Rosalie Little Thunder—Giving Voice to the Voiceless

For the bison herd of Yellowstone the winter of 1996-97 was deadly.  Heavy snows had made it difficult to plow through to the forage underneath.  Survival meant finding other grazing land, leading the buffalo to wander down from the mountains in search of grass.  Going north out of the Park was a death sentence.  When the bison crossed the Montana State line, they were met with gunfire.  The only witness to record the atrocity was Mike Mease, videographer and environmentalist.  The video was sent to a Sicangu Lakota woman who, in response, came to Yellowstone National Park to witness the atrocity inflicted upon the buffalo nation, and offer prayers.   That winter, under the leadership of Mease and this Lakota elder, Buffalo Nations was formed (original name of the Buffalo Field Campaign), a nonprofit, grassroots coalition of Native and Non-Native environmentalists with the support of the Seventh Generation Fund, providing a permanent defense along the Yellowstone Montana border [1]. That Lakota elder was Rosalie Little Thunder. 

Rosalie Little Thunder (from Indianz)

When Rosalie prayed over the bodies of the slaughtered buffalo that winter, she was part of a cloud of witnesses who had survived to attest to senseless horrors.   She saw, however, the bison as survivors, as she was a survivor—“Just as I am a survivor of massacre, so too are the Yellowstone buffalo survivors of massacre [2].” She was a direct descendent of survivors of both the 1855 Little Thunder Massacre and the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre.  Her own grandfather had survived the 1855 massacre, saved by his mother covering him with her body when she had been struck by a bullet [3]. 

Born 18-Sep-1949 in Old He Dog Community on the lands of the Sicangu Lakota people (Rosebud Sioux Reservation) to William and Margaret (Good Shield) Little Thunder [4], Rosalie became an avid activist promoting her people, the Lakota, and her brothers and sisters of the Pte Oyate (Buffalo People/Nation).  She served on several non-profit boards including the Buffalo Field Campaign, Owe Aku  International [5], Seventh Generation Fund [6], and South Dakota Peace and Justice.  Rosalie was also an honorary member of Honor the Earth [7], Indigenous Environmental Network [8], Wolakota Foundation [9], and Brave Heart Society [10]. In addition to these, she was an active member of Kat’ela Okalakiciye—a traditional Lakota Elderly Women’s Society—and participated in the Sicangu Constitutional Convention.

As if these activities were not enough, Rosalie was an adjunct professor at Black Hills State University, American Indian Department, teaching the Lakota language and working with the Lakota Bible Translation Department. 

Central to this life dedicated to the Native way, was the well-being of the Pte Oyate, which Rosalie held dear.  She worked to protect the buffalo from the mid-1990s until her death in 2014.  The last wild, free-roaming bison is the Yellowstone herd.  To have witnessed the decimation that winter of 1996-97, must have torn her heart apart.  She did not want the last of the wild buffalo to disappear, and wanted Native peoples to have more say in the buffalo’s fate—“After I am gone, I want there to be buffalo on this Earth. Maybe the buffalo will help us be here a little bit longer. Maybe they will help us survive. [11].”  To bring attention to the killing of the Yellowstone bison and the need to protect the herd and its natural grazing grounds, Rosalie, in 1999, led a group of Lakota Sioux on a 500-mile walk from Rapid City, South Dakota to the Gardiner basin in Montana, carrying a sacred pipe.  The journey was a form of prayer for the bison and a protest against the wanton destruction of the last wild herd of the majestic animal.  In honor of Rosalie, and to keep her memory alive, the Buffalo Field Campaign has continued this prayer practice by instituting an annual Rosalie Little Thunder Walk [12].

Such heinous acts that have been inflicted on the Buffalo Nation can overwhelm and numb a person into a silent resignation. But atrocities not heard breed more atrocities.  A voice must be given to these acts of cruelty and destruction to break the silence and prevent a numbed acceptance.  Rosalie Little Thunder was such a voice.  Even though she has passed, her spirit and voice continue speaking.  Many others, including the Buffalo Field Campaign and the organizations mentioned above, carry her spirit in their hearts and echo her voice through their words and actions.  By offering us an alternative reality to a culture of death, she was truly prophetic.

End Notes:

[1] Buffalo Field Campaign, History. https://www.buffalofieldcampaign.org/history.  Retrieved 06-Apr-2020. Also see Basile, Tracy. Unbound Project. 16-Jul-2019. https://unboundproject.org/rosalie-little-thunder/. Retrieved 06-Apr-2020.

[2] Rosalie Little Thunder in Rethinking Columbus, which was banned by Tucson Public Schools.

[3] Brister, Daniel. 2013. In the Presence of Buffalo. West Winds Press. Portland, Oregon. 36-37.

[4] Rosalie Little Thunder obituary.  Osheim & Schmidt Funeral Home.  Rapid City, South Dakota.

[5] Owe Aku International is an organization dedicated to protecting our water sources against the effects of oil pipelines and tarsand.  Visit their website at http://oweakuinternational.org/index.html

[6] Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples is dedicated to providing support to grassroots Native communities’ projects.  Visit their website at http://7genfund.org/ .

[7] Honor the Earth’s mission is to “…create awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities.”  Visit their website at http://www.honorearth.org/ .

[8] Indigenous Environment Network “…was formed by grassroots Indigenous peoples and individuals to address environmental and economic justice issues…[including] building the capacity of Indigenous communities and tribal governments to develop mechanisms to protect our sacred sites, land, water, air, natural resources, health of both our people and all living things, and to build economically sustainable communities.”  Visit their website at https://www.ienearth.org/ .

[9] Wolakota Foundation “…is a grassroots non-profit organization emerging from the needs of traditional Lakota (Dakota/Nakota) people to maintain their cultural and spiritual lifeways for the sake of future generations.”  Visit their website at http://www.wolakota.org/ .

[10] Brave Heart Society, formed by a community of grandmothers from the Yankton Reservation of South Dakota, works for the revival of a traditional cultural society for women.  Visit their website at https://www.braveheartsociety.org/ .

[11] Baisle.

 [12] Third Annual Rosalie Little Thunder Walk. Buffalo Field Campaign. https://www.buffalofieldcampaign.org/third-annual-rosalie-little-thunder-memorial-walk?highlight=WyJyb3NhbGllIiwicm9zYWxpZSdzIiwibGl0dGxlIiwidGh1bmRlciIsInRodW5kZXIncyIsIndhbGsiLCJyb3NhbGllIGxpdHRsZSIsInJvc2FsaWUgbGl0dGxlIHRodW5kZXIiLCJsaXR0bGUgdGh1bmRlciIsImxpdHRsZSB0aHVuZGVyIHdhbGsiLCJ0aHVuZGVyIHdhbGsiXQ== .  Retrieved 07-Apr-2020.

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