Biographical / Historical
Reuben A. Snake, Jr. was born January 12, 1937 at Winnebago, Nebraska, the youngest child of Reuben Harold and Virginia Greyhair Snake. Reuben's mother divorced her husband and later remarried, but Reuben's early life was fraught with hardships, including a period of separation from his parents and siblings. When the family's financial situation improved, parents and children were able to reunite and eventually settled in Hastings, Minnesota.
Reuben entered Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1950 but later dropped out due to problems with alcohol. He joined the Army in 1956, from which he was honorably discharged, and two years later he married Kathy McKee, with whom he raised four daughters and two sons. In 1965 he quit drinking.
Reuben was active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s and organized many demonstrations during his tenure as national chairman of that organization. After being elected chairman of the Winnebago tribe, Reuben reorganized the tribe, centralizing its administration and improving funding and accountability. Reuben was involved with educational issues as well, serving on education committees for the National Congress of American Indians and the National Tribal Chairman's Association. He worked both nationally and internationally to help make more widely known issues of Indian health, education, and religious freedom.
Reuben began to renew his spiritual and cultural ties with the Native American Church in the 1970s and eventually became a Roadman for the church. With the help of Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii he fought judicial battles to legalize the importation of peyote from Mexico for use in sacramental ceremonies. In 1990, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that the sacred use of peyote was not protected by the Constitution, Reuben became the official spokesperson for the Native American Church to educate the public about church philosophy and history. He organized the Native American Religious Freedom Project to lobby for national legislation what would amend and strengthen the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Reuben had suffered a major heart attack in 1986, and by the early 1990s, his health was deteriorating. He died on June 28, 1993. Reuben did not live to see the results of his hard work on behalf of Native American religious freedom, Amendments to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which President Clinton signed into law in October, 1994. These amendments protected the religious use of peyote by Indians.