by Marci Narum  |  Photography: Photos by Jacy

Culture: Anthropology; the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

“I’m 39 and holding!”

Dolly Dakota leans back in her chair outside a Bismarck coffee shop, sending a long, carefree laugh toward the blue North Dakota sky.

“That’s why I’m rockin’ my Tina Turner wig!”

A local radio personality, Dolly (who is really 51) is known for her exuberance, joy, and wit. She is also the night manager of the Mandan Dairy Queen, and it’s general knowledge that Dolly is a reliable, hard worker. And she is one tough woman.

Wearing a wig, though—that’s something new.

Dolly started chemotherapy in May after she was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer. As a result, she has lost the lovely lush, wavy, black hair that was also a Dolly Dakota signature. But she hasn’t lost her zest for life.

“I wonder if when my hair grows back, is it going to be black? Or silver? It’s black and wavy normally, and I’ve heard it comes back thicker [after chemo]. What if I’m the oddball, and it doesn’t? What if it comes in thin blond?” she says, a dramatic tone in her voice. There is joyous laughter again. “Then I’ll just be wearing my wig more!”

Among her many delightful qualities, Dolly is candid; sharing updates about her cancer and chemotherapy treatments on Facebook and occasionally with her radio audience on COOL 98.7.

“There are many people in the community who are battling [cancer]. I have gotten many messages from people saying, ‘We are so glad you’re sharing your story. You’re bringing inspiration to people, and even though we know you’re having rough days, you’re still being so positive. Thank you for sharing that.’”

One may not realize that some of what Dolly is sharing is part of what she has always known: the Native American culture that has been passed on to her from generations before her.

Dolly is a Lakota Dakota (Hunkpapa Yanktonai) woman. She was born on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Dolly’s mother died two weeks after giving birth, and Dolly lost her father to heart disease when she was 10. Although her adopted family, Virginia and the late Ferdinand “Red” Luger, are of German-Austrian descent, they lived in Fort Yates, North Dakota and raised Dolly in the Native American traditions and culture—a promise they made to her father when Dolly was an infant.

Dolly calls herself a warrior. Graced with humility and compassion, she is also gifted with perseverance and strength. And spunk. A whole lot of spunk.

“When I met my surgeon, the first thing she told me was I needed to make a will. So I get home, and I’m thinking about this,” Dolly recalls. “I’m filling out the paperwork. Who will be my pallbearers? I can’t come up with pallbearers. Move onto the next subject…who is going to sing my song to the drum? I can’t come up with that. Where would I like to be buried? I don’t know. Obviously, I’m not going to die, so I can’t plan my funeral,” she says matter-of-factly.

“I’m moving on.”

And she’s moving on in true warrior fashion.

Dolly had surgery in July, and it was a success. Using laparoscopy, her surgeon removed a tumor the size of a small cantaloupe. Dolly is back on chemotherapy, and the next part of her cancer fight will be on a wing and a prayer.

Dolly has agreed to be part of an extensive clinical research trial. She will be on a chemo drug for the next two-and-a-half years. During that time she will endure nausea, muscle fatigue, achy joints, hair loss, and neuropathy in her fingertips and feet.

“We’re going to see if this drug will help kill the cancer, and the results they learn from me will help others. In 2021 when I’m done with chemo, then we’ll celebrate.”

Dolly celebrates the simple moments and the major milestones on her journey, sporting a rhinestone headband on the final day of her first round of chemotherapy treatments.

“It was the first day of summer, so I wore some bling,” she says in her chipper voice.

There is one sacred adornment Dolly is eager to wear again: her jingle dress. She hasn’t been strong enough to attend a powwow this year, but when she finally is, Dolly says the custom will be part of her recovery. It stands to reason; the Native American powwow originated as an event to celebrate the renewal of life.

“I like to hear that drum. It’s the heartbeat of the ceremony. I need to feel it to feel better. It gets your inner spirit. And I know that will be good. It is a healing for me.”

Dolly began as a fancy shawl dancer when she was six, and danced until she was 19. About 10 years ago, she picked up dancing again, designing and creating her first jingle dress.

“A jingle dress is made of Copenhagen lids that are cut and curled. Each one of those represents a prayer…for family a member, beautiful days, sunny skies. Because the jingle dress is a healing dance.

“It’s in you. You can’t really be taught; it’s something inside of you. You hear that drum, and it awakens in you. It comes to you.”

The red-winged blackbird also appears to Dolly, serving as a guide and protector over her life.

“Red Wing is my Indian name,” Dolly shares. “As a little girl out on the prairie, I always liked watching the red-winged blackbirds, then I found out I have a great aunt whose name is Red Wing. I asked her, ‘Can I have your name?’ So it was passed down to me.”

In the Native American culture, animals and birds are considered messengers and manifestations of spirits, delivering signs and omens, guidance and wisdom.

“When I travel, I see them; if I’m on vacation, rock climbing, or whatever, and I thank them for being with me on my journey. They are there watching me, protecting me.”

The day before her surgery in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Dolly visited Falls Park, where a red-winged blackbird visited her.

“She sat on top of a pole and sang. Wherever I stood, it would move so it was facing me. And it would sing. It was telling me that everything was going to be okay.”

Despite some toughs days and the pain and other symptoms of the cancer and her chemo treatments, Dolly genuinely believes everything will be okay. She also has the prayers and support of her elders, another source of support and guidance. Dolly says in her culture, aunties and grandmothers are women to whom great honor and respect is given.

“Not just your own grandma, but grandmothers. Those are older ladies that are part of your life, and you treat them like a grandmother. You listen and respect them if they scold you, but you also go to them for wisdom. They love you and offer you advice. Same with grandfathers. You treasure them; honor them.”

Dolly says she has reached auntie status, which is another level of honor and respect in her culture. It’s a role she fills on the job at DQ, too, where she has mentored countless teenagers.

“I work the nights and some of the teens that come to work have never had a job in their life. They don’t know how to mop or hold a broom. Or they broke up with their girlfriend and they have a broken heart. And I’ll tell them, ‘You’re going to be okay. Not tomorrow, but next week you’re going to be a little bit better. You’re young. You’re going to have many broken hearts.

“I will encourage them and ask them what they’re thinking about doing for a career. I get graduation cards from them and thank you cards thanking me for telling them like it is and being there for them.”

Tell it like it is. It’s been this warrior’s approach to cancer, accompanied by her incredibly positive spirit.

“It’s going to do me no good to sit home and cry. I gotta go forward. So I try to make the best of it. I also have my rough days. Days where it hurts. I’m nauseated and scared. I’ve got to have those moments too, but I can’t have them the whole time.”

And like all warriors, Dolly bears the evidence of battle. She considers her scars part of her story.

“My first [chemo] port got infected. They had to remove it, and I had to get another one. I’m telling the surgeon as she’s rolling me in [for the second port], ‘Make sure the scars are even. If I’ve gotta have scars above my boobs, make sure they’re even!’ Because they’re going to be there. Can’t cry over it. Roll with it.”

And Dolly is. She’s rollin’. Like Tina Turner singing “Proud Mary.”

Sometimes a warrior wears a wig.   

Dolly hoped she would participate in the 49th Annual United Tribes Technical College International Powwow, but her chemotherapy schedule will keep her from dancing.

The Powwow is September 7-9
Sunday 1 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Friday 1 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Saturday 1 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Click here for more information.

See more photos of Dolly by Photos by Jacy, here.