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Illustrious Cheyenne River matriarch begins her journey

Marcella Rose LeBeau 1919-2021

The community of Cheyenne River and the world are lessened by the passing of Marcella Rose LeBeau on Sunday, November 21, 2021.

Word spread through tiospaye and the oyate on Saturday morning until formal announcements were made on the AP, South Dakota Public Broadcasting and Stars and Stripes. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem released a statement in praise of LeBeau.

While the world notes the passing of an icon, the community of Cheyenne River shares a personal grief as tributes, memories and condolences pour into family members.

The West River Eagle will do a more in-depth profile of LeBeau next week. For now, we share these highlights of LeBeau’s remarkable life and legacy.

LeBeau was born in 1919 and grew up in Promise, South Dakota. She lived at the Cheyenne River Old Agency until it was evacuated due to the flooding to create Lake Oahe.

Her Lakota name, Wígmuŋke Wašté Wín (Pretty Rainbow Woman) was given to her by her grandmother. She was a member of the Cheyenne River Oóhenuŋpa (Two Kettle) Lakota Nation.

A statement released by the family on Saturday, November 22, says:

Mitákuye (relatives),

It is with tremendous sadness that the Tiošpaye (family) of our beloved Lakota Matriarch Marcella Rose Ryan LeBeau Wígmuŋke Wašté Wín (Pretty Rainbow Woman) of the Cheyenne River Oóhenuŋpa (Two Kettle) Lakota Nation, regret to inform you that she has begun her journey to the star nation to be greeted by our ancestors on the evening of November 21st, 2021.

She was surrounded by her dearest Tióšpaye and the healthcare professionals at the Cheyenne River (Wakpá Wašté) Indian Health Service in Eagle Butte, SD. Her life was so beautifully lived for 102 years and we would like to extend our gratitude to friends, relatives, and the community for the prayers and care offered as we mourn the loss of a precious woman who filled our lives with love and significant meaning.

Arrangements to honor her life and legacy are being made with Kesling Funeral home in Mobridge, SD.

Wópila Táŋka Ečíčiyepi (with great gratitude), 

The Tiošpaye of Marcella Rose Ryan LeBeau 

Wígmuŋke Wašté Wín

Stephen Groves wrote for the AP that LeBeau’s daughter, Gerri Lebeau, said the matriarch of her family demonstrated fortitude, as well as an ability to seek healing, as she overcame the abuses she faced at an Indian boarding school during her youth. She went on to treat frontline soldiers as an Army nurse in Europe during the Allied invasion of Normandy. After returning home, she became an outspoken advocate for health in the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

South Dakota Public Broadcasting reported that LeBeau used her expertise to save the lives of those who stormed Normandy on D-Day and during battles including the Battle of the Bulge. She went on to be honored by the country of France with its highest military honor, the French Legion of Honor Medal.

LeBeau took her talents back to her tribe where she went on to become a major advocate of Native American Health. She became the director of nursing at Cheyenne River (Wakpá Wašté)  Indian Health Services. LeBeau also served on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council in the early 1990s and was an active member of American Legion Post 308 in Eagle Butte.

A neighbor told this paper that he is sure there are many people alive today who would not have been born or lived had it not been for LeBeau, that she advocated for her people during a time of medical atrocities that probably didn’t happen on Cheyenne River because of her.

LeBeau was a lifetime health policy advocate and a campaigner for the Remove the Stain Act to revoke Congressional Medals of Honor from those who committed atrocities at Wounded Knee. 

Earlier this year she traveled to Washington, DC, in the company of Dr. Karla Abbott to testify to Congress about the proposed Act. Comically, the computers at the airport could not register her age and kept saying she was only two years old!

West River Eagle columnist Alanna Taylor interviewed LeBeau about her advocacy. She says, “The greatest and most solemn privilege was the opportunity to interview Mrs. Marcella Rose LeBeau/Pretty Rainbow Woman (Oohenupa) earlier this year about Marcella’s trip to Washington, DC, to advocate for the Remove the Stain Act.” 

LeBeau wrote in her letter to congressional leaders, “After the killing of Sitting Bull on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, Chief Spotted Elk at Cherry Creek, South Dakota decided that they should go to Chief Red Cloud’s Camp at Pine Ridge for refuge. They were met at Wounded Knee creek by the 7th Cavalry soldiers. Chief Spotted Elk had ordered that a white flag be flown. He was ill and suffering from pneumonia. They were unarmed by the 7th Cavalry soldiers. It was reported that the 7th Cavalry soldiers had been drinking the evening before the massacre. They set up their Hotchkiss guns and massacred innocent unarmed men, women, and children, including Chief Spotted Elk who was lying helpless suffering from pneumonia.”

Marcella continued her letter with a sentiment she often expressed about her home. “In my opinion there is a pervasive sadness that exists on our reservation, the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota. There has never been closure to the horrific unprovoked massacre at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation, where unarmed men, women and children were massacred under a white flag of truce with their leader Spotted Elk who was lying there helpless suffering from pneumonia. The descendants and relatives never forget, for many years horseback riders congregate at Sitting Bull’s camp on the Sanding Rock reservation to begin their prayerful journey to Wounded Knee, to arrive on December 29th to remember the Wounded Knee massacre.”

When asked about how the pervasive sadness appears among her people, Marcella explained, “Well, in my opinion, a person is not a fully functioning person if they’re involved with grief, and usually grief is resolved by a death and a burial, and that is the end of their [loved one’s] life. But with this situation, it’s different because they were murdered under a white flag of truce and their bodies were stripped of clothing and artifacts.” 

LeBeau lived her life with the acknowledgement of this sadness, and yet embodied a relentless hope and commitment to the future. Grandson Ryman LeBeau said his grandmother “always supported justice for those that are treated unfairly.”

LeBeau often gave speeches about her experiences and never forgot those that she served with. She often ended those speeches with a prayer like the one that follows here.

“O Great Spirit, guide my hand as I collect sand from this hollowed ground. Great Spirit accept now my prayer for the brave and courageous soldiers who saw the horrors of war here this day 60 years ago to 1944,” said LeBeau.”Great Spirit, please also accept my prayers for Lieutenant Harry, Sergeant George Sweitzer. Great Spirit keep us ever mindful of the great sacrifices made to liberate France and bring peace to our world by these fallen men. O great spirit now hold my hand and walk with me up the cliff of Omaha Beach filled with emotion. No words can ever express.”

The West River Eagle offers prayers of comfort and peace to her family, friends, and those whom she mentored and taught. Her wisdom, perseverance, and the love for her people will be a part of her legacy.

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