Review: Lakota Woman (Mary Crow Dog)

This book was a memoir by Mary Crow Dog, a half-blood Lakota woman who grew up in 1960-70 in a world where she was not white enough to be white, and not Indian enough to be Indian. The Lakota are a faction of the Sioux tribes that mostly occupy the Dakotas. After becoming an alcoholic at age 10, Mary joined the American Indian Movement (AIM), a group dedicated to advocating for Indian rights in the U.S. AIM is dedicated to achieving complete self-determination of Indians by Indians (no governance by the U.S. gov). 

I was generally perplexed while reading this book. Who was the intended audience? There was SO little context about Sioux and Lakota factions, the AIM movement, and her life, that I wondered if she was just writing this book for her Lakota friends and family. Also, the book states that it’s an “account of a woman’s triumphant struggle to survive in a hostile world,” when in reality it was mostly an account of her husband, Leonard Crow Dog, and his struggles to…I don’t know what? I wanted to be behind this book and the struggle of Indians to overcome white hostility, but it didn’t seem like that was the true focus of this book. 

I do think the legal issues for Indians are very interesting. Throughout the book, there is a lot of uprising against an alleged double standard where the killing of an Indian was usually treated as “a misdemeanor and went unpunished,” but if an Indian killed a white man he was condemned to death and was lucky to have it bargained down to a life sentence. I think this could be partially true only because of the PEOPLE involved in the legal system (i.e. racist prosecutors who decide charges, or racist jurors who find defendants guilty) and not due to actual statutory reasons. 

Perhaps due to the overwhelming angsty narrative and lack of details, I didn’t 100% trust the author and had a persistent feeling that she extrapolated a lot of facts. For instance, when relaying a story about a white man who killed an Indian, Mary claims he was originally charged with second-degree manslaughter (which the Indians protested, because it wasn’t first-degree murder) and then was eventually freed without doing any time at all. Well…1) she gave us no details of what happened in the alleged murder; 2) there are many legal reasons someone can be charged with second-degree manslaughter over murder (was there provocation by victim? act of self defense by killer?); and 3) it was unsaid whether he was ‘freed’ just because he was tried by a jury and found not guilty OR because the state dropped the charges. 

Additionally, Mary repeatedly refers to the time when the white hospital sterilized her sister in the ‘80s without her sister’s permission because the whites didn’t want more Indian babies…we do have a Constitution, don’t we? Equal protection, due process, something? HOWever, yes I realize it could be that I’m a naïve 21st century white girl, and just because we have laws, it doesn’t mean they were followed for the benefit of Indians 50 years ago. I do know (thanks to Constitutional Law class) that in the early 1900s, the U.S. had laws in some states that listed the insane, “feeble-minded,” and diseased as incapable of regulating their own reproductive abilities, which justified gov-forced sterilizations. I’ve also heard of coercion of minorities/disadvantaged to sign sterilization consent forms after such forms became mandatory. But I’m still torn about trusting Mary. 

Finally, in the middle of the book, Leonard Crow Dog (Mary’s husband) is convicted for the murder of another Indian. According to Mary, Leonard was sentenced to be hanged, then given 1 month to prepare himself for death (and the judge trusted him to come back to be executed solely on his word). Then, when he arrived for his execution 1 month later, Mary claims that Leonard’s lawyer says: “Crow Dog, you are a free man. I went to the Supreme Court for you and the Court ruled that the U.S. government has no jurisdiction over the reservation and that there is no law for punishing an Indian for killing another Indian.” ……………………….Is Mary referring to the case of Ex parte Crow Dog, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a federal court did not have jurisdiction over Indian Country (self-governing Native American communities, or reservations) and that there is thus no law for punishing an Indian for the murder of another Indian? Oh, OK, because this case happened in 1883. Also, the case would not have gone to the Supreme Court if it was already the law…the original court that convicted Leonard would not have convicted him. AND I think the 1883 case was modified by the Major Crimes Act of 1885, which made murder and manslaughter, among other crimes, subject to federal jurisdiction…this means that Leonard would have been subject to U.S. law, and rightfully “hanged.” Can someone resolve this for me? 

Overall: I might be focusing on the wrong things in this book, but I couldn’t help it. I wish there was more detail about Mary’s own life, because she seemed like such a strong person. I felt like weeping after reading the epilogue, where Mary briefly summed up her life after the heyday of her political activism in the ‘70s…she started with “The rest of the story is quickly told…” and ended with, “Life goes on.” 

Posted on September 19th at 12:25 PM
Has a total of: 12 Notes

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