OGLALA, S.D. — Gerald One Feather, the legendary Oglala Sioux leader, former tribal president and tireless advocate for educational opportunities, has died. He was 76.
Longtime friend Tom Katus told The Associated Press that One Feather died Thursday at a Rapid City hospital. Katus said One Feather had a massive stroke while on dialysis in Pine Ridge before being taken to the hospital.
One Feather was born in 1938 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, one of the poorest places in America, but rose to become a respected tribal leader in and outside of the reservation. He met with U.S. presidents, spoke on behalf of indigenous people before a United Nations group and helped Native Americans enter higher education.
“He was a visionary,” Katus said. “But unlike a lot of folks who are visionaries and never accomplish anything, he was very pragmatic and accomplished a great deal.”
One Feather was elected Oglala Lakota Tribal President in 1970, making him the youngest to hold that position in tribal history.
One Feather enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell in 1956. He left home with $20 and became a linebacker on the football team to secure free room and board.
That fall, he was one of the drivers who took Democrat George McGovern around the state during his run for a U.S. House seat.
“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 autobiography. “His door-to-door campaigning in virtually every town in South Dakota brought him through with a ‘squeaker’ win.”
One Feather also wrote that he had three pillars in his life: spiritual, political and academic.
He spent years in tribal government before becoming president, and was heavily criticized during his tenure as tribal councilman for banning the sale of alcohol on the reservation.
“He was ridiculed by some who wanted alcohol to be legalized,” One Feather’s 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.”
The ban remained in effect until residents voted to overturn it last August.
One Feather also was an advocate for education, helping start the Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota, and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, based in Alexandria, Virginia.
Last year, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Colorado-Boulder before a standing ovation of a crowd of 40,000.
One Feather also helped establish the National Tribal Chairman’s Association with support from other tribal chairmen in the U.S. and Canada, as well as served as vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, the American Friends Service Committee and the South Dakota Indian Affairs Committee.
“I’ve worked for many presidential candidates … (Walter) Mondale, (George) McGovern, (Michael) Dukakis, all relatively impressive people,” Katus said. “None of them could touch Gerald.”