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Leaf Home arrow The News arrow National News arrow Red Power activist Madonna Thunder Hawk going strong at 70
Red Power activist Madonna Thunder Hawk going strong at 70
Written by Administrator   
Friday, 15 October 2010
Red Power activist Madonna Thunder Hawk going strong at 70
By Lorraine Jessepe, Today correspondent
Story Published: Oct 14, 2010

"I was kind of a radical from day one,” said Lakota activist Madonna Thunder Hawk, a veteran of many of the battles of the Red Power movement, from the occupation of Alcatraz and Mount Rushmore to Wounded Knee. Now a 70-year-old grandmother, Thunder Hawk remains politically active, just as her grandmother before her.

“In Indian country, you can always pull your grandma card out,” said Thunder Hawk, featured in Beth Castle’s upcoming documentary, “Warrior Women.” Thunder Hawk is one of the original members of the American Indian Movement and co-founder of the Black Hills Alliance and Women of All Red Nations.

In 1973, Thunder Hawk was among the women warriors who took a stand against poor living conditions and tribal government corruption on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during AIM’s standoff with federal agents at Wounded Knee, S.D. “We had contingents of people from all over the country. That’s what made it good. That’s where I learned what freedom means.”

Two Indian men lost their lives during the 71-day conflict. “It was our time,” Thunder Hawk said. “That was our time, and we had to do that because our ancestors did it.”

Born in 1940, Thunder Hawk recalled a strict upbringing. “My mother had grown up in the boarding schools of the ’20s and ’30s.”

She recalled the family suppers of her childhood – her mother, father and siblings all sitting down together around the table. Children listened and were respectful, and everybody cleaned their plate. “Those were the times. We sat there and listened.”

One of the elders Thunder Hawk listened to was her grandmother, who she recalled as politically active, once writing a letter to the President of the United States to air a grievance. “I grew up thinking everybody’s grandma was like that.”

Thunder Hawk attended Catholic and Episcopalian girls’ schools and BIA boarding schools during the ’40s and ’50s. Signs in her schoolroom read: “Speak English.” All her teachers were white. Students stayed in first grade then until they learned English.

She described Indian life then as predominately influenced by the BIA and non-Indians. Most people in those days just kept quiet or stayed invisible, she said. “We didn’t realize how regimented and controlled we were.”

The irony of the boarding school experience, Thunder Hawk said, is that it taught her how to survive.

During the mid-60s, Thunder Hawk was in San Francisco during Indian Relocation, an idea she says backfired on the federal government. In San Francisco, Thunder Hawk’s eyes opened to the world. It was the time of Black Panthers, farm workers, civil rights and anti-war movements. “We were in San Francisco and could relate to everything. It was an exciting time.”

During a trip to a neighborhood grocery store, Thunder Hawk was captivated and inspired by the sight of middle class white women protesting inside the store on behalf of farm workers. “This is amazing. I never saw non-Indians in that light.”

A movement of the people

Thunder Hawk described Red Power as a movement, not an organization. It involved entire families and communities, including children and elders, who anchored the movement. “We were people-based. That’s why we were effective.”

The legacy of Red Power, she said, is the changes in federal Indian policy. “We went from termination to self-determination.

“We have influenced the rest of indigenous people in the western hemisphere and around the world. The term mother earth came directly out of Indian country.”

She also acknowledged mistakes were made. “We brought our ceremonies out from underground.” She said both Indians and non-Indians saw dollar signs – opportunities to exploit and undermine Native ceremonies and practices for profit. She noted the 2009 sweat lodge deaths in Sedona, Ariz. “It’s just a free-for-all.”

Today’s battles

“We’re a colonized people,” Thunder Hawk said. When Indians began looking to the system for answers, it created a culture of dependency and an addiction to federal dollars. “We have program-itis. We have a welfare mentality now. That’s the worst. That’s the downside.”

She warned of Native identity becoming determined by lineage only and the loss of Indian identity as a land-based people. “We can’t let that happen.”

“As long as we have a land base, we are going to be under fire.”

Still, Thunder Hawk sees hope in the women leaders emerging in Indian country, especially in tribal colleges. “The dominant students are women of all ages,” Thunder Hawk said. “It’s still that matriarchal influence.

“We’ve made a big jump. There are a lot of Native women who are on the move. They’re confident in who they are.”

Drugs and violence are the new enemies in Indian country, she said. Indian activists today can make a difference by returning home. “We’ve got to be grounded in our community. If you focus on that, the rest happens. Those old people told us that. Ground yourself in your community.”

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

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