South Dakota nonprofit to document combat nurse's life


RAPID CITY (AP) – Marcella LeBeau's life story is well-documented.

The 99-year-old Native American began breaking barriers when she graduated in 1940 from St. Mary's School of Nursing in Pierre.

Three years later, she enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps and became a combat nurse during World War II. She would tend to wounded and dying soldiers who ran into a relentless hail of German fire while storming the beaches of Normandy, France, on D-Day.

On the 60th anniversary of that battle, LeBeau traveled to France and received the French Legion of Honor Award. She also served on the front lines during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, where she would spend a year and receive a medal of honor from that nation.

After being discharged from the military as a lieutenant, she spent 31 years working as a nurse and in other capacities for Indian Health Service on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation where she grew up and now lives.

In 2006, she was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame. In 2018, she received an honorary doctorate degree in public service from South Dakota State University. She is a founding member of the North American Indian Women's Association.

She has spoken at countless events and is the subject of two books now being written. What more could be said or written about a woman whose impressive life story has been told over and over again?

The answer may be just around the corner.

The Rural Ethnic Institute of Rapid City recently received a $10,000 grant from the Mary Chilton Daughters of the American Revolution Foundation in Sioux Falls to create a manuscript documenting LeBeau's life, the Rapid City Journal reported.

The author will be her great-granddaughter, Ryia LeBeau, a 20-year-old who attends Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. She promises the story she tells will be different.

"I will bring a unique perspective," Ryia LeBeau said. "We have spent a lot of time together, traveled widely together. I have been inspired by her. I feel that this is a very important role for me."

Ryia LeBeau said she hopes to finish a 120-page manuscript by the end of the summer.

"I have started working on the manuscript," she said Wednesday. "I have completed a few interviews."

Marcella LeBeau is confident her great-granddaughter is the right choice to pen the manuscript.

"Ryia is awesome. She is one-of-a-kind kid. She does things beyond her age. She's my right hand," said Marcella LeBeau, who lives independently at her home in Eagle Butte and is "doing pretty good for being 99 years old."

Gemma Lockheart submitted the grant application and will assist Ryia LeBeau with the manuscript. Marcella LeBeau's story is an important one in many ways, she said.

"Marcella connects us with stories and values of the old people. More, her story unfolds decisions and experience along the way of making choices for strength of community and country," Lockheart said. "It's a story worth hearing, worth knowing about for how it informs us in our own living."

She also looks forward to seeing what Ryia LeBeau will write about such a well-known figure.

"She is looking forward to writing about her great-grandmother," Lockheart said. "It will be in her words."

Judy Goetz, grant chair for the Daughters of American Revolution in Sioux Falls, said the organization looks primarily at three criteria when it determines who receives grant awards – patriotism, historic preservation and education.

Marcella LeBeau's life covered all three of those categories, she said.

"We want to educate children and adults about what someone has done in their life," Goetz said.

Tom Katus, the managing director for the Rural Ethnic Institute board, said the nonprofit seeks to improve relations between Native Americans and others in the Black Hills and western South Dakota.

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