It's true: Chief Joe Brings Plenty
Brian Wright O’Connor | 5/19/2010, 5:49 a.m.
When severe ice storms struck the Great Plains last January, power lines toppled, roofs collapsed and water heaters burst.
Residents left without electricity were in imminent danger of freezing to death as the storms and subzero temperatures lashed the region for nearly a week.
The hardest-hit area was also one of the poorest — the vast Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in central South Dakota, where less than 10,000 tribal members are spread across 2.8 million acres of scenic grasslands, meandering river valleys and flinty hills.
Responding to the crisis, Chief Joe Brings Plenty, the 39-year-old tribal chairman, called an emergency meeting in Eagle Butte to assess the damage and direct operations to rescue tribal members from the cold and shelter them in homes still intact after the freezing winds and rain passed through.
“I was as calm and as focused as I could be during the meeting,” said the chairman during a forum at Harvard last week, “but when I walked out, the enormity of the crisis came over me. As chairman and chief, I was responsible for the safety and welfare of my people.”
Tall and strong, with a long braid running down his back, Chief Brings Plenty said he walked out of the tribal headquarters, fell to his knees under the stars, and wept for the First People of the land — members of the Lakota bands living under his care and protection.
That’s when the prayers came.
“We cannot survive if we forget the spirits of our ancestors and neglect to seek their guidance,” said Brings Plenty, speaking to an audience in an oak-paneled room at Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s undergraduate residences.
Between the spirits and the pick-up trucks he deployed to bring his people to safety, the Cheyenne River Sioux survived the storm without losing a single member.
The relief operation illustrated the approach the dynamic Native American leader has brought to his chairmanship since his election to a four-year term in 2006 by the largest margin in tribal history.
After a period of turbulent tribal leadership, Brings Plenty campaigned on a platform of combining native traditions and modern management to bring new hope to the scattered descendants of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and the Sioux warriors who defeated Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the infamous 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn.
It didn’t hurt that a week before the election, a photograph appeared in the local paper showing the photogenic Brings Plenty, in full war paint and wielding a club, pulling down a cavalry soldier during the filming of a battle scene for one of the many movies shot on the sweeping landscape of HeSapa — otherwise known as the Black Hills.
“You can’t buy that kind of publicity,” he said.
As much as the photo boosted his bid, the young candidate had already made his mark working with tribal youth to pull them away from drugs and despair. A talented Lakota singer and father of five, Brings Plenty ran a championship boxing program and revived sweat lodge ceremonies and other sacred practices to keep young people off the bottle and the meth pipe in a place where unemployment runs as high as 80 percent.