Dave Bald Eagle

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David Bald Eagle
Waniyetu Opi[1]
A photo of David Bald Eagle in 2003 By Phil Konstantin
A photo of David Bald Eagle in 2003 By Phil Konstantin
Lakota leader
In office
First Chief of the United Indigenous Nations of The Americas[2]
Personal details
David William Beautiful Bald Eagle

(1919-04-08)April 8, 1919
Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, South Dakota
DiedJuly 22, 2016(2016-07-22) (aged 97)[3]
Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, South Dakota
Resting placeBlack Hills National Cemetery
44°22′13″N 103°28′28″W / 44.370389°N 103.474356°W / 44.370389; -103.474356
  • Penny Rathburn[4]
  • Josée Kesteman[4]
Mother tongueLakota
Military career
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1936–1944
Battles/warsWorld War II:
AwardsSilver Star medal.png Silver Star medal (Anzio)

David William "Dave" Bald Eagle (April 8, 1919 – July 22, 2016[3]), also known as Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle, was a Lakota actor, soldier, stuntman, and musician.

Life and work[edit]

Dave Bald Eagle was born in a tipi on the west banks of Cherry Creek, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota.[5]

Bald Eagle first enlisted in the Fourth Cavalry of the United States Army and served out his enlistment. During World War II, he re-enlisted in the 82nd Airborne Division ("All American Division") where he fought in the Battle of Anzio, being awarded a Silver Star, and in the D-Day invasion of Normandy at which time he received a Purple Heart Medal when he was wounded.[6][7]

After the Second World War, Bald Eagle worked in a number of occupations including drummer, race car driver, semi-pro baseball player, and rodeo performer before beginning a career in Hollywood films. He was the grandson of famous Lakota warrior White Bull.[6]


David William Bald Eagle, who died on Friday aged 97, was born in a tipi on 8 April 1919, in Cherry Creek, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota. His name in Lakota translates as Wounded in Winter Beautiful Bald Eagle.

Dave was raised in the Minneconjou Sioux tribe, largely by his grandparents, on the prairies in the heart of America. He grew up speaking Lakota and immersed in Sioux tradition. One of his grandfathers was the warrior White Bull, who led the assault on General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Inspired by stories of White Bull’s friend Crazy Horse, Dave was keen to make his mark. He won his first rodeo at 14. He underwent the traditional sundance ceremony aged 15, and at 17 joined the Fourth Cavalry where he participated in the last years of mounted cavalry before mechanization, and became a formidable boxer. He re-enlisted into the 82nd Airborne – the All Americans – at the outbreak of the Second World War and fought in the landings at Anzio in Italy where he won the silver star. He was severely wounded by German fire while parachuting into France during the Normandy invasion.

After convalescence he pursued a musical career as drummer for Cliff Keyes Big Band from Minnesota, then later for a South Dakota western band. This led him into a dance partnership with Penny Rathburn that won them the district ballroom championships. David and Penny were newlywed and she was expecting their baby when she was tragically killed in a car wreck. Suicidal, Dave turned to anything that would kill him: rodeo, skydiving, dirt track car racing and stunt driving. However instead of killing him it made his name, and he established a career in Hollywood. He was in over 40 movies and trained many western actors - including John Wayne - in techniques for horse and gun handling. He served as Errol Flynn’s stunt double and became friends with Marilyn Monroe and many other stars of the time. Acquaintance with leading Hollywood players did not diminish his aversion to studio politics and he eventually left Hollywood to become a Champion Indian Dancer, winning the National Dance Championships in ’60 and ’61, and return to a successful career in rodeo.

In 1958 he joined Casey Tibbs and a rodeo display team travelling to the World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium. A chance meeting with a young Belgian girl named Josee Kesterman restored David’s will to live and secured their future together. Josee migrated to the United States and near Cherry Creek they created a home together with their children, a labour of love they both worked hard to establish amidst the privations of reservation life. Dave and Josee’s generosity and kindness to family, friends, and strangers alike is legendary. Together they have influenced innumerable lives for the good.

Dave continued to work as an actor and established a successful ranch on the reservation. His knowledge of oral history and traditions taught to him by his grandparents instilled in him a strong sense of responsibility to his people. This dedication led to his appointment as the traditional Chief of the Minneconjou Lakota Oyate in the late 1990s. In 2001 he was elected as the first Chief of the United Native Nations. His work in conflict resolution led him all over the United States.

Dave’s final film role is in Neither Wolf Nor Dog which premiered in June at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Although Dave encountered many forms of prejudice and discrimination he never showed bitterness, and met adversity with invincible courage and humour. He somehow seemed to embody what was great about the culture of the American West, as well as his own Lakota spirit. He was extraordinarily funny and no-one who met him could forget his easy laughter. His life and work stand as a beacon to many.

Remembering his childhood Dave said: “It was tougher back then; I’ve had a rough life. But I can remember everything. From horse and cart days right up until today; jet planes and computers. When I was a boy there weren’t even any fences. No electricity lines or phone lines. No roads, nothing. You could just head out across country and you wouldn’t have to open any gates or anything like that. All just open prairie. The world has changed so quickly in just one lifetime. It’s so short a time. I’ve had a long life but it just seems like yesterday”.

David William Bald Eagle / Wounded in Winter Beautiful Bald Eagle born 8 April 1919, died 22 July 2016. Survived by his wife Josee, and his many children, grand children, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

Selected filmography[edit]


  1. ^ Rooks, David (29 July 2016). "On a Scaffold to His Ancestors: Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle Walks On". Indian Country Today Media Network.com. Retrieved 3 August 2016.
  2. ^ Miller, Steve (17 October 2011). "Chief Beautiful Bald Eagle, 92, shares storied life". Rapid City Journal. Retrieved 3 August 2016.
  3. ^ a b Domonoske, Camila, "David Bald Eagle, Lakota Chief, Musician, Cowboy And Actor, Dies At 97", NRP, 27 July 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d "Dave Bald Eagle", The Times, 30 July 2016
  5. ^ Senator Tim Johnson (April 28, 2009). Tribute To Chief David Bald Eagle (Speech). South Dakota State Capitol. Archived from the original on 8 August 2016. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  6. ^ a b "Dances with Wolves actor Chief David Bald Eagle dies at 97". BBC News Online. BBC. 27 July 2016. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  7. ^ "David Bald Eagle, Lakota Chief And Actor: Military Service in WWII". Soldier of Fortune. 28 July 2016. Retrieved 29 July 2016.
  8. ^ Chad Coppess, Dances with Wolves' actor dies, CNN, retrieved 29 July 2016
  9. ^ David Seals (13 May 1991), "The New Custerism", The Nation: 634–639, When Kevin Costner was shooting Dances with Wolves in 1989 in South Dakota, where I live, a full-blood Lakota elder gave me a copy of the screenplay to read. David Bald Eagle lives way the hell out in the middle of the South Dakota Prairie ... recalling the day a helicopter landed out by his place, bringing the script of Wolves for his perusal and assessment. He was flattered by the attention ... Dave Bald Eagle was eager to rush out and get a job on Dances With Wolves because that was an economic necessity, but he also saw the foolishness of the thing and joked about how he always tried to stay in the background in the crowd scenes so maybe no one would notice him in the movie.

External links[edit]