White Eagle, a Native American opera singer, was born September 6, 1951, with the name Mervyn Moore.
His mother was white and his father, a traveling Christian evangelist, was from the Rosebud Sioux tribe, a branch of the Lakota people. Mervyn changed his name to White Eagle in 1982 and went on to be regarded as a key figure for Native American youth.
According to a 1985 profile of him in People magazine, when Mervyn was watching TV at age five, living with his family in a trailer park in Rapid City, South Dakota, he was inspired by what felt to him like a magical performance of opera by Mario Lanza. He became the first American Indian to sing leading roles in both opera and American musical theater.
During his short career, White Eagle performed over 4,000 concerts. In 1989, he sang at the Inaugural Gala for President George H.W. Bush, accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In 1991, he again performed for President Bush at the golden anniversary of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. When his production schedule allowed it, White Eagle performed at fundraisers at a home his father ran for Indian orphans in South Dakota. He told People magazine that he was determined to be a role model for young native Americans.
“We can keep our heritage, we can keep our culture,” he said. “But we have to assimilate to survive. The kids look up to me, and they think maybe they can be artists, too.”
White Eagle developed AIDS-related dementia in 1994 and died of AIDS in Mission, South Dakota, on July 7, 1995. He was 43 years old.
Toward the end of his life, he said, “Existence is a circle. Death sweeps the person back from where he came. Death is not an end.”