In media coverage across the state, Lyle Francis Eagle Tail has been depicted as a hero: a man who drowned while trying to rescue a 6-year-old boy he did not know from the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls.
But Friday, as 50 mourners gathered around his open casket in Rapid City, the 28-year-old was remembered for his kindness, infectious personality and willingness to risk his life for another.
Mourners wept openly at the Mother Butler Center in a ceremony that mixed Episcopalian rites with Native American tradition. While Eagle Tail was living in Sioux Falls at the time of his death, he was born in Rapid City and is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
On Friday evening, a pastor's prayers were followed by the burning of sage and sweet grass, a traditional Lakota method of purification. Between songs and drum circles, family members took turns talking about the man they knew.
"We will go all night long," said his grandmother, Caroline Quick Bear. "Then in the morning, we will have the funeral service."
The funeral service will begin at 10 a.m. at the Mother Butler Center, and he will be buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Rapid City. For the next year, as dictated by tradition, the family will mourn, concluding with a memorial service on the same day next year.
Napolean Ducheneaux, 21, drove from Sioux Falls to attend his friend's wake. Ducheneaux was one of the last people to see Eagle Tail alive on March 14.
On that day, Eagle Tail, Ducheneaux and 12 other friends had gathered at Falls Park. The group spent the afternoon tossing around a football and throwing rocks into the frigid and turbulent waters of the Big Sioux River.
The group was about to leave when Eagle Tail saw 6-year-old Garrett Martin Wallace had fallen into the river. His sister, Madison Leigh Wallace, jumped in after him.
Eagle Tail dived in to rescue the pair - but the three were quickly battered by a swift current and obscured in thick foam.
Ducheneaux and two bystanders ran to the river's edge. Ducheneaux got on his knees and grabbed Eagle Tail.
"He was saying, 'I got him! I got the boy! Don't let go, don't let go!'," Ducheneaux said. "That's when he slipped. We dropped him. And the foam was up to his shoulders, and when we lost him, he just disappeared."
Wallace also died while trying to save the boy, who managed to escape the river.
Ducheneux had first met Eagle Tail only weeks before the incident. He had been friends with Eagle Tail's fiancee, Shawna Rabbit, and quickly hit it off when introduced to her boyfriend.
"Never a dull moment, you know what I mean? He was just fun," he said.
Eagle Tail was the eldest of seven children. But Francis Eagle Tail-Dupris, a cousin, said his close family was much larger than that.
"He was like our brother," she said. "The technical term would be cousin, but he was our brother."
Eagle Tail lived in Minneapolis but visited his family numerous times each year in Rapid City. Before he died, he was living in Sioux Falls and working at The Original Pancake House.
"He said he loved it there," Cammie Eagle Tail Joseph, a cousin, said. "His co-workers were like friends."
Eagle Tail Joseph's memory is particularly raw. She had spoken to her cousin over the phone from her home in Albuquerque only a week before his death.
"I can still remember his laugh," she said.
Ducheneaux, who will be one of the eleven people carrying Eagle Tail's casket today at his funeral, hopes he will be remembered for even more than that.
"I'm sad that he's gone, but I'm happy because it wasn't a lost cause, it was for something" he said. "It was for something as valuable as giving a life for another. You know what I mean?"
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