Lost Lakota Leaders Live on as Champions of Native Causes

By Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle

Sioux Falls, South Dakota (December 22nd, 2020) —Last week, the Oceti Sakowin lost two prolific leaders to Covid-19 — Jesse “Jay” Taken Alive and Tom Poor Bear. Jesse was former chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Tom was former vice chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Both leaders were champions of native causes, Lakota culture, and each spent a lifetime committed to the betterment of indigenous communities on local and national levels. 

Jesse “Jay” Taken Alive, May 1, 1955 – December 14, 2020

65-year-old Jesse was hospitalized in late October and, sadly, journeyed into the spirit world a little over a month after his wife, Cheryl, passed away from COVID-19. Jesse’s dedication to giving back to his community included teaching Lakota culture and language in McLaughlin, South Dakota. To many who knew him, he was “Lala Jay,” the Lakota word for “grandfather.” His work toward language revitalization and preservation included a fruitful partnership with the Lakota Language Consortium. Jesse helped with numerous projects including the popular Lakota Summer Institute and the Berenstain Bears project which dubbed the beloved children’s cartoon in Lakota. 

The language consortium released a statement of condolence stating, “His [Jesse’s] passion for language, his integrity, and eloquence provided a spiritual and intellectual basis for so much of the Lakota language movement and his ability to create and maintain these partnerships over the years has been instrumental in the growth of the language not only in Standing Rock but in Lakota country.” 

Jesse’s commitment to service motivated him to run for tribal council in 1991 and he spent 24 years as a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Tribal Council, including a term as tribal chairman from 1993-97. 

His advocacy for the repatriation of Native American remains and artifacts taken from graves prompted Congress to pass the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. The Act outlines the process by which remains and items are to be returned to tribes.

A combined obituary for Jesse and his wife, Cheryl, states, “Jay and Cheryl maintained a steadfast faith in Wakan Tanka, and lived their life together in prayer and in service to humanity. They were honored to assist individuals and families with prayer and spiritual guidance. Jay and Cheryl rarely declined an invitation to assist with and attend Lakota naming ceremonies, mourning ceremonies, and comfort ceremonies. They loved the Lakota way of life and strived to embody Lakota values every day.”

The couple were interred this week in rural Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. 

Tom Poor Bear, December 11, 1954 – December 13, 2020

Tom Poor Bear, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, journeyed into the spiritual world from complications due to the coronavirus. Tom served as the Oglala Sioux Tribe vice chairman and spent his life fighting for Native rights. In the 1970s he joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) and traveled to Washington, DC to help AIM’s takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in protest to the agency’s failure to fulfill its trust responsibilities to Native American people. He was a fierce AIM warrior and throughout his life, he worked for justice for indigenous people.

Tom frequently spoke out about the mishandling of murder cases on Native American reservations, including the deaths of his brother and cousin, who were found beaten to death near Whiteclay, Nebraska. Tom organized the annual Walk for Justice in their memory, and in memory of others whose cases went unsolved. His advocacy was featured in numerous documentaries and national news stories, which ultimately shed light on cold cases in Indian Country. 

“I made a commitment I wouldn’t walk away from their spirits. We’re going to keep marching until justice is found,” he told the Rapid City Journal in 2009.

Tom was also steadfast in his fight for climate and environmental justice. He stood his ground against the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which is scheduled to run through Great Sioux Nation Treaty territory, against the wishes of the Lakota/Dakota people. 

In 2011, at Barack Obama’s presidential speech in Denver, Tom held up a banner that read “President Obama, Yes You Can Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline”. This prompted the president to pause and acknowledge Tom.

“I hear you. No decision has been made. I know your deep concern about it. We will address it,” said Obama. In 2015, Obama rejected the pipeline.

Later that year in November, Tom marched in New York City against KXL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, and was arrested, along with longtime treaty rights activist, Debra White Plume. Sadly, Debra passed away last month. 

A one-night wake service for Tom began on Tuesday, December 22, with interment in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. 

Jesse and Tom were warriors and leaders, fiercely devoted to service, and both men spent their lives tirelessly serving their communities. None of what these men did was for fame or riches, but for the good of their nation and community to which they belonged. Their knowledge and legacy can never be replaced but their examples can be honored in our thoughts and actions. 

The South Dakota Democratic Party sends condolences to the families, friends, and colleagues of Jesse “Jay” Taken Alive and Tom Poor Bear. We remember and honor them as they return to the Star Nation. 

Please direct questions to SDDP Executive Director Pam Cole via email pam@sddp.org
or phone (605) 695-1996.