GRAND FORKS — Jesse Taken Alive died last week. He was a central figure in the battle over the University of North Dakota's nickname and logo. Taken Alive was chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, and he took the fight against the logo to the Board of Higher Education, the Legislature and the NCAA.
Opposition to the nickname was not the whole of his activism, not nearly so. He worked for many years to secure passage of the Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was passed in 1990. He brought Indigenous leaders from around the country for a field hearing.
He was a teacher and a spiritual leader as well. He taught Lakota language and culture at Standing Rock. When COVID appeared at Standing Rock, Taken Alive went to a tepee to pray.
On Dec. 14, COVID claimed Jesse Taken Alive. He was 65. His wife died a month before him, also of COVID.
These details of his remarkable life are included in the Bismarck Tribune’s obituary, written by Amy Sisk. It was printed Friday, Dec. 18. The obituary also notes his love of basketball. Fort Yates, the Standing Rock capital, has often been a basketball powerhouse.
Taken Alive was rooted in Lakota culture. He was earnest, forthright and forceful in pressing his opinions. His evident passion for his people struck me whenever I heard him.
In these activities, Taken Alive acted as Lakota leaders had acted before him. The Lakota began to move westward soon after Europeans arrived in North America. About the time of the American revolution, they moved onto the plains. Lewis and Clark met them in what is now South Dakota in 1804. That encounter was a potential flash point. After hard bargaining, the Lakota let the explorers proceed, adjusting once again to changing realities.
The Lakota story is told in “Lakota America,” published last year. The author is Pekka Hamalainen, whose credits as an historian include the Bancroft Prize, the discipline’s highest honor, and a position at Oxford University, where he is a fellow and professor at St. Catherine’s College and director of a study of nomadic empires in world history. Published by Yale University Press this book about the Lakota is subtitled “A New History of Indigenous Power.”
Hamalainen attributes the growth of Lakota numbers and power and their survival to ability to adapt to new situations without changing their worldview or their values. He refers to this as “shape shifting,” and he provides examples of Lakota leadership that made this possible. Among them are such familiar names as Red Cloud, Gall and Sitting Bull.
Among the Lakota, leaders emerged and were chosen more by acclamation than election; disagreements might lead to factions and even divisions, with one group or another moving away. This was easily accomplished among a people as mobile as the Lakota. Yet ties of kinship were vital, and the Lakota people often came together in councils that brought many thousands of people. Taken Alive’s field hearing was a kind of council. He invited Indigenous leaders from around the country to press their case. The point of all this is that the Lakota never gave up, even when they were whipped militarily. Their traditions, their worldview and their consciousness as a people continued, adapted, shifted shape in response to new conditions while remaining a nation of their own.
The Standing Rock community has produced an abundance of leaders in many undertakings. Attempting a list is foolhardy perhaps; those I have known in one way or another include David Gipp, an educator who built United Tribes in Bismarck into a solid college that prepared many Indigenous people for roles in their communities and beyond; Mary Loise Defender Wilson, who came to prominence as Miss Indian America and became an important interpreter of Lakota culture; Kevin Locke, a musician, dancer and interpreter; Jodi Archambault Gillette, an adviser to Barack Obama; David Archambault, also a tribal chairman at Standing Rock, who delivered one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard in the state Legislature; and Dakota Goodhouse, whose work with Lakota winter counts helped inform “Lakota America.”
These individuals have arisen from the inherent strength of a who are “shape shifting” again in response to the brutal treatment that marked the decline of Lakota power on the plains. Two of the most awful incidents in the U.S. response to Lakota power occurred 130 years ago this month. Sitting Bull was killed at Standing Rock on Dec. 15, 1890. Two weeks later, on Dec. 29 that year, Lakota who had fled Standing Rock were killed at Wounded Knee, S.D., in what history has come to call a massacre.
The lives of Jesse Taken Alive and others show that despite these tragedies, the Lakota are not only survivors but legatees who are building their world anew.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.