BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - An elder from Montana's Crow Indian Tribe whose family ceremoniously adopted then-Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential race has died.
Hartford "Sonny" Black Eagle Jr. died Monday at his home in Lodge Grass on the tribe's reservation in the southeastern part of the state, said his son, Crow tribal Chairman Cedric Black Eagle.
The 78-year-old traditional healer died in his sleep after battling respiratory problems stemming from a severe case of pneumonia several months ago, Cedric Black Eagle said.
President Obama called Black Eagle's wife, Mary, on Wednesday to express his condolences, a White House official said.
A top Interior Department official who is a member of the tribe said Black Eagle's death was an "enormous loss for the Crow nation."
"Hartford Black Eagle willingly shouldered the weight of leadership and responsibility to improve the lives of our people. My heart goes out to the entire Black Eagle family," said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Donald "Del" Laverdure, a former chief legal counsel for the tribe.
Black Eagle and his family adopted Obama when the presidential candidate visited the reservation in the weeks leading up to Montana's Democratic primary.
As part of the adoption, Obama attended a purification ceremony where he faced east, the symbolic source of new life, and was prayed over by Black Eagle. He was given a Crow name that translates as "One Who Helps People Throughout the Land."
Cedric Black Eagle said his father considered the 2008 adoption ceremony one of the proudest moments in his life and subsequently considered it his duty to make sure Native American voices were heard.
"He felt like he was representing all of Indian Country as a spokesman, and always telling his (adopted) son, the president, that he has to make sure all of the people in Indian Country are heard and try to help them all," Cedric Black Eagle said.
Obama, who referred to himself as "Barack Black Eagle" during his 2008 visit to Crow Agency, pledged at the time to improve relations between American Indian tribes and the federal government if elected.
Black Eagle and his wife were later invited to Obama's presidential inauguration, and returned to Washington, D.C., in subsequent years for the annual White House Tribal Leaders Conference. Black Eagle and other family members also attended several Christmas dinners at the White House, his son said.
During destructive flooding on the reservation last year that left Lodge Grass largely isolated and forced many tribal members from their homes, Obama called Hartford and Mary Black Eagle to check on their safety, Cedric Black Eagle said.
The Crow Tribe released a statement Wednesday calling Hartford Black Eagle a "man of peace" who was well-known for his healing work and regarded the people of the world as belonging to one family.
He was born during the Great Depression and grew up outside Lodge Grass, where his family raised cows and horses on the same land where Black Eagle would make his home as an adult. He was also known by his Crow name, Alaxalusshixiassaah, meaning "thundering hoof," according to the tribe.
After his mother died of tuberculosis when he was a baby, Black Eagle was raised by his grandparents and later became a strong advocate for preserving the Crow's traditions and culture.
He taught the Crow language to his eight children, and instructed them and others in the community on performing traditional tribal dances, Cedric Black Eagle said.
To earn a living, he worked as a carpenter, an Indian Health Service representative and, most recently, as a political adviser to his son, who earlier this month lost a bid for re-election.
His death came less than two weeks after the loss of another member of the family, 55-year-old daughter Marilyn Black Eagle, who died Nov. 16 in a two-vehicle accident.
Funeral services for Hartford Black Eagle are scheduled for Thursday in Crow Agency followed by interment at Lodge Grass Cemetery.
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