On Saturday, March 23, 2013, after an all-night wake at the Mother Butler Center, 28-year-old Lyle Francis Eagle Tail was laid to rest in the Mountain View Cemetery in Rapid City, South Dakota. The young Lakota man had drowned nine days earlier while trying to save 6-year-old Garrett Wallace, who had fallen into the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls. Garrett’s sister, 16-year-old Madison Leigh Wallace also died trying to rescue the little boy, who survived the ordeal. According to Associated Press reports, Eagle Tail’s body was found two days later, about 100 feet from where Madison was discovered the day before.
The story got national coverage, for obvious reasons. On Thursday evening, March 14, the 28-year-old Eagle Tail was enjoying his first visit to Falls Park with his fiancée and some friends when the 6-year-old boy fell into the foamy, churning river. Wallace jumped in after him, as did Eagle Tail. One witness, Napoleon Ducheneaux, reported that Lyle had both siblings in his grasp at one point, but the three were separated. Eagle Tail also had a brief hold on Ducheneaux’s hand, but despite Ducheneaux’s desperate attempts to hold onto him, Eagle Tail was pulled under.
The facts are known, but questions still hover around Eagle Tail’s brave, selfless sacrifice. Why would a young man leap into an icy, debris-choked river to help a child he’d never met?
The answer, according to his family and members of the Lakota community, lies in Eagle Tail’s cultural heritage and upbringing. He was, quite simply, a Lakota man. “He is a true tokala—a warrior,” said Derek Fiddler, a cousin who lives on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, home to four bands of Lakota people. “He gave his life and gifted it to a younger generation. As warrior people, we put ourselves in the line of danger, protecting what’s sacred.”
Leading Eagle Tail’s procession in Rapid City
Eagle Tail had ties to reservation lands across western South Dakota. Although he was raised in Rapid City and Minneapolis and most recently was living in Sioux Falls, he was an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge reservation; his father, Lyle Thunder Hawk, is part of the Thunder Hawk tiospaye or clan.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe sent a delegation to Eagle Tail’s services in Rapid City, and the tribe flew its flags at half-staff during the week of March 18 to 23 to honor his memory. “His act of bravery is what defines a true Lakota warrior,” the tribe noted on its website.
Eagle Tail’s mother, Margaret Eagle Tail, is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, home to the Sicangu Lakota. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe also supported Eagle Tail’s family, assisting with a funeral escort from Sioux Falls to Rapid City.
A recent article on LastRealIndians.com indicates that Eagle Tail was deeply influenced by traditional Lakota values and his Lakota grandmothers. Author Dana Lone Hill wrote, “He was raised by his grandmother, Louise, to respect his elders and to always put children first. This is a Lakota tradition that dates back to the birth of the stars.”
Lakota elder Marcella Ryan LeBeau, 93, says she relates to this. She too was raised by a grandmother who embodied Lakota principles, and made a lasting impression. A member of the O’ohenu?pa (Two Kettles) band of Lakota and called Pretty Rainbow Woman in her native language, LeBeau grew up on the Cheyenne River reservation. Her great-grandfather, Chief Joseph Four Bear, signed the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868; her grandmother, Louise Bear Face, was related to Rain In The Face, who fought in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.
LeBeau lost her mother at the age of 10. After that, she says, she spent a lot of time with her grandmother. “She didn’t speak English, but I thought she had wisdom beyond book learning,” she recalls. According to LeBeau, accepting
Leading Eagle Tail’s procession in Rapid City; Lakota Elder LeBeau believes his impulse to save the child was instinctive, a part of his cultural heritage.
everyone regardless of race or background was part of the Lakota way, and her grandmother demonstrated her compassion and generosity on many occasions. “She was the kindest person I’ve known,” she says. “There was never any discrimination against anyone. [She] always had food for people.…
“My mother married my father, who was Irish. His people didn’t like it, and his children were never mentioned. My grandmother never had any feelings against my dad. There was no discrimination at all.”
LeBeau’s grandmother also cherished children. In Lakota life, they were sacred beings. “They were almost revered,” LeBeau says. “Their needs were always taken care of, and they were never punished. They were led by example.”
When asked why she thought Eagle Tail, the father of a little girl and with another baby on the way, would jump into the cold, rushing waters of the Big Sioux River to save a young child he’d never met, LeBeau’s voice wavered slightly. “It would be like instinct to do that, to help,” she says. “Children are treasured beings.”
Acknowledging how proud his family must be, she added, “I’m proud of him, too. This is a story that needs to be told. And retold.”