Compassionate Woman: Biography of Activist Patricia Locke

Stephanie Woodard
2/12/12

One of Patricia Locke’s earliest babysitters was a medicine man who made objects dance around the room on their own to amuse her and her sister. Born in 1928 into an American Indian world in which the spiritual and ineffable were ever present, Locke (Lakota/Chippewa) went on to make her mark on the decidedly material world. John Kolstoe’s biography, Compassionate Woman: The Life and Legacy of Patricia Locke (Bahá’í Publishing, 2011), recounts her achievements: establishing tribal colleges, saving indigenous languages, working for the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act and developing national policies that gave tribes more control over their children’s education. A UCLA graduate, she received a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1991 and was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’í (a religion she embraced in later life). After her death in 2001, Locke was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

With so many successes to catalog, some sections of the book feel like lists—albeit enthusiastic ones. The author, an expert on the Bahá’í faith, also provides more detail on the religion—how meetings and elections are held, for example—than some readers may find useful. But an especially successful chapter describes Locke’s articles for the Mobridge Tribune, a newspaper published in a mainly white town bordering the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Locke’s home community. The paper’s owner-editor felt that Locke—whose Lakota name, Tawacin Wastewin, means “compassionate woman”—could help the area’s American Indian and white inhabitants understand each other. Kolstoe’s excerpts of the articles—explaining Lakota life, exposing injustice and more—should inspire a publisher to reissue them in full.

Locke was influential enough that more authors may be inspired to tell her story. Appropriately, Kolstoe quotes her friend Cindy Catches: “Just thinking about her, I want to sit up straight and be a better human being.”

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Locke’s Son Reflects on His Compassionate—and Gifted—Mother

Indian Country Today Media Network spoke about Patricia Locke with her son Kevin, an educator who lives on Standing Rock and is a major exponent of Native flute and hoop dance traditions.

How did you and your mother create a global awareness in your life and work—as opposed to the hyperlocal focus often associated with tribal culture?

I’m considered an American Indian educator, but I’m most concerned with imparting universal human values, not tribe-specific cultural information. In my programs I encourage children, and others, to value themselves and appreciate the nobility of the human spirit. My mother’s and my Bahá’í faith provides this global perspective. We all need to recognize that in world history, many discrete kindreds [peoples] developed that are increasingly in touch nowadays and have so much to contribute to each other. My mother understood this. Her Ojibway father and Lakota/Dakota mother were born in the late 1800s, a time when our people still followed the old subsistence lifeways. Yet her parents sought to be part of the larger world. For example, my grandfather tried to enlist during World War I [but] was turned down because American Indians weren’t citizens at the time; he then successfully appealed that decision.

What accomplishment was your mother most proud of?

I’d say it was being a good relative. Of the many accolades she received, I think she felt most deeply about the trust placed in her by people who would literally line up at her door for advice. Helping family and neighbors, cooking for her grandchildren (and watching them eat!) meant so much to her. The lesson is that each of us has to find the most efficacious way to make the world a better place, and that includes smaller, more private gestures as well as larger, public ones.

Did embracing Bahá’í conflict with Lakota spirituality? When Christianity got to this continent, it was used to assimilate and control American Indians, and that causes confusion about the effect of non-Native religions on indigenous beliefs. In contrast, Bahá’í teaches that all kindreds everywhere have received messengers—Krishna, Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Bahá’í’s Bahá’u’lláh and many more—whose purpose was to draw them closer to our Maker. We Lakota were visited by White Buffalo Calf Maiden, whose aim was to bring our people into a condition of harmony and interrelatedness, like that of nature—a process we call Wolakota, or Wodakota in the Dakota dialect. We are very lucky to have a rich tradition and much information about her teaching. Bahá’í holds that everyone has access to this kind of information, so no, it does not conflict with other beliefs. When a religion is true to its source, it empowers us to take charge of our spiritual destiny.

What issues are you focusing on nowadays?

I’m on the board of the Lakota Language Consortium and involved in language revival. In the United States we’re continually losing indigenous languages, as their last speakers pass on. Linguists think a few languages will survive, thanks to community efforts to teach them to younger speakers, as in the school programs here on Standing Rock. The other day I ran into someone who is 35—that is, not an elder—with whom I had an entire conversation in Lakota. That felt good.

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