Fed up with corruption, racism, genocide, and oppression, Sioux Indians and several other Indians occupied the Wounded Knee as a means of physical and spiritual resistance. The federal government and the state of South Dakota lay siege for over 70 days. According to Crow Dog (1991), “as the siege went on our women became stronger” (p. 137). Mary Crow Dog gave birth to her son, Pedro, while bullets were flying.

After Wounded Knee, Leonard asks Mary to be his wife. At first Mary refuses to marry him and then eventually she says yes.

The FBI has Leonard arrested on made up charges. He is sentenced to 23 years in prison. The government transfers Leonard to several prisons. Mary attempts to track him down and to get him released. She is assisted by several churches, celebrities, volunteers, AIM, and a few lawyers. Eventually the judge who helped the government in sentencing Leonard is persuaded to let Leonard out of prison for time served.

Crow Dog had several children and was only thirty-seven years old when she wrote Lakota Woman. During a Sun Dance ceremony, Mary pierces herself, goes into a trance, and becomes “wholly Indian.”

A model of oppression that seems to encompass most of Lakota Woman is Philip Hallie’s model of institutional cruelty. There are four elements to this model of oppression. The first element of this model is substantial cruelty. According to Hallie, substantial cruelty “involves the maiming of a person’s dignity, the crushing of a person’s self-respect” (as cited in Roberts, 2006, p. 2). Crow Dog’s and her people’s dignity was maimed on just about every other page in Lakota Woman. Crow Dog was arrested for being Indian. She was exposed to racism almost every time she had encounters with white people.

The second element is that substantial cruelty is built into social institutions. The federal government and the state of South Dakota inflicted all sorts of unimaginable wrongs upon the Sioux. The racist white institutions were responsible for policies and laws that affected the Sioux. These institutions played a huge part in the forced sterilization of Native American women, the theft and destruction of property, and the killing of numerous Indians.

The third element in Hallie’s model is that substantial cruelty works on the edge of awareness. The majority of white people in the U.S. had absolutely no idea about the various atrocities that were occurring on reservations in South Dakota.

Lastly, the last element in Hallie’s model is that there is a power disparity. Mary grew up in a house that did not have running water. Her people had absolutely no institutional power even though they were supposed to be part of a sovereign Sioux nation. White men told them what to do at all levels of power. According to Hallie (as cited in Roberts, 2006), “a disparity in power lay at the center of the dynamism of cruelty” (p. 4). This basically means that without power, institutional cruelty is not possible. Perhaps this why the FBI seemed to fear Leonard Crow Dog? He threatened to take away power by undermining their cruelty through moral arguments.

Another aspect of Hallie’s model is that of kindness. Hallie (as cited in Roberts, 2006), states that kindness ” can exacerbate cruelty, can remind his victim that there are other relationships than the relationship of cruelty, and can make the victim deeply bitter, especially when he sees the self-satisfied smile of his victimizer” (p. 4). It seems to me that the “kindness” of the U.S. or South Dakotan governments has been masked cruelty. Crow Dog and her people were never listened to. Multiple treaties were broken. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which at the time, was mostly made up of white people. According to Hallie (as cited in Roberts, 2006), “The sword does not feel the pain it inflicts. Do not ask it about suffering” (p. 5). Native Americans were never truly asked about their pain nor were they treated in ways that restored their dignity.

Examples of oppression
In the chapter entitled, “The common elements of oppressions” in her book, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, Suzanne Pharr (1988) says that “the maintenance of societal and individual power and control requires the use of violence and the threat of violence” (p. 55). The first two pages of Lakota Woman illustrate how power inequities have been maintained. Crow Dog was shot at, raped, her sister was sterilized, her husband imprisoned, her house burned down, her friends and family members were killed or injured.

Another facet of the common elements of oppressions is “horizontal hostility.” This type of hostility occurs when a member of an oppressed group is antagonistic towards another oppressed group. Crow Dog (1991) writes about how the Sioux had a mistrust of Black people because “the Blacks want what the whites have, which is understandable. They want in. We Indians want out!” (p. 77) Additionally, Crow Dog (1991) wrote that “we lived in a strange, narrow world of our own, suspicious of all outsiders” (p. 77).

It’s no wonder that Mary was suspicious of people. She recalls that she felt like she was in what Frye (as cited in Andersen et al, 2004) would call, a “double bind” (p. 49). Frye (as cited in Andersen et al, 2004) defined the “double bind” as “situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation” (p. 49). Crow Dog (1991) wrote about how “it is the government which made me into a militant. If you approach them hat in hand as a ‘responsible, respectable’ apple, red outside, white inside, you get nowhere. If you approach them as a militant you get nowhere either, except giving them an excuse to waste you, but at least you don’t feel so shitty” (p. 113).

Lastly, according to Pharr (1988), “there are extraordinary pressures for members of any ‘minority’ group to assimilate, to drop one’s own culture and differences and become a mirror of the dominant culture. This process requires turning one’s back on one’s past and on one’s people” (p. 62). Mary Crow Dog was forced to attend a Catholic boarding school that was basically an assimilation factory. Indians go in and white people come out. The process of assimilation in Mary’s situation involved the deprivation of her culture by the white nuns and priest. They literally tried to beat the Sioux out of her.

I honestly don’t have any substantive criticisms of this book. I wish it was longer. I have discovered that Mary Crow Dog and Leonard Crow Dog have written a couple more books that I intend to read. Lakota Woman made me laugh, cry, and get very angry. It is incredibly moving and I can’t wait to read more prose by either Mary or Leonard Crow Dog.

As for my thoughts regarding the value of this assignment, I think they are pretty transparent. I loved the book and it had a lot of the elements that were present in our class reading and discussion. I probably would not have found this book, at least not at the moment, without taking this class and having this final project. I am grateful for the many learning opportunities that were presented to me from this book and the accompanying assignment.


Andersen, M., & Collins, P. (2004). Race, class, and gender. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth.

Crow Dog, M., & Erdoes, R. (1991). Lakota woman. New York: Harper Perennial.

Pharr, S. (1988). Homophobia: a weapon of sexism. Inverness, CA: Chardon Press.

Roberts, L. (2006). Ethics of Diversity Course Packet. PHL 280/599: Oregon State University.