Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes.
HarperPerennial, Harper Collins, New York, 1990. Originally published by Grove Weidenfeld.
Adult autobiography, 264 pages.
Lexile: 970L .
AR Level: not leveled.
The life story of Mary Crow Dog, especially her time with the American Indian Movement and at Wounded Knee.
Every so often I stumble into a book with no expectations. I wasn’t familiar with this title when I got it and started reading with only the basic knowledge that it was a Native American woman’s autobiography. However, instead it was an education!
Certainly, I’ve learned a lot from this book about the AIM movement, Sioux peoples, Wounded Knee, and events of recent indigenous history. My schooling did not cover much about indigenous history, and the catch-up reading I’ve been doing as an adult has mostly focused on Great Lakes tribes. While the general indigenous books I’ve read have touched on these topics, it’s so much more vivid and real to be reading the passionate story of one person’s lived experiences. This is what the Charlotte Mason homeschoolers would call a “living book.”
On the other side, I don’t entirely trust Crow Dog as a narrator. She’s outspoken and clear, but I didn’t get the sense she’s spent much time reflecting on her life. This book feels more like stream-of-consciousness type writing. The narrative, while roughly chronological, is arranged into topical chapters.
The first chapters focusing on her family story, early life, and her time at boarding school have a good flow. Things get a bit muddled then until the Wounded Knee segments which clear up. Perhaps her life was mixed up at that point. She understandably spends a large portion of the book on AIM and her activism.
The narrative was strongest during the parts of the book that told about her involvement at Wounded Knee. She gives clear and vivid descriptions of her experience. Since she later married Leonard Crow Dog, his knowledge as one of the leaders also plays into her account – she is able to give both her own individual recollections and a more general overarching picture of events.
Later sections about her husband’s arrest and various shady government actions get murky again. I perhaps should clarify that I believe Crow Dog’s general interpretation of events – the US government has consistently treated indigenous peoples horribly and I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that systemic murders occurred as she describes. What I doubt about Crow Dog is her introspection. She’s a woman of decisive action, and it often seemed like there was more brewing in her mind than she either cared to share on the page, or was aware of herself.
There were some remarks that were off-putting. One in particular sticks in my mind, from page 206:
“One such visitor was a young black man called Jamesie. He made himself into a slave for me, chopping wood, fetching water, helping in the kitchen.”
Why did she need to describe Jamesie as a slave? As much as she decries her former white mindset, it’s clear that Crow Dog still has some work to do on aspects of her thinking. Another thing that I wonder about, but don’t personally have the cultural knowledge to answer, is whether her detailed descriptions of religious ceremonies are appropriate. Some things are only intended for initiates into a belief system, and others have been criticized for oversharing.
In this era of #metoo, I found her descriptions of some romantic encounters troubling. Even the situation with her husband – she communicates that she does not want to marry him, she’s not interested, yet he pursues her in a way that did not seem healthy. Looking them up online apparently they did later divorce, and after reading about their courtship and marriage, that doesn’t surprise me!
Lakota Woman is an adult book and does not shy away from discussing violence, rape, alcohol, drug use, and other mature subject matter. Certainly it could be suitable for some teens and some selections might even work for younger readers, but I wouldn’t generally recommend it for school or classroom libraries.
This was an engaging and informative book, a memoir/autobiography that read a bit like a novel. My interest has been peaked in several new topics, and I look forward to learning more about the Sioux and other Plains peoples. I would recommend it to readers wanting to learn more about AIM, American Indian activism in the 60s and 70s, the Lakota, reservation life, and so on. Or readers who like biographies and history in general.