AP
Eagle Tail’s family grieved after his body was recovered from the churning Big Sioux River a day after he drowned. (AP)

Lyle Eagle Tail: A True Warrior Who Died Trying to Save a Child

Heather Steinberger
5/21/13

On Saturday, March 23, after an all-night wake at the Mother Butler Center, 28-year-old Lyle Francis Eagle Tail was laid to rest in the Mountain View Cemetery in Rapid City, South Dakota. The young Lakota man had drowned nine days earlier while trying to save 6-year-old Garrett Wallace, who had fallen into the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls. Garrett’s sister, 16-year-old Madison Leigh Wallace also died trying to rescue the little boy, who survived the ordeal. According to Associated Press reports, Eagle Tail’s body was found two days later, about 100 feet from where Madison was discovered the day before.

The story got national coverage, for obvious reasons. On Thursday evening, March 14, the 28-year-old Eagle Tail was enjoying his first visit to Falls Park with his fiancée and some friends when the 6-year-old boy fell into the foamy, churning river. Wallace jumped in after him, as did Eagle Tail. One witness, Napoleon Ducheneaux, reported that Lyle had both siblings in his grasp at one point, but the three were separated. Eagle Tail also had a brief hold on Ducheneaux’s hand, but despite Ducheneaux’s desperate attempts to hold onto him, Eagle Tail was pulled under.

The facts are known, but questions still hover around Eagle Tail’s brave, selfless sacrifice. Why would a young man leap into an icy, debris-choked river to help a child he’d never met?

The answer, according to his family and members of the Lakota community, lies in Eagle Tail’s cultural heritage and upbringing. He was, quite simply, a Lakota man. “He is a true tokala—a  warrior,” said Derek Fiddler, a cousin who lives on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, home to four bands of Lakota people. “He gave his life and gifted it to a younger generation. As warrior people, we put ourselves in the line of danger, protecting what’s sacred.”

Leading Eagle Tail’s procession in Rapid City (Matt Normann)

Eagle Tail had ties to reservation lands across western South Dakota. Although he was raised in Rapid City and Minneapolis and most recently was living in Sioux Falls, he was an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge reservation; his father, Lyle Thunder Hawk, is part of the Thunder Hawk tiospaye or clan.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe sent a delegation to Eagle Tail’s services in Rapid City, and the tribe flew its flags at half-staff during the week of March 18 to 23 to honor his memory. “His act of bravery is what defines a true Lakota warrior,” the tribe noted on its website.

Eagle Tail’s mother, Margaret Eagle Tail, is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, home to the Sicangu Lakota. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe also supported Eagle Tail’s family, assisting with a funeral escort from Sioux Falls to Rapid City.

A recent article on LastRealIndians.com indicates that Eagle Tail was deeply influenced by traditional Lakota values and his Lakota grandmothers. Author Dana Lone Hill wrote, “He was raised by his grandmother, Louise, to respect his elders and to always put children first. This is a Lakota tradition that dates back to the birth of the stars.”

Lakota elder Marcella Ryan ­LeBeau, 93, says she relates to this. She too was raised by a grandmother who embodied Lakota principles, and made a lasting impression. A member of the O’ohenuŋpa (Two Kettles) band of Lakota and called Pretty Rainbow Woman in her native language, LeBeau grew up on the Cheyenne River reservation. Her great-­grandfather, Chief Joseph Four Bear, signed the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868; her grandmother, Louise Bear Face, was related to Rain In The Face, who fought in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.

LeBeau lost her mother at the age of 10. After that, she says, she spent a lot of time with her grandmother. “She didn’t speak English, but I thought she had wisdom beyond book learning,” she recalls. According to LeBeau, accepting

Leading Eagle Tail’s procession in Rapid City; Lakota Elder LeBeau believes his impulse to save the child was instinctive, a part of his cultural heritage. (Matt Normann)

everyone regardless of race or background was part of the Lakota way, and her grandmother demonstrated her compassion and generosity on many occasions. “She was the kindest person I’ve known,” she says. “There was never any discrimination against anyone. [She] always had food for people.…

“My mother married my father, who was Irish. His people didn’t like it, and his children were never mentioned. My grandmother never had any feelings against my dad. There was no discrimination at all.”

LeBeau’s grandmother also cherished children. In Lakota life, they were sacred beings. “They were almost revered,” LeBeau says. “Their needs were always taken care of, and they were never punished. They were led by example.”

When asked why she thought Eagle Tail, the father of a little girl and with another baby on the way, would jump into the cold, rushing waters of the Big Sioux River to save a young child he’d never met, LeBeau’s voice wavered slightly. “It would be like instinct to do that, to help,” she says. “Children are treasured beings.”

Acknowledging how proud his family must be, she added, “I’m proud of him, too. This is a story that needs to be told. And retold.”

Wells Fargo banks in the Sioux Falls area have established a benefit fund in the names of Lyle Eagle Tail and Madison Wallace. In addition, efforts are afoot to rename Falls Park in honor of the two heroes; join the Facebook community at Facebook.com/LyleEagle TailandMadisonWallaceMemorial FallsPark.

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kadom's picture
kadom
Submitted by kadom on
yes he truly is an hero and this will never be forgotten I to will tell this story over n over to everyone I knw...

Kate Skorich's picture
Kate Skorich
Submitted by Kate Skorich on
His courage and strength of heart are so inspiring. I've always hoped that I would be that kind of person if faced with a situation like that - that I would act bravely and quickly as Lyle did.

Kate Skorich's picture
Kate Skorich
Submitted by Kate Skorich on
His courage and strength of heart are so inspiring. I've always hoped that I would be that kind of person if faced with a situation like that - that I would act bravely and quickly as Lyle did.

John Beck's picture
John Beck
Submitted by John Beck on
So Sorry for the loss of a Brave Lakota Warrior. In my mind he is a Warrior for doing what he did to try to save a life. Mitakuye Oyasin

Kwyem Tomolx "speaks for her people"'s picture
Kwyem Tomolx "s...
Submitted by Kwyem Tomolx "s... on
Such a brave young man. Prayers for him on his spiritual journey.

kim scribner's picture
kim scribner
Submitted by kim scribner on
my sincere sympathy to the families in this tragic event.God Bless All Of You,and MAY THE GREAT SPIRIT BE WITH YOU.

leea curley's picture
leea curley
Submitted by leea curley on
who wonderful arw this young mans gifts for his efforts blessings to his Family

toby dorn's picture
toby dorn
Submitted by toby dorn on
his bravery will live on to all to know him and my heart goes out and my prayers go out in a good way

John Lasiloo ZUNI PUEBLO's picture
John Lasiloo ZU...
Submitted by John Lasiloo ZU... on
My condolences to the brave.warrior for giving his life for another. my prayers go to thw wife n kids.. May your husband have a safe journey home to father..

Brenda Cordova's picture
Brenda Cordova
Submitted by Brenda Cordova on
Wow, he's a hero, love and honor what a man!! God Bless Each and everyone, tht is a part of him!!

Brenda Cordova's picture
Brenda Cordova
Submitted by Brenda Cordova on
Wow, he's a hero, love and honor what a man!! God Bless Each and everyone, tht is a part of him!!

Ian Lamson's picture
Ian Lamson
Submitted by Ian Lamson on
Sad, yet horrifyingly heroic. My heart goes out to those lost, all that enjoyed their company, and especially the wife and children of Eagle Tail. May their story prove all that is Righteous and teach those that have yet to learn the True purpose of Life. Peace. Light. Blessings. Love. Ian

Nancy Lake, Echota Tribe's picture
Nancy Lake, Ech...
Submitted by Nancy Lake, Ech... on
My deepest sympathy. What a wonderful message. These two were brave and selfish. They will be missed.

kari-lynn's picture
kari-lynn
Submitted by kari-lynn on
it's good to see someone doing something unselfishly, plus respecting their elders. people need to look at this and follow his example of pure kindness and selflessness.

Stella's picture
Stella
Submitted by Stella on
What a brave & unselfish thing for such a young man to do. Risking his life and sacrificing his own family. That's what being a true Lakota is.

MICHAEL PONEYBOY 's picture
MICHAEL PONEYBOY
Submitted by MICHAEL PONEYBOY on
MAY YOUR SPIRIT JOIN OTHERS BEFORE YOU AND PROTECT YOU NOW ON YOUR JOURNEY BROTHER

MICHAEL PONEYBOY 's picture
MICHAEL PONEYBOY
Submitted by MICHAEL PONEYBOY on
MAY YOUR SPIRIT JOIN OTHERS BEFORE YOU AND PROTECT YOU NOW ON YOUR JOURNEY BROTHER

Go-Girl from Minnesota's picture
Go-Girl from Mi...
Submitted by Go-Girl from Mi... on
This really go to me even though I don't know the young man or the family. He is an example of what we natives are like. My prayers go out o all the families involved here.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
If more young men had Lyle's compassion and empahty this world would be a MUCH better place. My thoughts are with his family now. He was a true hero and a warrior in every sense of the word, but his family will continue to miss him. I thank Lyle and his family for their sacrirfice. Heroic deeds are always remembered in our stories and the story of Lyle Eagle Tail will be one I tell my grandchildren. Save three girls from a long-term kidnapping and you're on every TV station in the country. Lose your life trying to save two children from drowning on the Rez and the only people who hear about it are local or posting on an NDN website.
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