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Ode to Lyle Bald Eagle

by Janine Bertram-Kemp

A light has gone out in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Lyle Bald Eagle died yesterday. 

I have fallen on a stone, the wind knocked out of me. Lyle was a Lakota Sioux warrior who walked in two worlds. I know only what he told me of his life on the Pine Ridge reservation. It was always a plan to go there during the summer. It seemed that there was too much on my plate to get away - busy with work and life in D.C.. Suddenly, that doesn’t seem near important enough to have missed those invitations. 

He practiced traditional Sioux ways. He started the “Quad Squad,” which was a group of wheelchair riders who were advocates for independent living. He was utterly committed to building an independent living and rehabilitation center. He worked for Vocational Rehabilitation and it was often hard for him to have patience with that bureaucracy while people with disabilities lived in remote areas with less than nothing. Material poverty is overwhelming on Pine Ridge and I cannot begin to grasp what it is like for those with significant disabilities. It must seem bleak. Over 200 use the services of the vocational rehabilitation office in Kyle, South Dakota, and Kyle is only one small part of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Lyle often spoke about being in the Color Guard as a Vietnam War veteran. It was an important aspect of his life, a way of manifesting the warrior role, and with an ever encroaching white world, probably one of the few warrior images left.

I burn sage, sweetgrass and cedar. The sage is for purification, the sweetgrass in hopes he can 
smell that compelling, delicious scent as he journeys to the next world; then I add cedar, from my land on Mt. Hood in Oregon, for my comfort. It wraps me in my mother’s arms. I can see Lyle smiling at the three different scents. You know how white folks are, Lyle. If one is good, three must be better.

The candles are lit. The tape turned on. Kicking Women Singers play the drums and chant. I grab my shawl and dance the dance of wrenching loss. Deep mourning and grief descend.

Lyle had a terrific, understated sense of humor. At first, I was slow to catch his jokes. The cultural chasm found me taking a while to keep up. He was gentle, though. He never laughed out loud at me, although I know for a fact that my lack of subtlety, the white way of plunging in and self assertion, amused him.

We learned of each other through our mutual friends: disability rights activists Joe Ehman and Tom Olin. We finally met at the five day ADAPT action in Washington, D.C. ADAPT is the activist arm of the disability rights movement. When you move among “ADAPTERs.” you are with the poorest, most excluded part of the disability rights movement. You are also with a delicious, diverse mix in terms of race, sex, sexual orientation, and age. Lyle was comfortable with us. 

He was sitting on the stairs off the hotel lobby. I realized who he was and sat right next to him. He mentioned prison and I said, “I’ve done that.” He said, “I know.” We’d both been political prisoners, Lyle as a displaced veteran sent back reeling from the war to the reservation with great rage and despair and no place to put it except a bottle. And me, a refugee urban guerilla leftist from the 70’s. Doing time. Quite a bond. A veritable brother and sister super glue.

There was plenty of time to talk during the evening. Neither of us was in the bar and party crowd. Lyle had a book of painful lessons in the deleterious effects alcohol has on reservation communities.

Lyle’s father was a Pipe Carrier and a Medicine man. Clearly, those genes were passed down. One evening, Lyle held a sacred pipe ceremony for a small group of us. The strength of the Spirit was palpable.

After the ADAPT action, Lyle stayed with my roommate, Tom Olin, and me for a week while he lobbied Congress and bureaucrats for funds for a planned residential Independent Living Center. People with disabilities are spread over the thousands of acres of the Pine Ridge reservation. There is no public transportation. He wanted a center that took in account of these realities of reservation life, a center where participants would have a place to stay while they got the independent living skills training they needed.

The three of us had a terrific week together. Lyle would go off during the day for meetings, then come home and regale us with tales of his day. He approached officials, knowing the government had lost and misused funds belonging to Native Americans, not to mention a trail of broken treaties and stolen land. He was not the kind who used the cap in hand approach. I’m sure he raised many an official eyebrow when he half joked that he brought a large plastic bag and wanted them to fill it with money and fund the Independent Living Center.

Among Tom Olin’s many talents is that of gourmet cook, and our evenings were filled with delectable meals, long discussions, and rich, enduring camaraderie. 

White folks, especially those of my generation, tend to romanticize Native Americans. Vine Deloria Jr., author of Custer Died for Your Sins, and an impressive body of academic work, wrote that countless young whites were Indian chiefs and princesses in their past lives. Nary an ordinary member of a tribe among them.

Such romanticism, though alternately irritating or amusing to Indians, is probably a good sign in whites. We have spent generations asleep to our connection with earth and spirit. We have a right now mentality, and patience is definitely not part of the picture. In Native Americans we see a harmony with the earth and a union with spirit. We want that. We want to wake up. I plead guilty to a past where I fell prey to such romanticism. Although, thank God, I never went so far as to pretend the past lives as Black Elk, Geronimo or Sacajawea.

I don’t think I romanticized Lyle. Like the rest of us humans, he had flaws. I saw parts of the darkness he walked through and the demons he met there. One could be fooled by his self deprecating, quiet style. But make no mistake; Lyle Bald Eagle was a powerful man. He was a great healer and used his talent in a variety of ways. Lyle had a way of getting a person to reach within and find the quiet place that is the source of one’s own strength.

Given the twists, turns, brutality and suffering Lyle Bald Eagle encountered, it is remarkable that he lived his life with an open heart and absolute compassion. Counselor, father, husband, teacher, activist, friend. The loss of Lyle Bald Eagle will be felt by many

May Wakan-Tanka hold you on your journey to the light, Lyle

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