Born in 1942, into the Lakota Sioux tribe on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, his family were traditional medicine men and tribal leaders.
Crow Dog literally translates as ‘Crow Coyote’ in Sioux. His parents trained him as a medicine man, so they saw no need to send him to school. Consequently, he could not read or write until he was an adult.
He was initiated at the age of 13 and went off alone for his first vision quest.
He married Francine and they had three children. He took the Sioux name ‘Defends His Medicine’.
The Lakota employed a white lawyer, William Janklow, to defend their interests in court. Leonard’s daughter, Jacinta Eagle Deer was Janklow’s babysitter. In 1967, aged 14, she accused Janklow of raping her.
The police investigated but found no case to answer. Leonard felt otherwise and was determined to get justice for his daughter. He went to the FBI who told him they could not investigate. He tried to pursue the case for the next eight years.
Meanwhile, William Janklow was elected governor of South Dakota for two terms.
In 1970, Leonard was invited for a meeting with Dennis Banks, a Native American activist. He asked Leonard if he would become the spiritual leader for the AIM (American Indian Movement). Founded in Minneapolis in 1968 it had the aim of defending Indian interests regardless of tribe – and of uniting all Indians in a common cause. As Leonard had been actively trying to unify the many Sioux nations, he agreed to the request.
In 1972 he was involved in the AIM march on Washington DC, known as the ‘Trail of Broken Treaties’. It demanded equality and fair treatment for Native Americans, especially for elderly Indians, who were denied benefits available to other Americans.
He also organised demonstrations in Rapids City and Custer, South Dakota, demanding an end to hate crimes against Indians.
In 1973, Leonard was involved in the ‘Wounded Knee Incident’. Wounded Knee is on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and is sacred to all Indians after the 1890 massacre, which effectively ended Native American independence when the Ghost Dancers were slaughtered by the US Army (‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’).
Pine Ridge borders the Rosebud Reservation and belonged to the Oglala Sioux as opposed to Leonard’s Lakota Sioux.
Indians had claimed that the tribal chairman, Dick Wilson, had been fraudulently elected and was abusing his power. Wilson created his own police force, the GOONS (Guardians of Oglala Nation) to forcibly suppress any opposition.
The Oglala called for Indians of any tribe to come and support them in a demonstration.
It meant a lot to Leonard too, as his great grandfather, Jerome Crow Dog, had been one of the 1890 Ghost Dancers, although he had a vision of how it ended, warning other Indians not to go to Wounded Knee – hence he missed the massacre.
Leonard found the 1973 demonstration extremely moving. “Standing on the hill where so many people were buried in a common grave – standing there in that cold darkness under the stars, I felt tears running down my face. I can’t describe what I felt. I heard the voices of the long-dead Ghost Dancers calling out to us.”
It was a mass demonstration which boiled over into violence. Two FBI officers were killed.
Afterwards the Police and Federal Government decided to make mass arrests of AIM leaders. Leonard was arrested and held in the maximum-security prison of Leavenworth. Most of his time was spent in solitary confinement. Then he was moved from prison to prison.
At his trial he was convicted and given a lengthy prison sentence, despite there being no real evidence.
Whilst he was in prison his daughter Jacinta was killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident. Nobody was ever arrested or prosecuted. Her rape case was dropped.
At this point, the National Council of Churches took on Leonard’s case. They raised $150,000 for an appeal – but the court refused him the right to appeal.
So, backed by thousands of letters of protest from around the world, the churches hired a top lawyer. He managed to get the case into court – and the judge quashed his sentence and ordered an immediate release.
Leonard had been in prison for over two years.
His work led to the ‘Native American Self-Determination and Education Act’, which shifted the emphasis away from assimilation and kick started the recognition of Indian cultural traditions.
Shortly after leaving prison, Leonard and Francine divorced. He got remarried – to Mary Ellen Moore, with a pipe ceremony. She took the Indian name ‘Brave Bird’. They lived with his parents, his children and her child from her earlier marriage.
In 1978, Leonard was part of the ‘Longest Walk’, from Washington to the sacred place of the Sioux, the Black Hills of Dakota. It was there he prophesized, “Human beings have a few more years to stop tearing Mother Earth apart, or she will take herself back from us.”
In retirement, Leonard wrote a book, ‘Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men’. It had a large emphasis on the Ghost Dancers and the Battle of Wounded Knee.
His son Leonard Alden Crow Dog is an artist, spiritual leader and Sundance Chief.
When he died, it was said, “he will be a huge loss to the indigenous community and to the American Indian movement.”
The Sioux announced he had, “Walked on” into the spiritual world.
RIP – Representing Indigenous People