Issue date: 10/17/07
Don't be surprised if you've never heard of Madonna Thunder Hawk -
she's not one to brag.
She won't tell you that she was one of the primary movers and shakers
in the American Indian Movement in the 1960s and 1970s and remains one today.
But history and her colleagues will tell you otherwise.
"Without her, we would not have Native American studies," said
Elizabeth Castle, assistant professor of Indian Studies at USD. "We
would not have a modern Indian country that is reclaiming its
sovereignty. That's how important she is."
Thunder Hawk will present the 13th annual Joseph Harper Cash Memorial
Lecture Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in Farber Hall.
"She is going to paint a picture of what it was like to organize and
fight for causes in a very hostile environment in South Dakota,"
Castle said. "She'll talk about how things have changed, how they've
stayed the same and what we can do at USD to really bring alive the
goals that were part of the Red Power Movement."
Thunder Hawk, 67, of the tribe Two Kettle Lakota, was born on the
Yankton reservation in Wagner, South Dakota. She and her family lived
on several reservations in S.D., but spent most of their time on the
Cheyenne River reservation.
As she grew older, Thunder Hawk moved to the cities as part of the
federal Indian relocation policy.
"They were hoping to mainstream our people into the rest of America,"
Thunder Hawk said. "It was a national Indian relocation program to
get Indians off the reservation. So I went on relocation and started a family."
Thunder Hawk moved off the reservation at the height of the civil
rights and war movements. It was only after relocation, when she and
other Native Americans became aware of issues facing their people,
that the Red Power Movement began. During this political movement,
Native Americans fought to regain land and fight oppression from the
"It wasn't just related to one issue or event, it related to Indian
policy," Thunder Hawk said. "It was something that involved all of
our people. It wasn't just young people up against the system. It was
family and elders too."
The struggle against the federal government's relocation of Native
Americans was a movement that centered right here in South Dakota,
Thunder Hawk said. Thanks to the efforts of the Red Power Movement,
the federal government changed their policy from termination and
relocation to self-determination.
It was a huge change in Indian policy, Thunder Hawk said, which
affected everything around them, from education to health services.
It was her activism that made her one of the primary figures in a
historical book Castle is writing about women's activism in the late
1960s and 1970s.
"She and other Indian grandmas are the real power brokers in Indian
country," Castle said.
But there's still room to improve, Thunder Hawk said, which is why
she is continually advocating for Native American rights.
"What makes her unique is that for more than 40 years, she has never
sold out. She recognizes that to be a leader means to be accountable
to your people," Castle said. "Unlike a lot of people who make a
career of speaking, she is humbly using her expertise at community organizing."
Freshman Sinte Nupa Gilbert, Thunder Hawk's grandson, said seeing his
grandmother recognized as one of the main figures in the Red Power
Movement has cast her in a whole new light for him.
"I didn't get to hear all those stories when I was younger," Gilbert
said. "In a way, I'm getting to learn my history and my whole
family's history, and that's kind of cool."
Gilbert, who is the only male enrolled in Castle's American Indian
Women's Activisim class this fall, said he had no idea how
historically significant his grandmother was.
"She was always my hero growing up ... I didn't know how much the
rest of the world should know that too," he said.
Gilbert said this will be only the second time Thunder Hawk has
spoken at a South Dakota campus. The first was to Castle's class last year.
Speaking to students in South Dakota is important because "this is
Indian country," he said.
"It's hard to believe (she's never spoken here) because she's been
around the world speaking about indigenous issues," he said. "South
Dakota is where she's from, and (nobody) has invited her once. It's
like South Dakota is finally catching up with history."
Castle said Thunder Hawk also wants to visit the university and make
sure it cares about its Native American students.
"She wants to send relatives here, to a school that is going to treat
them right," she said.
Thunder Hawk said she hadn't been very knowledgeable about USD
because she was of the generation that pushed for tribal colleges,
but she assumed the univeristy had been pushing for higher academic
awareness concerning Indian studies.
"Of course I was wrong, naive," she said. "(But) I can see that we no
longer have the option to play the victim, that it's everyone else's
fault. We have to get involved ... The university has to take note
too, but we also have to show an interest."
Part of her activism now means trying to preserve the land and
language of her culture. Thunder Hawk works to preserve sacred sites,
especially around the Black Hills.
"I really, truly believe it's an endless struggle to protect our land
base," she said. "Once our land base is gone, who are we? We're
already in danger of losing our language, though we haven't yet."
Reach reporter Michelle Rydell