Some leaders have so much to their lives that it’s hard to capture. Such is the case with David William Beautiful Bald Eagle, a war hero, champion dancer, stunt double, bull rider and race car driver. He also was a big band musician, and most knew him as an actor who danced with Marilyn Monroe and taught John Wayne how to shoot from a horse.
Yet this extraordinary man was a leader, too, chief not only of the Mnicojou Lakota but later the first chief of chiefs in the United Native Nations, a group of Native American tribes. He spent much of his life teaching and advocating for native people.
Bald Eagle wasn’t granted citizenship until he was 5 and didn’t go to school until he was 12. He joined the U.S. Army as a horse trainer in 1939, volunteering for the 82nd Airborne after Pearl Harbor.
He won the Silver Star for his role at Anzio, and on D-Day was left for dead after parachuting into enemy fire at Normandy.
Back home, he played drums in a big band and became a champion ballroom dancer with his wife. But she died, pregnant, in a car crash, which caused Bald Eagle to become suicidal and throw himself into dangerous pursuits like skydiving and bull riding, eventually becoming known as a stuntman and acting in dozens of movies, including Dances with Wolves.
He met his second wife while performing at a Wild West Show in Belgium in 1958. They courted for years and married in 1973, after which Bald Eagle settled down with his large family on a ranch in South Dakota. They raised a large family together, one that grew even larger when they adopted many children. Several of them have served in the military, including two in the 82nd Airborne like their father.
“He loved children, he loved teaching, he loved educating people—he loved it all. He loved life to its extreme,” says fellow actor Sonny Skyhawk. “He was looked up to by other native actors. He was not a tall man in stature, but he was huge in the values he instilled in others.”
Bald Eagle passed away in July 2016 at 97 years of age. However, his passion for life is still palpable, as his community will always remember and be inspired by his remarkable accomplishments.
— Adapted by Annette Licitra from “David Bald Eagle, Lakota Chief,” Camila Domonoske, NPR.