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Cheyenne River Sioux Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle, Waniyetu Opi, walked on July 22 surrounded by family.

On a Scaffold to His Ancestors: Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle Walks On

David Rooks

 “… I can remember everything: From horses and cart days right up until today; jet planes and computers. When I was a boy there weren’t even any fences … all just open prairie. The world has changed so quickly … It’s so short a time … I’ve had a long life, but it seems like yesterday…”

—Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle (1919 – 2016)

In the way a 97-year-old traditional Miniconjou Lakota Chief knows, David Beautiful Bald Eagle, Waniyetu Opi, knew in early April: He would be leaving soon. Stricken with double pneumonia, from his hospital bed in Rapid City Regional Hospital, the revered Cheyenne River Sioux Chief said to his wife, Josee, of 44 years: “This is it. Call the kids.”

“He’d had a couple of close calls before, but this was different. I called all the kids,” said Josee. “We had people up on that third floor—we were driving the staff nuts. Kids running in the hallway… picnicking in the waiting room. The doctor even brought his birthday cake. At one time there was 30 people in that little room,” she laughs. “Singing and smudging. The nurse went to close the door and we said: Sorry ma’am, this is a cultural thing, this is picking him up.”

All the family members in the Chief’s tiyospaye were given time alone at his bedside. Finally, as the passage drew very near, his sons and daughters were called and given instructions to carry out in preparation. This included, at a chosen spot in a little cottonwood draw near the family ranch house, four days on a scaffold, after the manner of his ancestors, and then burial at the Sturgis National Cemetery.

Friends and family gathered at the Beautiful Bald Eagle ranch house. (Photo by David Rooks)

A week before he died, told of the hospital’s plans to remove him to hospice care, the old chief’s family brought him home. Last Friday, July 22, surrounded by family, in the early evening a son-in-law took his drum and played a love song of parting and farewell. When the song was completed, Waniyetu Opi had died in the arms of his wife.

Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle’s wife, Josee Beautiful Bald Eagle, near the tipi a few feet away from the scaffold. She spent all four nights in the tipi to be near her husband. (Photo by David Rooks)

Born in a tipi near Cherry Creek along the banks of the Cheyenne River, on April 8, 1919, as a very young man, Chief Beautiful Bald Eagle joined the 4th Cavalry at Fort Meade when he was barely 17. It was 1936, the year they changed from horses to a motorized cavalry. In 1940, when World War II broke out, the young akicita was allowed to go back to his family for a short while. When he returned, he re-enlisted and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  

Several passages from an obituary prepared by the family reveals the chief led an incredible life: “He was a grandson of Chief White Bull, who… led one of the immortal charges on Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle at Greasy Grass. His grandfather was his schoolroom, he didn’t speak English until he was 12, at which age he was sent to school at the old Cheyenne Agency boarding school near Gettysburg. He was active in many sports at school and became a formidable boxer.

“[In] the 82nd Airborne, Sgt. Bald Eagle became a code-talking paratrooper in one of the most storied combat units of military history. He was decorated for bravery in the Anzio campaign, he was also wounded while parachuting behind enemy lines on D-Day.”

Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle’s sons Kili and Remi Beautiful Bald Eagle, both Special Forces veterans, saluting their father. (Photo by David Rooks)

David Beautiful Bald Eagle’s life after the service was a continuing adventure. “He was an accomplished bronc rider under the name of ‘Chips Warner’ who counted Casey Tibbs as one of many of his good friends,” according to the obituary. He was also an actor, and very proudly kept up his SAG membership, having acted in several motion pictures such as “Flaming Arrow” with Errol Flynn, where he worked as Flynn’s stunt double; “Dances with Wolves,” “Imprint,” the TBS series “Into the West,” and many others.

The family also notes in the obituary that, “He also trained many western actors, including John Wayne, on techniques of horse and gun handling. Some of the chief’s fondest memories included his friendship with Marilyn Monroe. His latest movie, ‘Neither Wolf nor Dog,’ [will] debut at the Edinburg Film Festival in England. Among his many talents, Dave was also an accomplished champion ballroom dancer, and is remembered in the Ballroom Hall of Fame in Minneapolis, MN.

Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle had a career in show business and was also a rodeo cowboy. (Associated Press)

“Added to this, Dave became a champion Indian dancer, winning many national champion dance titles, and he was active in cultural affairs both as a Pow Wow announcer and dancing judge. During his travels, he had a chance meeting with his future wife, Josee, in 1958 at the World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium.

“He also served 17 years as chairman of the personnel policy board, as well as goodwill ambassador for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. He was chief of the Miniconjou band and first chief of the Indigenous Native Nations. His work in conflict resolution lead him all over the United States and the world. For nearly five decades, Dave was accorded the high distinction of leading the Days of 76 parade in Deadwood SD, also serving as important spokesperson for the history of Deadwood,” says his obituary.

Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle’s son, Kili, guards the scaffold while talking to a relative. (Photo by David Rooks)

Besides these many honors, Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle was revered for keeping the traditional ways. In talking to Richard Bullock, the chief reflected on his childhood and life: “It was tougher back then; I’ve had a rough life—but I can remember everything: From horses and cart days right up until today; jet planes and computers. When I was a boy, there weren’t even any fences; no electricity lines or phone lines, no roads—nothing. You could head out across the country and you wouldn’t have to open any gates or anything like that … all just open prairie. The world has changed so quickly in just one lifetime. It’s so short a time. I’ve had a long life, but it seems like yesterday…”

A trail of sage leading to the scaffold. (Photo by David Rooks)

In that long life, Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle’s quiver was quite full. He leaves behind his wife, Josee. Among those living and passed on, there are 25 children, five of whom are hunka (traditionally adopted), 73 grandchildren, 92 great grandchildren, and 2 great-great grandchildren.

Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle’s wife, Josee Beautiful Bald Eagle, takes a moment at the scaffold. (Photo by David Rooks)

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