CHERRY CREEK, S.D. (AP) – Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle sits in the crowded kitchen of his isolated ranch house, surrounded by mementos of his storied life. Four tribal chieftains wait in his living room.
He is in no hurry.
At 94 years of age, life has taught him to slow down and savor the twilight of his long and colorful life. Outside, his painted ponies endure the 96-degree heat of this July day, swatting flies with their tails and seeking scarce shade.
Inside, Bald Eagle relishes the cool breeze of his window air conditioner as he tells a reporter from the Rapid City Journal of his earliest visit to the Days of ‘76 celebration in Deadwood.
“I was about 10 years old, and I was riding in a wagon,” said the traditional chief of the Minnicoujou Tribe, who was born in a tepee in 1919. “There were five or six wagons of Native peoples riding in full costume in the parade. After the Days of ‘76, we would return in a wagon train to our reservations.
“It was just like going to town. We were in a parade. That was the exciting part of it,” he said of the 100-mile journey. “We didn’t travel very fast. We’d start out at Cherry Creek, camp at various ranches along the way, with the last stop at Fort Meade, then make the final haul to Deadwood. Right after the grand entry on Sunday, we’d pull out. It would take six days in either direction.”
All told, Bald Eagle has ridden in 76 Days of ‘76 parades. Before this week’s Deadwood celebration, he said it was likely to be his last.
“This year will be the 77th year I’ve ridden in the parade,” he said with a faraway look in his eyes. “We used to camp in places there, and we’d get together, both whites and Indians, and have cookouts, a family gathering. I remember we’d sit in the grandstands for the Thursday evening performances, with singing and country music. Those days we used to have, days like that.”
Days of ‘76 General Chairman Dawn Burns said her committee is always pleased when Chief Bald Eagle participates in the town’s annual celebration and dismissed his statement that this may be his last parade.
“He says that every year, but he always shows up,” Burns said. “To carry on the tradition that his people have provided to the Days of `76 is fairly amazing. He provides that continuity, and he brings the pageantry, the color, and the incredible Native costumes and workmanship. It is just awe-inspiring. Whenever he calls and says he’ll be there, we’re always thrilled.”
Beyond the horse ride down Deadwood’s historic Main Street each July, Bald Eagle has had many days of distinction.
Bald Eagle is the grandson of Chief White Bull, who is a cousin of Sitting Bull, and White Feather. Both of those men fought in the Battle of Little Big Horn. Bald Eagle himself enlisted in the horse cavalry at Fort Meade in 1939 and parachuted into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne during D-Day when he was severely wounded.
But he would recover to return home and go on to rodeo with Casey Tibbs, drive race cars, dance with Marilyn Monroe, appear in more than 30 movies, marry a Belgian actress and become the “chief of chiefs.”
At a meeting in Puerto Rico about 15 years ago, Bald Eagle was made First Chief of the United Indigenous Nations, a society of chiefs from reservations around the globe.
“It was a surprise to me, because they gave me four days to decide,” he said. “And it took me the full four days to decide.”
When one of his fellow leaders said to him, “Chief, you are not standing alone,” Bald Eagle accepted the honor and addressed more than 900 attendees.
“I got up and said every one of you people of the Americas’ indigenous nations have had a way of life, your own language and beliefs, for the past thousands of years,” he recalled. “I don’t want you to change. I want you to keep your language and practices and ceremonies you have always done. Don’t change anything. Just go on. They gave me a standing ovation.”
Since then, Bald Eagle has been asked to address and to visit indigenous people around the world. It is not unlike today, when tribal leaders from South Dakota reservations patiently wait in his living room for counsel from a man who may not be long for this world.
“They want last-minute advice from me,” he said matter-of-factly. “Ever since I have been a chief, I have wanted to tell people the truth and that’s what I’ve been doing – bringing the truth out.
“I was born in a tepee at Cherry Creek, the first Indian village there ever was,” Bald Eagle said. “I know we can’t go back there, back to where we were. But we can tell the young ones how it was and they can remember, and they can bring it back. They can return.”
This week, in perhaps one last hoorah, Bald Eagle returned to the Deadwood celebration that has captivated his attention each July for more than three-quarters of a century.
“I really never did anything in preparation for the Days of ‘76, but I have always been in the Days,” he sighed, rubbing his weary eyes. “I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a part of my life, though it seems like it’s been such a short life.”
Born in 1919 in a tepee near Cherry Creek, Chief David Bald Eagle has ridden in 76 Days of ‘76 parades. This year may be his last.
PHOTO BY TOM GRIFFITH | COURTESY Rapid City Journal