Too Strong to Be Broken by Edward J. Driving Hawk and Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve

Bison Books at the University Nebraska Press’ American Indian Lives series contains autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs of Native Americans selected for their anthropological and historical interest and literary merit. The latest addition to this treasure trove is Too Strong to Be Broken: The Life of Edward J. Driving Hawk by Edward J. Driving Hawk and Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 200 pp. $27.95, hardcover and Kindle).

The authors—brother and sister—wrote the book five years ago when Edward Driving Hawk reached the age of 80. They tell the story of his life in three psychologically and physically demanding sections.

A Lakota Indiana born in South Dakota in 1935, two years after his sister’s birth, Edward Driving Hawk lived an outdoor boyhood with plenty of hunting, fishing, and trapping. Accepting Great Depression hardships and periodic segregation from white people, Edward fondly remembers close relationships with his parents and grandparents who taught him tribal traditions that guided his behavior. He primarily attended federal government schools until the age of seventeen, then enlisted in the Air Force.  

Twenty years of military service filled the middle of his life. Trained as a Forward Observer, he saw action in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He loved guiding B29s and fighter-bombers from a front-line position against masses of North Korean troops—until they shot him through the leg.

Edward returned to the United States in 1955 and married Carmen Boyd, his high school sweetheart. They raised four sons and a daughter.

During the Cold War, he worked Distant Early Warning (DEW) lines at NORAD operations from Alaska to Ontario, Canada. He attained flying status and engaged in low-level EC-121 missions over Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, and special flights over Panama, Hawaii, and Alaska.

His account of the 156 missions he flew in EC-121 surveillance aircraft during three six-month tours in Vietnam provided new information for me and made exceptionally interesting reading.

In referencing those years, Edward repeatedly says, “I drank but was still able to do my job.” Yet he also writes of “uncountable blackouts.”

Edward and Virginia Driving Hawk

He was not a special case. According to my recollections of the USAF in the fifties and sixties, drinking was the favorite pastime among military personnel. Too many simply did not know what else to do during off-duty hours, and officer, NCO, and airman clubs became second homes. After 14 years of alcoholism—and under the threat of being discharged from the Air Force— Edward Driving Hawk joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s been sober for more than 40 years. 

Events of his post-military life back in South Dakota comprise the most dynamic section of his memoir. He attained the rank of Chief in the Roseland Sioux tribe and then chairman of the National Congress of American Indians—a united voice for all the tribes of the United States. He befriended senators; presidents befriended him.

He details his vigorous work on behalf of Indian causes, although too often with limited success. He ran afoul of the FBI, was undercut by his associates, and wound up serving eight months in federal prison. At the same time, Edward endured bouts of  Post-traumatic stress disorder and developed cancer as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. After many operations, today he must use a wheelchair.

The value of this book is that it offers a broad view of American society from a member of a small minority. Edward and Virginia recount the good and bad aspects of an unusual life and he takes responsibility for his actions, including those that he most regrets. A dozen photographs and a Driving Hawk family tree enhance his narrative.

—Henry Zeybel