By Krystal Spring/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
ROCKY BOY AGENCY - Several hundred people gathered in Rocky Boy Agency Monday to mourn the passing of John "Roddy" Eagle Sunchild, 74, a former Chippewa Cree tribal council chairman and longtime advocate of American Indian governance issues.
Sunchild, a U.S. Army war veteran and influential leader and tribal elder, died Wednesday in Arlington, Va. He was buried Monday morning at the Rocky Boy Cemetery.
As a Chippewa Cree tribal elder, Sunchild was instrumental in many tribal ceremonies, a contribution that will be missed, said his brother-in-law, Kenny Gopher.
"We are losing a lot, we are losing our ways at burials like this. But we've got to continue on," Gopher said at his burial.
Sunchild, whose Indian name was Eagle, was the chief executive officer of the National Tribal Development Association and former member and chair of the Rocky Boy tribal council. He had recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to lead a prayer for the Sept. 21 opening of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of the American Indian. He was hospitalized in Virginia last month.
A wake was held on Saturday and Sunday at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Rocky Boy. Sunchild's casket was displayed at the church before his burial Monday, adorned with an American flag and his cowboy hat and cane. A large carved wooden eagle sat to one side of the casket. Next to the carving, a painted picture of Sunchild, an eagle over his right shoulder, was displayed. The painting was titled "Chief Eagle."
Sunchild's family sat at the front of the church, sharing tears and hugs with hundreds of people waiting in line to pay their last respects and say good-bye to Sunchild.
Sunchild served on the tribal council from 1984 to 1992, at which time he was elected the council chair. He founded the National Tribal Development Association and became its chief executive officer in 1995. The association, a national nonprofit organization, provides credit outreach services to more than 250 tribes in 28 states.
In August, Sunchild led the opening prayer at the newly constructed Rocky Boy's Veterans Memorial Park. Sunchild was a highly decorated war veteran himself. Enlisted in the U.S. Army Airborne paratroopers at age 17, he served in Korea and earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Double Valor, and the Purple Heart.
"We're all going to miss him," Gopher said. "At ceremonies, you're going to feel the emptiness. We're all going to feel it."
After Gopher finished speaking, Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me" floated on the breeze: "You've been my inspiration; through the lies you were the truth. My world is a better place because of you."
For a moment, the wind that had been blowing throughout the ceremony died down and the sun peeked through the clouds, its rays shining down on Sunchild's casket. Then a three-shot salute rang out, followed by "Taps," as Sunchild's casket was lowered into the ground.
Sunchild is survived by his wife, Florence, four children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.