Gerald One Feather, Oglala Sioux Leader and Education Advocate, Walks On
He was the youngest president, at age 32, in the history of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and he founded Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Gerald One Feather walked on Thursday, August 21 at a hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Born July 10, 1938 to Jackson “Joe” One Feather and Elva (Stinking Bear) One Feather, he made a mark in the community that started with just $20. He left his home in 1956 with that $20 in his pocket to attend Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota, reports the Rapid City Journal. He played as a linebacker on the university’s football team to pay for room and board.
It was an experience driving former DWU professor George McGovern around to campaign for a U.S. House seat that began One Feather’s life of advocacy.
“On election eve, I drove McGovern to a television station in Sioux Falls where he made a final appeal,” One Feather wrote a decade ago in a brief biography. “He had started campaigning with only a third of the vote in the polls against incumbent Harold Louvre. His door-to-door campaigning in virtually every town in South Dakota brought him through with a ‘squeaker’ win.”
It was in 1970 that One Feather became the youngest elected president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. But even before that he spent years as a tribal councilman, two years as chairman, and five two-year terms as tribal treasurer, reports the Rapid City Journal.
During his time as a tribal councilman he was criticized for banning the sale of alcohol on the reservation, a ban that only passed by one vote. The ban wasn’t overturned until last August.
“He was ridiculed by some who wanted alcohol to be legalized,” One Feather’s 49-year-old daughter, Sandra told the Rapid City Journal. “But it’s one of those things that were underlying, that people didn’t talk about much publicly. You don’t want to admit you’re an alcoholic or that your people have that problem.”
One Feather helped establish the National Tribal Chairman’s Association with other tribal chairmen in the U.S. and Canada, he also served as the vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, served on the board of the American Friends Service Committee, and the South Dakota Indian Affairs Committee, reports the Rapid City Journal.
“He’s one of those giant trees, whose falling shakes the entire earth,” Carrie L. Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, which One Feather helped found, told the Rapid City Journal. “Throughout it all, Mr. One Feather remained focused on his culture, his spirituality, and service to his people.”
His political and educational pursuits were not his only ones. In 1995, he was chosen by tribal elders to serve as staff keeper for 33 Lakota/Dakota/Nakota nations.
“When I asked the elders how I had been selected, they responded, ‘We had a sweat, and we asked the spirits for guidance. They selected you,’” One Feather wrote.
He’s received many awards over the years, most recently he was awarded an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Colorado-Boulder in 2013. He received a standing ovation from the crown of 40,000.
“It was the kind of moment that seems like a dream,” Gemma Lockhart, the newest member of the Denver American Indian Commission, told the Rapid City Journal. “The stadium was filled with thousands and thousands of people, alive and happy with graduation. The energy was vibrant, pure inspiration. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment as the crowd jumped to its feet and applauded the man from Oglala, the staff keeper of tribes on the Northern Plains and Canada.”
One Feather, the man who met U.S. presidents and spoke on behalf of Indigenous Peoples before the United Nations, will be missed by many.
“He was a visionary,” longtime friend Tom Katus told The Associated Press. “But unlike a lot of folks who are visionaries and never accomplish anything, he was very pragmatic and accomplished a great deal.”
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