Last Friday Chief David William Beautiful Bald Eagle Jr., a long standing representative of South Dakota’s Lakota people, died on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation aged 97.
Bald Eagle was at his home when he passed away last Friday, a traditional four-day wake began in his home on the following Monday.
Born in 1919 on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, David William Bald Eagle, as the BBC reports, could not be a U.S. citizen until he was 5 – when America finally extended citizenship to indigenous people.
Bald Eagle — whose full Lakota name translates to Wounded in Winter Beautiful Bald Eagle, led a long and extraordinary life; he was a champion dancer — both ballroom and Lakota styles — a touring musician, a rodeo cowboy, a tribal chief, an actor, a stunt double, a war hero during World War Two.
He danced with Marilyn Monroe, drove race cars, played professional baseball and was a leader not only of his tribe but also made great contribution to the preservation of Lakota stories. In 2001 he was elected Chief of the United Native Nations as an advocate for indigenous people worldwide which he took on alongside his continued work in conflict resolution across the United States.
David William married an English dance teacher named Penny Rathburn. As a couple they were champion competitive ballroom dancers. Penny was pregnant with their first child when she died in a car crash. Following a lengthy period of devastation, in 1958 Bald Eagle married Josee Kesteman, a young Belgian actress he met by chance as part of a rodeo display team travelling to the World’s Fair in Brussels. Together they raised a large family, one that grew larger as they adopted many children, several of whom have served in the military like their father.
David William Bald Eagle appeared in over 40 Hollywood films as well as training numerous Hollywood actors. And at the age of 95, he had his first lead role starring in the independent film ‘Neither Wolf Nor Dog’ which premiered at Edinburgh Film Festival
Sonny Skyhawk, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation who has been a film actor for nearly four decades too, says it’s nearly impossible to find the words to describe him.
“He was a short man in stature but he was immeasurable in what he has done for his fellow man and for his native people,” Skyhawk says.
“If I had to describe, him I’d say tatanka, which is the Lakota word for buffalo. And the male buffalo in the course of a storm, a blizzard, will stand there and face it head-on. He won’t lie down and he won’t hide behind anything. That’s what this man did: he faced everything with integrity and everything that he had in his own heart.
“And it would have taken a big heart.”
Sources: NPR, BBC, MIA.MK and the obituary which can be read here
Read more about the tribes of the Lakota Tribes in our article here