The River is Our Blood: Mary Brave Bird


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 10, 2024

                Anna Mae,
                         everything and nothing changes.

You are the shimmering young woman
who found her voice,
when you were warned to be silent, or have your body cut away
from you like an elegant weed.

You are the one whose spirit is present in the dappled stars.

Joy Harjo, former United States Poet Laureate and member of the Muscogee Nation, wrote those words about Anna Mae Pictou Aquash.

Anna Mae was a Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia. A member of the American Indian Movement, she was involved in the 1973 Wounded Knee Incident at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She was murdered in December 1975, leaving behind two young daughters.

Anna Mae was Mary Brave Bird’s friend. Mary Brave Bird, also known as Mary Crow Dog, is the focus of this month’s Lives of the Spirit programming.

Brave Bird was a Lakota writer and community leader. Like her friend, she grew up in grinding poverty in an indigenous community and far from an urban center. Like her friend, she was part of the American Indian Movement. Like her friend, she was at Wounded Knee. Unlike her friend, she survived the violence of the 1970s and died of natural causes.

So, this morning, we lift up Brave Bird as a spiritual activist, and not Anna Mae, because she was someone who survived.

She was someone who survived.

You are the one whose spirit is present in the dappled stars.

It seems right to begin a sermon on Brave Bird with an invocation of her friend. Brave Bird’s perspective on spirituality was that it is fundamentally a communal affair. We exist, she understood, first as members of a community and only secondarily as individuals. We exist, she saw clearly, first as part of all being and then second as ourselves. We are shaped by, part of, the history of all gone before prior to whatever way we might be formed by our own biographical experiences. Whiteness, she knew, was built upon inverting these truths. This old way, which was based on the “close-knit clan,” she wrote, was what “the missionary and government agent” set out to destroy so that “the government” could turn indigenous peoples into White people. The objective, as one Secretary of the Interior claimed, was to “teach” Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Mary Brave Bird, and others native to this continent to learn, and this is a quote, “the benefits of wholesome selfishness without which high civilization is impossible.”

The benefits of wholesome selfishness, the philosopher William James famously defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual[s] … in their solitude … in relation to … the divine.” But Mary Brave Bird took exactly the opposite view. Religion and spirituality, as she understood them, were things that could only be engaged with collectively. It is found in shared ritual. It is experienced in the voices of “long-dead relatives talking to me,” she wrote. It is when ‘the voice of the drum” is “the drumbeat in my heart,” she observed. It is what affirms, and re-affirms, and re-affirms, that we are “part of the earth” and that “the earth … [is] in me and I in it.”

The earth is in me and I in it, the benefits of wholesome selfishness, the dominant strains of European culture and European religion–or at least the various forms of Trinitarian Christianity–are built upon a different system. Crudely put, much of European culture is organized, as the anthropologist David Graeber noted on, “constantly squabbling for advantage.” Coarsely stated, a lot of European religion is devoted to the idea that we are saved as individuals, not as a communities.

To study Mary Brave Bird is to encounter a different view. And here, I must offer a confession. An honest engagement with her spiritual activism is very hard. Over of the course of this sermon series we have been exploring the lives and thought of some of people who combined mysticism with social activism.

In defining mysticism we have followed the lead of Howard Thurman, one of the subjects of our program. He told us that a mystic is someone who discovers something within their own “experience that opens up into the infinite.”

The infinite in the particular, I have alternatively phrased it. The challenge with encountering the infinite in the particular–or the general in the specific, if you prefer–in the life and writing of Mary Brave Bird is that it demands a reckoning with a fundamental reality about the United States that generally gets ignored in cultural, economic, political, and religious discourse. It is something that just does not get talked about that much in public, especially in a state like Texas where is almost against the law to teach to the actual history of this country.

That something can be summed up in a single word, genocide.

Listen to what the historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz had to say about the matter, and this is a long quote, but it is important:

US history … cannot be understood without dealing with the genocide that the United States committed against Indigenous peoples. From the colonial period through the founding of the United States and continuing in the twenty-first century, this has entailed torture, terror, sexual abuse, massacres, systematic military occupations, removals of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories, and removals of Indigenous children to military-like boarding schools.

US history … cannot be understood without dealing with the genocide that the United States committed against Indigenous peoples.

An engagement with Mary Brave Bird, Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Joy Harjo, or any other indigenous spiritual activist must include–for someone of European descent must begin with–an acknowledgement that the United States was founded upon the genocide. It must also contain a recognition that, in many ways, the nation’s genocidal policies continue.

I am Mary Brave Bird. After I had my baby during the siege of Wounded Knee they gave me a special name–Ohitika Win, Brave Woman, and fastened an eagle plume in my hair, singing brave-heart songs for me. I am … a Sioux woman. That is not easy.

I had my first baby during a firefight, with the bullets crashing through one wall and coming out through the other.

Those are the words that Mary Brave Bird chose to begin her 1990 memoir, Lakota Woman. We will return to them shortly. But first…

US history … cannot be understood without dealing with the genocide that the United States committed against Indigenous peoples.

Yet portions of the historical profession, and many political authorities who seek to control the national narrative–what gets taught in the public schools about what it means to be a citizen of the United States–seek to deny this reality. A couple of years ago, I had an anonymous peer reviewer object to one of my scholarly manuscripts because I used “the word ‘genocide’ in a casual manner” to describe the federal government’s policies under President Andrew Jackson towards the indigenous nations. The reviewer seemed to think that my choice of wording was somehow irresponsible because while thousands of indigenous people during the Jackson administration perished some of them survived.

For my part, I was simply following the lead of indigenous studies scholars like Dunbar-Ortiz and activists such as Mary Brave Bird who are clear on the point. Dunbar-Ortiz details through her work the ways in which the actions of the federal government over time have constituted genocide. She bases her claim on the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It reads, in part, that the act of genocide “is committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” And she details in her work how across the centuries the federal government, state governments, and their colonial predecessors, have attempted to obliterate the indigenous nations of this continent.

Brave Bird, for her part, recognized she “had an urge to procreate, as if driven by a feeling that I, personally, had to make up for the genocide suffered by our people.” The reasons she had six children, she records in her memoir, included the reality that her older sister, Barbara, was “sterilized against her will” by a White doctor and was unable to have any of her own. The practice of forced sterilization, a certain act of genocide, was long propagated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The babies that Brave Bird bore were part of her opposition to this genocidal practice.

“Our nation was born in genocide,” observed Martin Luther King, Jr. “I am … a Sioux woman. That is not easy,” wrote Mary Brave Bird.

Lifting up her spiritual activism–asking how she might serve as a guide to the questions: What is the good life? When do you know you are living it? What models might you follow as you seek to live into it?–requires an honest admission like Martin King’s.

That is not easy.

You are the one whose spirit is present in the dappled stars.

Brave Bird was part of a generation who sought to rekindle traditional Sioux practices as an act of resistance to generations of genocide. In the nineteenth century her people were, as she remembered, “driven into reservations, fenced in and forced to give up everything that had given meaning to their life–their horses, their hunting, their arms, everything. But,” she wrote, “under the long snows of despair the little spark of our ancient beliefs and pride kept glowing, just barely sometimes, waiting for a warm wind to blow that spark into a flame again.”

Brave Bird was someone who was responsible for kindling that spark back into a roaring fire. She is not a household name. So, let me tell you a little bit about her.

She was born in 1954 on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Given the name Mary Ellen Moore-Richard at birth, her father was of mixed European and indigenous descent. Her mother was a full blood Sicangu Sioux. Her father abandoned the family shortly after her birth. She grew up in a family that contained her, her mother, her abusive step-father, five siblings–a sixth died as an infant–and her grandparents.

They were the ones who primarily took responsibility for raising her and connecting her with Sioux traditions. They provided her with a loving environment and protected her from White cruelty. She was profoundly influenced by them until she was “taken away to a boarding school” around the age of ten.

There she was brutalized. The experience was so traumatic that she thought it was “almost impossible to explain.” She likened an attempt to describe what she suffered at boarding school as hard as “the victims of Nazi concentration camps trying to tell average, middle-class American what their experience had been like.”

The analogy is not hyperbolic. It is one of the horrors of history that the Nazis based their antisemitic racial laws partially upon race laws in the United States, those that focused on indigenous people as well as those that pertained to African Americans.

“Kill the Indian to save the man,” was the sometime unofficial slogan of places, I cannot call them schools, like the one where Brave Bird was forced to spend her adolescence.

The boarding school did not succeed. She left and soon joined the American Indian Movement. Have you heard of it? It started in 1968 out of a coalition of indigenous people from many different communities. It brought together those living in cities, who had often been forced from their land, with those living reservations in an effort to revitalize indigenous culture and force the federal government to recognize indigenous rights.

It was, and is, a religiously inspired organization opposed to genocide. It members were targeted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. COINTELRPO, a government program designed to infiltrate and disrupt liberation movements, weighed heavily on it. Hundreds of its activists were probably murdered by, at the behest or with the complicity of FBI agents, though the actual count of their deaths is not possible to know.

Many had their deaths ruled as a result of accidents or, as was initially the case of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, “exposure.” Anna Mae, who body was found frozen solid, died with a bullet lodged in her head. She was probably the victim of what is called “bad jacketing.” This was the practice by which the FBI sought to destroy AIM by sowing distrust amongst the organization’s leadership through falsely implying that particular individuals are informants. Anna Mae, “a young, strong-hearted woman,” was a powerful leader in AIM and in the months preceding her death many rumors were circulated about her potential to betray the movement.

“I am … a Sioux woman. That is not easy,” wrote Brave Bird.

She did not think of herself as “a radical or revolutionary.” She and her people just “wanted to be left alone, to live our lives as we see fit. To govern ourselves in reality and not just on paper.”

To govern ourselves, this meant a demand that the federal government abide by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie and respect indigenous rights to the land, political and religious autonomy. The land was key. As Brave Bird put it, “Our land itself is a legend. The fight for our land is at the core of our existence, as it has been for the last two hundred years. Once the land is gone, then we are gone too.”

She wrote those words in 1990. They could have been written yesterday. As anyone who paid attention to the 2016 events at Standing Rock knows, the struggle over indigenous lands continues.

“Our land itself is a legend… You have to make your own legends now,” she understood. And as part of AIM she made some of those legends.

In 1972, she took part in the Trail of Broken Treaties and, along with other members of AIM, occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, DC. In 1973 she was part of the occupation of Wounded Knee, an effort to rid the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of a corrupt tribal president who subscribed to the beliefs of the John Birch Society, favored tribal members with European blood over those who were full blood Sioux, and supported the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Wounded Knee was one of the mid-twentieth century’s pivotal moments in indigenous, and United States, history. It involved the occupation by AIM activists of a town that was the site of a notorious 1890 massacre. The deaths of more than 300 people there at the close of the nineteenth-century is often thought to mark the end of organized armed resistance by indigenous people to the United States federal government. The 1973 occupation was meant to be, amongst other things, a symbolic rekindling of resistance.

Brave Bird was there for most of it. She arrived at the town several months pregnant. She surrendered a few days after giving birth. While in Wounded Knee she organized the community, she connected to traditional Sioux religious practices, and dodged bullets from federal officials and supporters of the corrupt Pine Ridge president. She also deepened her relationship with the man who was eventually to become her husband, the traditional medicine man Leonard Crow Dog.

Leonard Crow Dog, this is a sermon about Mary Brave Bird and not him. Even a brief description of him would take us far beyond our time this morning. It just worth noting that he was responsible for rekindling, for turning sparks into flames, of numerous indigenous practices amongst AIM’s members. He spread the use of peyote as medicine for communing with all being. He incorporated the sweat lodge, the Sun Dance, and the vision quest into his political work. Though he never used a gun, he was jailed for two years, he had been sentenced to many more, for supposedly being involved in violence.

You are the one whose spirit is present in the dappled stars.

The legacy of Leonard Crow Dog, Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Mary Brave Bird, and the American Indian Movement, is hard to overstate. Their generation of activists managed to overturn to the federal government’s official policy of genocide. Indian boarding schools, with their practices as difficult to speak of as those of Nazi concentration camps, have largely been disbanded. Indigenous children are able to be raised in their communities. Traditional religious practices are no longer outlawed. Indigenous languages are experiencing a resurgence. The noted legal scholar and member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe Robert Miller has argued that of all periods of United States history, this is the best one for indigenous people.

                Anna Mae,
                         everything and nothing changes.

That is not to say that life for most indigenous people on the continent remains anything other than brutal. Indigenous women are killed at shocking rates. Life expectancies for indigenous peoples of all genders is just slightly more than 65 years, lower than that of Rwanda. But AIM’s victories were nonetheless significant.

“I am … a Sioux woman. That is not easy,” Mary Brave Bird told us. She herself died of natural causes in her late fifties.

But she survived until then, unlike her friend Anna Mae Pictou Aquash and so many other indigenous women of her generation.

Her spiritual teaching I find almost impossible to distill into something digestible on a Sunday morning. To understand her, we would have immerse ourselves in a cosmology and a land which for most of us is unfamiliar. I am unversed in the Sun Dance. I have never undergone a vision quest. It is not for me to explain such practices to you.

“The fight for our land is at the core of our existence,” and we live here, in Houston, on land taken from indigenous communities including the Karankawa, Coahuiltecan, Atakapa-Ishak, and the Sana, not in the land of the Sioux. The meaning of the land that is to be found here is different than the meaning that is to be found in Pine Ridge.

But there are two things, I think, from Mary Brave Bird, that can help us answer our own questions about the nature of the good life. We will only survive together. We are part of a community first and individuals second. That community includes the land of which we are a part. The earth is in me and I in it.

And second, if we want to have an honest relationship with the land, with each other, with this country, and with the whole of spirit then we must face history. Not the pleasant history that denies genocide. But the real history which acknowledges it and then, with the people like Mary Brave Bird who survived, tries to move forward.

You are the one whose spirit is present in the dappled stars.

It is not easy.

But, still, knowing it is not easy, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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