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Darla Black has been fighting her entire life. Her resilient spirit has persevered through her struggles in male-dominated fields—defending her nation and her home in the army and tribal law enforcement to overcoming her own personal demons.

By Katie Stearns

She wheels around town in a black-as-death, two-door, $15,000 truck. At 5-foot-5, she has a hefty step to clamber aboard the ‘92 GMC Sierra pick-up. But she doesn’t care. It feels good to drive this big mother.

It feels good because it arrived courtesy of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety, which has fired Darla Black 22 times.

At 47, the Lakota and U.S. Army veteran has waged war in tribal court 20 times for what she calls unwarranted terminations throughout a 25-year law enforcement career.

Why? Let her count the reasons:
Terminated because she’s outspoken.

Fired after blowing the whistle on internal corruption.

Shoved aside because she’s an educated woman.

But Darla Black fights back. Of the 20 cases she’s taken to court, she’s won them all.

“Leave me alone, or you’re gonna keep buying me cars,” she said as a smile stretched across her face, a thin white scar visible just above her lip.

+ Video

Darla Black sings and translates a traditional warrior song.

Strength and independence seem generously sprinkled throughout her near-half  century of life. But don’t be mistaken; she’s no stranger to hurt or pain or overwhelming sadness. She’s faced outright discrimination, seen the inside of a jail cell and felt the brute force of a steel-toed boot to her face.

* * *

Before she joined the U.S. Army, before she dedicated her career to law enforcement and criminal investigation, before pursued her bachelor’s degree and reached deep inside herself only to find a spirituality she couldn’an’t help but impart to others, Darla Black was an unhappy 7-year-old.

The young girl was keenly aware she didn’t like moving around.  Her mother’s nursing career with Indian Health Services kept them on the move, so Darla decided to move into her grandmother’s one-bedroom home in Manderson, S.D., a home with no running water or electricity and a wooden stove.

They lived off the land, eating fish and clams called “tuki shells ” from a nearby creek, and dry deer meat. Corn, potatoes, onions, watermelon, squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe and mushrooms rotated in and out of their backyard garden.

But when some family members took to the bottle, the 16-year-old Darla knew moved in with a close family friend.

Beverly Running Bear, who already was raising five or six of her nieces, knew Darla was different.

“I just wanted them to get a better education and make something for themselves,” Running Bear said. “Darla was the only one who seemed to stay around and listen.”

But as an 18-year-old senior at the Oglala Community High School, Darla was pregnant and ashamed.

“I think when I stated showing, I quit going to school because I didn’t want my peers to know,” Darla said.

Without a high school diploma in her hands, Darla sensed she had to do something to better herself, and with a literal push from Running Bear, Darla enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1980 and shipped off to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for U.S. Army basic training, leaving her baby daughter with her grandmother.

“When boot camp came along, she was somewhat reluctant, so I walked her right up to the bus and made sure she got on it, and off she went,” Running Bear recalled.

The day Darla walked inside the gates of Fort Leonard Wood, she saw a sign that read, “Make me or break me.”

“At the time , I didn’t understand that meaning, but let me tell you, when I walked outta those gates I understood what it meant,” she said.

Now almost 30 years later, Darla has served her time in the Army and Army National Guard. She has her GED and is working on a human services degree from a community college in Lincoln and is now only a few credits shy of a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Growing up, her grandmother had always stressed two things: Lakota spiritual beliefs and the importance of education.

“She said in my day, the only way we would survive was through education. We had to educate ourselves,” Darla said. That “would be the only way you’re gonna keep up with the white man’s way of changing things.”

* * *

But Darla’s journey to a solid education and self-reliance was a haphazard one; long and difficult, it was a journey that dealt twists and turns and dead-ends.

At first, Ron Jumping Eagle was nice, he was kind. They met at school, and he’d come around Darla’s grandmother’s house, helping the elder with odd jobs. But three years into their relationship, he began to drink and hit, and the abuse didn’t stop there.

“Psychological, physical, sexual,” Darla said. “You name it, I experienced it.”

Still, her grandmother urged her to stay with him.

“In her day, I guess you just did. You know, if you were married to somebody… it was just something you had to do,” Darla said. “You were committed to that man, irregardless of what happens.”

Her grandmother’s opinion changed one day Jumping Eagle came home drunk and angry.

Jumping Eagle ripped her from the bathroom where she was washing their 2-year-old son. He grabbed her long, black hair, pulling so hard they tumbled down the stairs. He got up, Darla stayed down, and he kicked her hard in the terrified face, following up with swift blows to her ribs and the rest of her body. He was wearing steel-toed boots.

Her face was numb, too numb to feel the pain when he kicked her front tooth out. She saw a bone protruding from her nose and a spurt of blood coming from her broken face, but she couldn’t feel a thing.

She wanted to die, she thought she was going to die. But when she looked up, she saw her daughter peering down from the top of stairs, watching the bloody scene from a distance. Something in Darla snapped.

“When I got beat up and I saw my daughter, she couldn’t even cry. She just stood there looking at us, and that totally changed me in the inside.”

With a battered face, bruised body, broken nose and knocked-out tooth, Darla took her three children and walked right out the door on that frigid January night. Despite the dark hour and the falling snow, Jumping Eagle was still bubbling with anger, and he took the shoes and jackets he’d bought his family. Darla kept walking, barefoot, until a friend picked her up on the side of the road.

“It was humiliating to have everything taken away from me, and I didn’t want that to happen again,” she said.

It didn’t happen again. The scar above her lip ­– the one that curves with her smiles or frowns – as well as a matching thin, white mark above her left eye, are the only mementoes her fiancé left.

He was the last man she’d ever be with, too damaged to let another man’s arms wrap around her again. And the day she left was also the day she realized she needed an education, to better herself, to pave the way for her children’s future.

“One of the things that I thought about when I left was I didn’t have nothing to offer my kids,” Darla said. “You know, how am I going to support three children with no education, with nothing, absolutely nothing to offer?”

Darla changed that quickly, enrolling in classes and hitting the books. She also found something else, something that had been tucked inside the walls of herself and her heart perhaps since the day she was born. Darla Black uncovered her Lakota spirituality.

* * *

There was no light. Darla had grown up hearing about Buffalo Calf Woman and her vision of black and yellow and white and black. Her grandmother’s Lakota and graced her ears since she was a child, but that didn’t prepare Darla for her first sweat lodge. The darkness, the drumbeat, the unforgiving heat, the sweat, the sizzling water, the red rocks. The initial panic of claustrophobia. The eventual acknowledgement of complete openness.

“You’re in total darkness, I mean let me tell you, your senses come alive,” she said.

At 25, Darla realized this was her.

“It clicked,” she said. “This is where I came from. This is where I belong.”

Today, Darla’s spirituality drifts into every corner, crack and crevice of her life – from the classroom to her career to friends and family and, most of all, to her people.

As an overnight employee at the Healing Circle, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Lincoln, Neb., Darla worked from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Then she’d go home for a couple hours of sleep, attend a class, sleep some more, and hit two more classes and then back to work. For a while, she took a part-time job at McDonald’s to earn some extra cash.

And when she had free time during the week, she’d find her way back to the Healing Circle, ready to lead the recovering women addicts in a Lakota prayer ceremony – a gesture she did of her own and without pay.

Rachel Mulcahy, Darla’s former supervisor at Healing Circle, said it was touching to see the way Darla connected with these women, the way they all grew silent and still as Darla, sage in hand, blessed each and every woman.

“The clients found it really cleansing, getting back in touch with their higher power in a way that she defined from the stand point of her Native American roots,” Mulcahy said. “They were able to apply that same concept, whether or not they were Native American, to the whole idea of giving into someone or something beyond you.”

When Darla took human services classes at Southeast Community College, she added an extra dimension to the class. She spoke up, she shared stories, and she sparked discussion.

“A big part of our curriculum…has to deal with cross cultural confidence,” SCC professor Mike Kadivy said. “She would share, for example, stories about the rituals, the sweat lodges the similarities in terms of the Creator, you know, is the same Creator for all of us.”

When Darla spoke, he said, other students’ eyes widened, their interest piqued. They couldn’t help but want to hear stories of things they’d never experienced, memories they didn’t know existed.

“She’s a beautiful human being,” Kadivy said. “Brings a lot of strength and compassion to everybody that she meets, and she’s fun. Hell of a combination.”

At work, Mulcahy picked up on this, too, even learning from Darla’s firm beliefs.

“She was so connected to her beliefs, and the healthiness and the emotional security that those beliefs gave her,” Mulcahy said. “She was totally in touch with that part of herself.”

* * *

Thirty years ago, Darla couldn’t get off the rez quickly enough. Today, she can’t stay away.

“Her strength is … always trying to do good for the people. For our people, the Lakota people,” Running Bbear said.

“My wheels are always turning,” Darla said. “What can I do for my people?”

And she’s got some ideas: A substance abuse facility near White Clay, Neb., and a child-friendly facility to report sexual abuse on the reservation to name a couple.

“I have no desire to go work on another reservation,” Darla said. “That’s my home.”

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