By Angela Noel
October 20, 2016
Charles Eastman was a complicated man. I had never heard of him until my son and I visited the Baaken Museum on the banks of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. I wandered outside of the museum, as Jackson built an electrical circuit, and read the placards placed at regular intervals on the terrace. Looking out over restored wetlands on the museum property connected to the lake by a snaking track of road, I learned that Mr. Eastman had lived near the lake as a child and later wrote a book about his early life as a member of the Santee Dakota tribe.
Intrigued by the opportunity to read about my adopted Minneapolis home through the eyes of a young boy raised in a Native tradition, I downloaded the (Free!) book Indian Boyhood, published in 1902, that afternoon.
I devoured it.
As a memoir, it reads more like a transcript from an interview for a school newspaper. But I didn’t read it for the beauty of the prose. The stories, sometimes legend, sometimes direct account, have a surprising relevance 75 years after publication. Within its pages, the reader is reminded of both the magic and the folly of the human experience.
For example, Eastman, called Ohiyesa as a child, questions his wise grandmother, Uncheedah, about why some roots are better for medicine than others. “Because,” she replied, “the Great Mystery does not will us to find things too easily. . . Ohiyesa must learn that there are many secrets which the Great Mystery will disclose only to the most worthy. Only those who seek him fasting and in solitude will receive his signs.” Reverence for nature and for all that is known and not known about the natural world formed much of Eastman’s childhood. Uncheedah underscores the importance of wonder and mystery, of self-sacrifice and struggle, to realize Ohiyesa’s goal of becoming a great warrior and medicine man.
As channeled through Uncheedah’s teachings, Ohiyesa also learns how to avoid attachment to objects and possessions. The emotional sacrifice of his most beloved possession, though heartbreaking by today’s standards, is necessary to instill in the young boy the difference between the ephemeral and the material.
Ohiyesa asks his uncle about why the Big Knives (white men) had so many riches and seemed to multiply in greater numbers than the Dakota. His uncle replied, “The greatest object of their lives seems to be to acquire possessions — to be rich. They desire to possess the whole world.”
Many of us in 2016 have possessions galore; smart phones, nice cars with GPS, and even Smartwool socks. We can argue that we earned these things, that we even deserve them. I am not advocating that we give them all up. But Ohiyesa, his grandmother, his uncle and others of his tribe, offer a different view. Am I attached to these possessions? Could I give up my phone or my engineered socks and still be happy? I’m not certain I know the answer to that.
Full of questions of his own, Ohiyesa seeks to understand how to become a man, but he also wonders about one of the key activities of the men in his tribe: Going on the war-path.
The victim of several raids from other tribes, Ohiyesa witnesses the fear and devastation the war-path brings. And yet, he knows his peers, and those he seeks to emulate, exalt in the chance to gain fame for their deeds in war.
When the tribe struggled to find food to eat, or suffered from the inevitable ice and snow of January, the men focused on survival. They hunted for food, and sat by the fire in the evenings, telling stories. However, in times where struggle wasn’t necessary, idle hands made trouble. Ohiyesa observed, “But whenever we lived in blessed abundance, our braves were wont to turn their thought to other occupations — especially the hot-blooded youths whose ambition it was to do something noteworthy.”
The priests of the tribe always seemed to sense the braves itching for war. “Soon,” Eastman wrote, “comes the desired dream of prophecy or vision to favor their departure.” The author seems to struggle, even as we do today, between celebrating the great deeds of braves at war, and questioning both the necessity of it and the collusion among members of the community to justify destruction and death for glory’s sake.
Eastman’s tales of his youth reminded me of the importance of reverence, gratitude, and character. It forced me to ask questions about how far we’ve come as a human society, and about the differences and similarities of cultures who share the same land.
I am left to wonder if I am worthy of receiving the secrets of the Great Mystery. Inspired to look beyond my individual ego, I am compelled to nurture something bigger and infinitely more important: The essence within.
Your turn: Have you read a book published decades ago that you still find relevant today?