Wednesday 28 September 2016

Obituaries: Chief Dave Bald Eagle

Native American chief who appeared in Hollywood films

Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30

The poster for the road movie in which Bald Eagle appeared in 2016
The poster for the road movie in which Bald Eagle appeared in 2016

Chief Dave Bald Eagle, who has died aged 97, was a Native American who worked uncredited on dozens of feature films. He provided John Wayne with tips on horses and guns, worked as a stunt double for Errol Flynn, and advised Kevin Costner on his 1990 Oscar-winning western epic Dances with Wolves, in which he himself had a small role.

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David William Beautiful Bald Eagle was born on April 8 1919 in a tepee at Cherry Creek on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He grew up in a barren landscape without fences or roads and learnt to ride long before he learnt English.

At the age of 10 he rode in his first "Days of '76" western parade in Deadwood. He would later compete in rodeos and went on riding bulls into his 60s. He spoke only the Lakota language until he was 12.

Bald Eagle learnt the history of his people at the knee of his grandfather Chief White Bull, one of the Sioux leaders at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. White Bull reputedly fought hand-to-hand with General Custer and, some claimed, was the man who killed him, although White Bull denied it.

During service in World War II in the 82nd Airborne Division, Bald Eagle won the Silver Star at Anzio and was shot when parachuting into Normandy on D-Day.

His first-hand experience of the Old West was to prove invaluable when he went into the movie business after the war. He worked on the 1954 western River of No Return and went dancing with the star, Marilyn Monroe, in their free time.

He had to wait until his mid-90s before landing a starring role - in the low-budget road movie Neither Wolf Nor Dog, which premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June this year. His character, along with a friend, lures an author into taking a road trip to show him Native American life.

"It took a lot of energy and effort for a 95-year-old to learn the complex dialogue scenes," the film's Scottish director Steven Lewis Simpson recalled. "But on our first day filming at the sacred land of Wounded Knee, he said a deeply moving prayer and ceremony. The rest of that day he just nailed every scene straight off... It was almost mystical, like he was drawing strength from something much deeper than himself."

Despite his career in Hollywood, Bald Eagle returned to live on the reservation where he was born. He was a chief of the Miniconjou tribe and the state of South Dakota often used him in promotional material.

He was in his 90s when he rode in his last Deadwood parade. In one of his final outings his horse fell, but, with a lifetime of horsemanship behind him, Bald Eagle slipped off it as it tumbled, and got back on as it rose back up.

Although he took his heritage seriously Bald Eagle also had a light side. Recalling filming on Neither Wolf Nor Dog, Steven Lewis Simpson said: "I was standing on a hillside and wet my finger... to feel which way the wind was blowing. Dave was beside himself laughing. 'Typical white guy, a Lakota would just look at which way the grass was being blown.' "

His first wife Penny Rathburn, a dancing instructor, died in a car crash.

He is survived by his second wife, Josee, and a huge family that included children, some of them adopted or simply taken in, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

Chief Dave Bald Eagle died on July 22.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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