Jay Thomas Bad Heart Bull was a writer and leader in the American Indian community in Minneapolis, devoting much of his life to helping young people and serving his people through his work with the Division of Indian Work, Little Earth of United Tribes and the Native American Community Development Institute.
Under his leadership, NACDI hosted the first Minneapolis mayoral candidate forums in the Native community. He was also instrumental in persuading the city of Minneapolis to recognize Indigenous People's Day in 2014, an action soon followed by the city of St. Paul, and then the state of Minnesota.
Over the past few years, Bad Heart Bull reprioritized his life around caring for his ailing father and young son, Quill, while his wife Carly (Beane) Bad Heart Bull, worked for the Bush Foundation and later the Native Ways Federation. He'd planned to return to work once Quill began preschool, but died unexpectedly on Aug. 9. He was 42.
"Jay was an old soul," said Carly. "He had this ability to understand our traditional teachings and ceremonies, and the importance of healing, and the importance of holding on to these things and incorporating them both in our present-day living, but also into our future, to create a world that is better for our kids."
Bad Heart Bull was born in Pine Ridge, S.D. He was from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota and enrolled in the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. He attended St. Thomas More High School in Rapid City, S.D.; the Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, S.D., and the University of Minnesota, where he focused on American Indian studies.
As a child, he loved the snow, recalled his mother, Loretta (Grey Day) Bad Heart Bull. He asked constantly for stories about the past, seeking to understanding the way his ancestors lived, their motivations and the consequences of their decisions. What sacred places meant to people. How to call things by their original names.
"He was really inquisitive, and he was really a different child in that respect," she said. "He kept us on our toes."
As an artist, Bad Heart Bull had a deep internal life, drawing on his connection to the land, which came out in his poetry.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Louise Erdrich was his friend. She was impressed by his poem "Matches," which begins, " 'There's only so much story that will fit in one book/ Before it needs to burn and be retold.' "
"I've thought about that line, because it seems as though it was written by a much older writer," Erdrich said. "And it hurts, because I know there was so much more story to write in Jay's book. The story would have been original, surprising and engaging, because that's how Jay was."
Bad Heart Bull was an avid golfer who considered Hiawatha his home turf, a bowler, a dancer and a 1980s movie trivia expert with an infectious sense of humor and an almost startling way of digging deeply into his friends' lives, said Joseph Brown Thunder.
"To know Jay is to not only love Jay, but to be loved by Jay. He wanted to really know you," Brown Thunder said. "I can't stress more that he was one of the beautiful ones. The world is a little bit less bright. But I look forward to seeing him again."
In addition to his wife, son and mother, Bad Heart Bull is survived by his father, Thomas Bad Heart Bull; siblings Lance Bad Heart Bull, Kevin Bad Heart Bull, Justin Grey Day and Ryan Bad Heart Bull.
Services have been held.
Susan Du • 612-673-4028