David Bald Eagle, Lakota Chief, Musician, Cowboy And Actor, Dies At 97 : The Two-Way He was also a war hero and a ballroom dancer — Bald Eagle's life is hard to fit in a headline. He parachuted into Normandy, acted in Westerns and starred in his first feature film at the age of 95.
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David Bald Eagle, Lakota Chief, Musician, Cowboy And Actor, Dies At 97

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David Bald Eagle, Lakota Chief, Musician, Cowboy And Actor, Dies At 97

David Bald Eagle, Lakota Chief, Musician, Cowboy And Actor, Dies At 97

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

David Beautiful Bald Eagle has died at the age of 97. The Lakota chief acted in Hollywood films, including a minor uncredited role in the Oscar-winning "Dances With Wolves." But that was actually one of the least-interesting things that he did. NPR's Camila Domonoske explains.

SIEGEL: David Bald Eagle danced with Marilyn Monroe. He parachuted into enemy gunfire at Normandy. He even played pro baseball. He was born in South Dakota in 1919 five years before the U.S. allowed Native Americans to be citizens. He grew up hearing the stories of the Lakota men who fought Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

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DAVID BEAUTIFUL BALD EAGLE: They told me to sit there. (Speaking Lakota), which means, Grandson, sit there.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: That was Bald Eagle speaking for a South Dakota oral history project. As a teenager, he joined the Army. He was discharged on, of all days, December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He promptly re-enlisted and became a paratrooper. On D-Day, he was dropped into Normandy on top of German gunfire. At first, he was left for dead.

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BALD EAGLE: The British Commando's medical department came along, felt my pulse, and it was still beating.

DOMONOSKE: He survived the war and became a musician, a drummer with Cliff Keyes' Big Band. He married Penny Rathburn, an English dance teacher. They became champion ballroom dancers, but their marriage ended in tragedy when Penny died in a car crash while pregnant with their first child.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALD EAGLE: I became pretty much suicide. Why her, not me?

DOMONOSKE: Despondent and feeling guilty, Bald Eagle started chasing danger. He drove race cars. He rode Broncos and bulls bareback on the rodeo circuit. He went skydiving.

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BALD EAGLE: Anything that could kill me.

DOMONOSKE: He became a stunt man in Hollywood Westerns - dozens of Westerns. He was rarely credited. Sonny Skyhawk says Bald Eagle would sometimes turn down roles that portrayed Native Americans negatively. Skyhawk is an actor and a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation.

SONNY SKYHAWK: He knew that images were important and that we should have a voice in Hollywood. And that's why he was looked up to by other Native actors.

DOMONOSKE: When he wasn't acting, Bald Eagle joined the Casey Tibbs traveling Western show under the name Chips Warner. When the show traveled to Belgium in the late '50s, Bald Eagle met his second wife, Josee. They settled down on a ranch in the Cheyenne River Reservation. They raised horses. They had children of their own and adopted others.

Bald Eagle became the chief of his tribe, then the chief of chiefs of the United Native Nations. He kept acting. There was "Dances With Wolves." Then two years ago at age 95, he landed his first starring role as a Lakota elder who hires a writer to tell his stories in the independent film "Neither Wolf Nor Dog."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEITHER WOLF NOR DOG")

BALD EAGLE: (As Dan) The world is not an accident. We don't always get to choose our parts.

DOMONOSKE: Sonny Skyhawk says in real life, too, Bald Eagle worked to preserve history, and he advocated for Native people.

SKYHAWK: He was not a tall man in stature, but he was huge in regards to the values that he instilled in others.

DOMONOSKE: David Bald Eagle told the stories of his elders. Now people will tell stories of him. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

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