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Tony Black Feather - Lakota Sioux Activist, Human Rights Advocate, United Nations Diplomat
He was a voice for his people and the land he loved. For 30 years he worked tirelessly to call attention to issues of broken treaties, human rights, and the plight of the Lakota Sioux. He was fearless.
I first met Tony Black Feather in 1995 when a friend took me to Tony’s home in Wolf Creek, a small community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was 61 years old at the time but had the charm and energy of a much younger man. I remember thinking that Tony Black Feather could charm the skin off a rattlesnake, if he wanted to bad enough. There was nothing shy about Tony Black Feather. He knew who he was and carried himself as a proud Lakota. When he talked about his people, he was a straight-shooter. He told it like it was and from the moment we met, I loved him.
A United Nations Diplomat or, just Tony
It was a hot and humid July day when we drove up to Tony’s place in Wolf Creek. It was a small place, well kept, and comfortable. He invited us in and while we enjoyed a cup of coffee, Tony began to tell stories. He had recently returned from Geneva, Switzerland where he had attended the Indigenous World Association meeting at the United Nations. It was not Tony’s first trip to a meeting of the United Nations. He held a UN card and was part of the UN Permanent Forum. Representing his People, Tony spoke at UN meetings in his Lakota language, using an interpreter. Tony Black Feather was a diplomat at the UN. Back home, he was just Tony. During our visit, he laughed about being treated so royally while he was in Geneva. It was a stark contrast to his flight home that found him landing at the nearest airport in Rapid City, South Dakota, and having to hitchhike over 300 miles to get home. “Some diplomat” – he said with a deep laugh and a slap on his knee.
As the afternoon heated up, we moved outside to sit under the shade of a tree. Tony continued to talk about his people. He talked about the history; of the slaughter of at least 150 of his people by the United States 7th Calvary at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. His eyes closed as more painful memories of his People’s history drifted through his mind. He spoke of another attack by the United States 7th Calvary, this time at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. There was a sadness in his eyes as he thought about the death and destruction of his people at the hands of the United States government.
Pine Ridge Reservations Statistics
- 58.7% of the grandparents on the Reservation are responsible for raising their own grandchildren
- unemployment rate on Pine Ridge is said to be approximately 83-85%
- 97% of the population lives below Federal poverty levels
- life expectancy on the Reservation is 48 years old for men and 52 for women
- teen suicide rate is 150% higher than the U.S. national average
- infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent, 300% higher than the U.S. national average
- 50% of the adults over the age of 40 have diabetes
- teacher turnover is 800% that of the U.S. national average
- school drop-out rate is over 70%
- 59% of the reservation homes are substandard
- 39% of the homes have no electricity
- a minority of Reservation residents own an operable automobile
- 56% of adult population have total tooth loss
His passion and his vision
One could never doubt that Tony Black Feather was an activist, a voice to be reckoned with. He spent his life trying to make things better for future generations of the Lakota. When we talked about the bars and ABC stores that were popping up in the reservation border town of White Clay, Nebraska, Tony was outraged. His People were dying from alcohol and its associated violence and Tony said it was a deliberate attempt by the U.S. government and dominant white society to annihilate his People. I couldn't disagree. I saw it happening.
We talked about the exploitation of the Lakota by the tourist trade: how Americans love the rugged history of the American West. Summers saw traffic on the reservation double as tourists came to visit the Wounded Knee Memorial or the Sacred Black Hills. Most, only looking for a photo opportunity with a real Indian. Tony laughed at the concept. Tony Black Feather was of the opinion that there were few real Indians left and those that were, were usually found in back alleys on the rez or staggering in the streets of White Clay. Tony Black Feather never spoke softly about the effect of alcohol on his People or, of the social problems arising from the diluted blood lines. Tony was heartbroken over the suicide rate among teens on the reservation and the increasing number of murders, all because of alcohol. Alcohol wasn't sold on Pine Ridge Reservation but to get itl, you only had to walk or drive across the border into White Clay. Tony had a vision for his people. He wanted a better future for them. He never stopped encouraging the youth to return to their traditions or the tribal leadership to embrace the responsibility of being a sovereign nation. Indeed, Tony Black Feather had a vision and the fortitude to fight for it.
Want to Learn More? Click the links below.
- Battle for Whiteclay - YouTube
The fight to end the sale of alcohol in this reservation border town.
- World Report: White Clay, Nebraska, Pine Ridge Reservation and Alcohol - YouTube
Greg Dobbs reports from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where elders banned liquor because of an epidemic of alcoholism. Trouble is, they ...
- Garvard Good Plume interview with Heyoka Magazine
Tony Black Feather's nephew, Garvard Good Plume discusses his unles fight against the human rights violations against Indigenous People, ranchers and land leases, and laws affecting Indian tribes,
A Man With A Vision and the Courage To Speak His Truth
Tony Black Feather was a man of conviction and his truth was never colored by the company he kept. Whether you were a friend, a reporter, a politician or a relative, Tony Black Feather was a man who spoke his truth. He wasn’t influenced by your color, social status, or persuasion. He would tell you that the United State government was a racist government who had broken all their promises and continued their efforts to oppress Indians in the name of greed. Even today I can hear him saying that the flag of America, the red, white, and blue, did not represent the People.
In 2002, Tony spoke of the flag at a meeting of the XXth Session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. An excerpt from his statement is quoted below:
"The cloth represents a political language that is designated to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable. This piece of red, white and blue cloth represents a political system that is contrary to the principles of Natural Law and the moral principles, which govern a diversified humanity.
"As Lakota people, we engage in different actions to remember the Natural Law and to assert our rights."
"As the aboriginal people of this land, we must understand and assert that it is under our care. The continents of the world belong to its aboriginal peoples."
"Someday somebody will have to account for these violations of the Natural Law and violations against Creation that the piece of cloth has been responsible for."
"The United States needs to come clean to cleanse its conscience in the eyes of the world. Only then will we have justice and balance in this world."
Whether you agreed with Tony Black Feather or not, you could not deny his love for his People, his pride in being a full-blood Lakota Sioux, and his dream of seeing his people become a strong, sovereign nation who raising a generation of children who would speak their original language and, who would once again become caretakers of the land where their ancestors lived and died.
Tony wasn't alone. Many traditional Lakota stood with him and fought for the treaty and human rights of the Lakota. Garvard Good Plume, Tony's nephew, talks of the fight with Heyoka Magazine. It's worth the read and you can find a link above.
The Fight Must Continue !
Tony Black Feather died near his beloved Black Hills from cancer on August 10, 2004 without seeing his vision come to fruition. Little did I know on that hot and humid day in July 1995, that he would become a friend and a mentor. Whenever I am in doubt or questioning my next move, I hear Toni’s gentle voice reminding me – “Let Spirit lead.” Rest in peace, Tony. You were my friend. You fought the good fight and the fight will continue!
© 2012 Linda Crist, All rights reserved.