Friday, August 5, 2011

August Thoughts -- Preparing for 150 Years Commemoration and Healing

As the heat of August follows upon the heat of July, and famine is eating up thousands and thousands of families in Somalia, I think about Ohiyesa's family and community in Minnesota in 1862. Hunger ruled then also, here in the Midwest. Not because of drought but because new settlers had moved in and Dakota lands had been lost, and the government had not paid its debts. At that time, too, the problem was a war. Because of the American Civil War, the U.S. government had in many ways "shut down" its legal payments and services to the Native American peoples to save money. Tragedy resulted.

The question now is -- shall we learn from our past? Shall we try to heal some of the wounds that remain?

Next August marks 150 years since the first bloody skirmishes of the Dakota-U.S. War. It also begins a four-year journey for healing in Minnesota in which representatives of the Dakota communities, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and "many public servants who represent the citizens of the State of Minnesota, leadership from the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, Rotary clubs and the Global Athlete Village are seeking appropriate ways to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota Indian War of 1862."

The first major step occurred this June solstice, when many of the leaders of these organizations met and Governor Dayton proclaimed June 21, 2011 as World Peace, Prayer and Sacred Sites Day. The state agreed "to create the Bdote Peace Park and to engage in dialogue with indigenous leaders which will lead to the creation of new policies designed to bring peace and healing." [For more on the 2011 Bdote Peace Accords and Four Years of Healing and Minnesota, go to ]

Stephanie Hope Smith, a Minnesota Rotarian, has been essential in working on the mediation to move the dialog forward and try to make this healing both living and concrete --

At this heated time of August, it seems a time to join in prayer for this process and our own part in it -- and in cosmic empathy with the Dakota (and the settlers) who suffered and the Somalians who are suffering today. We must use the past to teach us how to live this present and our future in more respectful and harmonious ways -- living places, and people, and cultures healthier than we found them.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dakota Enough?

Ohiyesa negotiated so many concerns, longings, and duties, and he was so grounded in his own self that did not fit into any one camp of thought on American Indian issues. Even while he was alive, people tried to pigeonhole him into a perspective that suited their views, reducing his complexity. He obviously ran into racism in the white world, and many wanted to portray him as the perfect "assimilated Indian", which he resisted. But he also encountered some hostility from his own people and from other American Indians of the time.

He was criticized by a minority as being an "apple" -- red on the outside, white on the inside -- or not Dakota or Indian enough, for varied reasons:
* he left the reservation life and never came back to live in Flandreau to settle on his allotment;
* he married a white wife and encouraged intermarriage, and spoke well of her throughout his life, even after separation;
* he became famous and some thought he had therefore forgotten or neglected his own;
* he chose to be a practicing Christian and promoted the "Christ philosophy" even while maintaining his personal "Indian faith" and prayer rituals -- noting the similarities in their essential religious truths and criticizing the white Christian society that didn't live up to its own beliefs.
* he worked for over a year on re-establishing treaty rights that had been negated in 1862, and he advocated that he receive payment for this -- some believed that he didn't deserve the money he received;
*because he recommended the outlawing of peyote, feeling the natural narcotic would sap the energies of Indian peoples like alcohol;
* because he criticized the "demoralization" and apathy he witnessed on reservations, advocating a return to many traditional disciplines of outdoors training, fitness, and values;
* because he pushed for citizenship as a choice for all American Indians so they could have a say in the courts, a vote, and a part in the political processes that ruled their lives -- (others wanted no part in the United States and wanted to go back to being considered completely separate Indian nations. which he didn't see as possible any longer);
* because at times he spoke for "Indians" or "the Indian" instead of just for himself or as a Dakota.
* because he advocated for land allotments so American Indians could have some land of their own that the government couldn't take away at will and that agents couldn't rule.
* because he pushed for the abolishment of the BIA, while also at times working for it.

He spent his lifetime educating whites on Dakota values and ways (and reminding the Dakota of their past); lobbying presidents and Congress for American Indian rights; collecting and preserving Dakota and Indian stories and history; co-founding the Society of American Indians; speaking out for American Indian religious freedom, maintaining his kinship and friendship ties in the Dakota communities, etc. The list goes on.

He didn't live his life in a path already made. He used the Dakota training instilled in him in his early life to embrace a new life and keep the wisdom and ways of the past alive in new forms in the new world. To him, it was not all loss.

He thrived on travel and the new cultures he encountered and friends he made. He was dedicated to his Dakota-white family -- despite struggles and elements of separation -- and he loved loved studying American and world history and enjoyed greatly much of the music, arts, literature he encountered. To him, it all emanated from the Creator of Life and he refused to consider only those things that were Dakota as good. He considered all things in their essence and urged others to do so.

"We of the twentieth century know better! We know that all religious aspiration, all sincere worship, can have but one source and one goal. We know that the God of the lettered and the unlettered, of the Greek and the barbarian, is after all the same God; and, like Peter, we perceive that He is no respecter of persons, but that in every nation that feareth Him and worketh righteousness is acceptable to Him."
The Soul of the Indian

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cobell vs Salazar settlement, 1887 Dawes Act addressed

As I hear about the historic settlement in December 2009 of the case of the suit of Elouise Cobell's and the Native American Community Development Corporation against the Federal Government for the stolen, misused, and unpaid funds of the 1887 Dawes Act, I wonder what Charles Eastman would say.

The 1887 Dawes Act (and the following laws built upon it) took collective land ownership rights away from the tribal American Indian nation, dividing the land up into allotment plots to male family members, collecting the rest into a "trust" that the government leased out for lumber, mining, grazing, etc. The leases fees were supposed to be placed into a trust fund with the royalties paid out to the tribal citizens. Unfortunately, neither were records effectively kept (some deliberately destroyed)nor money paid out.

In the late 1880s, the "collective ownership" of the varied American Indians nations over their own lands was a farce -- the military had forced them onto reservation and taken over the decisions about their lands, dismissing treaty rights and Indian leadership. Eastman,a Dakota Sioux, originally from Minnesota and then from Flandreau, South Dakota, tired of having Indians and their lands being treated as "wards" of the state, spoke out in favor of the Dawes Act, taking it at its face value as a way to return the rights of Indians to Indians. Parceled out was better than no land rights at all. It would also allow individuals to have more choices about their futures and more freedoms.

Eastman never imagined the amount of graft that would be accomplished in that bill or how it would contribute to the demise of much of Indian land ownership throughout the United States. He later regretted not the support of the initial concept, to give land back into Indian control, but the realities of its affects.
Besides the enormous loss of lands in individuals, families, and tribes, in 2004, it was estimated that 137 billion dollars was owed by the federal government, and the new settlement addresses only a fraction of this, with 3.4 billion dollars. But it does admit wrongdoing, something over one hundred and twenty years in the coming. President Obama and his administration pushed for this, to somehow make steps to begin a different kind of relationship between the federal government and Native American nations. But this specific settlement, 13 years in courts, finally may start the nation on the road to make some amends, offering Americans some awareness of the extent of dishonor the Dawes Act enacted.

Eastman and Camp Fire and Boy Scouts of America

It is very fitting that Camp Fire USA and Boy Scouts of America are honoring Ohiyesa/Dr. Charles Eastman in 2010 as they celebrate their 100th anniversaries.

Eastman, who was raised traditionally until the age of 14, retained his language, both reading and writing in it, till death. At the time he attended American schools, Indians were known only negatively as savages. Eastman, through his famous classic American work "Indian Boyhood" about his early life, helped Americans change their view of what a "savage" education was. Prior to Eastman, it was either viewed as brutal and warlike or romantically "noble." Eastman showed that his childhood was both free in the outdoors and incredibly disciplined and systematic in his community teachings of values, respect, natural history, tribal history, mental acuity and ingenuity, survival skills, outdoors games, and spirituality. His book subverted the negativity of the word "savage" and suddenly educators were looking to him and to Indian life for strengths that American culture was losing in their youth because of required daily indoor schooling and the disrespectful "sassiness" of young people.

At that time, the Pan-Indian movement was growing among Indians nations as they met each other in the forced boarding schools and they realized that in terms of values and upbringing, they had more in common with each other than with the whites that were part of the mainstream American culture that was in a sweep of ethnic cleansing, stealing their lands, penning them on reservations, and militarily and legally making them "assimilate." Also, if they wanted to have any political power, they had to unite, and it was their commonalities that united them in contrast to mainstream America that did not recognized them as legitimate.

Eastman's Pan-Indian values, rituals and lore were born of this time period and these aspirations for understanding and recognition. He did not want individual tribes to lose their identities -- he fought valiantly in the courts and in the press for their rights -- but instead he wanted to impress upon whites the significant common values and skills that Indians shared that were counter culture. By educating American youth in amalgamated Pan-Indian elements, Eastman and many other Indians of the time believed that American youth would have greater respect for the Indians in their nation and Indians could hold their heads up with pride in any society.

Eastman was right about this. He and his colleagues produced major shifts in American thinking through these educational efforts. One cannot understand this unless one lived prior to Eastman and afterward, but the contributions of Ohiyesa/Eastman and his colleagues in the Society of American Indians (SAI) are immense and still felt today. Unfortunately, it is true that familiarity can breed contempt, and some individuals and groups have intentionally or unintentionally substituted the surface information Eastman provided as an overview of commonalities for the reality, diminishing and dismissing individual Indian nations and cultures.

The history of Camp Fire shows that it respectfully tried hard to distinguish their work-health-love (WOHELO) rituals based on Pan-American guides offered to them by Eastman from those of Indian nations. The organization urged youth to learn about the Indian nations near them.

The challenge now for the Boy Scouts of America and the Camp Fire Organization is to acknowledge these roots and Eastman's gift to them and again send out all their members to learn more about the individual Indian nations living locally in their midst and as part of their membership. As in Camp Fire, the members need also to investigate their own ethnic backgrounds to discover values, rituals, and ethnic clothing of their ancestors. We do not have to disregard the past but instead enliven it with greater knowledge now.

So I agree that it is inadequate and can be disrepectful to pass on the Pan-Indian materials without explaining their origins and intents and explaining the difference between such elements and the real cultural rituals and items. We need to offer more depth, not less. And we must acknowledge the value in sharing of ethnic customs and what Native Americans have contributed to our nation and youth organizations in particular and in conglomerate ways. What Eastman shared has helped open minds and discussions for over a century -- and and have gotten American youth engaged with the woods and plains and in service in positive ways. Eastman would be very supportive of the present No Child Left Inside movement and those working to prevent the Nature Deficit Disorder, as noted in Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods." All his life, he was a great supporter of the Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls, and he strove to get Indian nations to create their own versions of such youth organizations to pass on their specific traditions that were being lost. He felt that under the cover of such organizations, the Indian nations could preserve parts of their cultures against the genocidal laws at work in the United States that forbid Indian nations to speak their languages, educate their own children, or hold religious observance or retain sacred items. Until the 1930s, their traditions and language were outlawed.

(P.S. Unfortunately, Eastman was erroneously portrayed as a complete assimilationist in the documentary "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.")

Marybeth Lorbiecki
Eastman biographer
"Beyond Wounded Knee: The Life and Works of OHIYESA: Charles Alexander Eastman" to be released

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dakota Philosopher: Charles Eastman and American Indian Thought

"Being an Indian in the world is the loneliest kind of existence. At least, such is the case when one leaves behind the comfort and security of family and tribe for the wider world of modern societies..."

Thus begins Dr. David Martinez's study of the writings of Ohiyesa, Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman. I want to offer him public thanks for this insightful, serious exploration. It is the book that I, as an Eastman biographer not of Dakota or Native American origin, had been hoping for, an in-depth philosophical and literary investigation into the many themes woven into Eastman's writings.

The Eastman Martinez illuminates is the same one I had come to know through his writings and his life but one not often found in other commentary about him. Martinez does not dismiss Eastman's works as those of his wife, or as simplistic children's entertainment in the case of Indian Boyhood, or as assimilation rationalization, or as romanticized nostalgia or commercial ventures. Nor does Martinez deny that some aspects of these qualities creep in.

Instead Martinez honors the works as significant acts of reconnection and duty by Eastman to overcome that lonely alienation within the white world, bringing forth his Dakota heritage and that of other American Indians into the light of the larger culture to educate Americans and Native Americans; to preserve the values, skills, culture, stories, and history for generations to come; to inspire individuals and communities; and to establish the rightful place of American Indians as positive contributors to America's past and future. Martinez places Eastman in his rightful place as a historic American philosopher, worthy of greater attention and respect.

Through his book Dakota Philosopher, Martinez also integrates the history and writings of other significant Native Americans of Eastman's time and the Society of American Indians (SAI), connecting their issues to issues of contemporary Native Americans.

Dr. Martinez, though not of Dakota descent, is a Native American studies professor and scholar of Pima heritage and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community. Thank you!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Birchbark Books & Martinez's Book on Eastman

Yesterday I visited Louise Erdrich's lovely family-community bookstore, Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. It's a sunny yet breezy day, and the door is wide open, letting in the wind with all its good spirits and allowing the good spirits that reside inside to welcome you at the door. Many do.

Susan White greets visitors like the perfect hostess at a party, delighted and warm with each new guest, but instead of offering each a drink, she presents something better, the perfect book with stories to accompany it. Complementing her at the counter is the more reserved Prudence Johnson, with an equally welcoming demeanor and gentle jazz-singer tones. Incredible harmonies they orchestrate together.

After drawing out my interest in Ohiyesa, Susan led me to my must-read, the just released Dakota Philosopher: Charles Eastman and American Indian Thought. (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009) by David Martinez, an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community and assistant professor in American Indian Studies at the Arizona State University, Tempe.

Delighted but also slightly apprehensive, I opened the pages. Would this new research send me off in different directions just as I am ready to send my book to a publisher?

No -- instead this fine, groundbreaking work resonated with the same tones. He, too, had found in Eastman not a boxed-in assimilationist but a man of education, philosophy and subversion, transforming old paradigms to fit his Dakota values and ideals -- a cultural warrior of peace and respect, always advocating for a better place for all Indians and indigenous people in a new world of limited choices. The book jacket states "While Eastman's contemporaries viewed him as 'a great American and true philosopher,' Indian scholars have long dismissed Eastman's work as assimilationist. Now, for the first time, his philosophy as manifested in his writing is examined in detail.....claiming for him a long overdue place in America's intellectual pantheon."

And thanks to Birchbark Books -- where such invigorating connections are made daily, weaving communities and the world together more closely and creatively -- always leaving openings to let good spirits flow in and out.

For more on Martinez's book:

And for Birchbark Books:

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Louise Erdrich’s Dartmouth Commencement Speech and Eastman

Bestselling author Louise Erdrich recently launched Dartmouth’s graduating seniors into the world with an 11 ½ minute, story-filled speech that included chickens, onions, and pong. She described herself as “a member of the class of 1976, the first class that included women, the first class in the newly recommitted Native American Program”(for the full speech, visit the YouTube presentation and the Dartmouth site ).

When Ohiyesa, Charles Alexander Eastman entered Dartmouth in 1882, he, too, was the first (and only member) of a recommitted American Indian program. He, too, was a believer in the power of stories, both individual and community, and became a bestselling American author. As Erdrich learned Ojibwe as a second language, Ohiyesa learned English, but he continued to speak, read, and write in his first tongue, Dakota. Hanging on to his first language enriched his life and the nation, for with it, he collected stories and histories others could not.

No summary could do justice to the humility, humor, practical advice, and ardency in Erdrich’s speech, so you just have to listen to it or read it. Eastman was known for similar qualities and it is unfortunate that we have no YouTube presentations of him. His speeches resonated with similar pleas (though different stories, of course). When asked to participate in the first Universal Races Conference in London in 1911, he advocated respect and peace between races, cultures, and religions. He himself straddled and held on to principles of his Dakota spirituality and of Christianity. When conflict arose over religion between participants of the Races Congress about resolution wordings, he stood up:

“While I am myself a believer in the simple principles of Christianity, we who are met here are not all of that religion, and I would suggest that we substitute a term to which we can all subscribe . . . . universal brotherhood.”

Finally, Erdrich made no bones (well, actually she did mention skeletons) about how the planet needs each graduate’s talents and passions:

“Have you ever been in a relationship where you took someone for granted, where you treated that person badly but he or she seemed resilient? A relationship in which you had the feeling that things were going to be all right in spite of how you’d acted and then, boom, all of a sudden you got dumped?

“That is the relationship we are in right now with the earth. But if the earth dumps us, we actually do die of broken hearts. We get extirpated, ended, exterminated, finished. The numbers are crunched; the science is done. Our planet, which at best estimate might support 2 billion modest lifestyles, will see our population jump to 7 billion in just two years. We’re in a nosedive unless we can change as a species. . . . So don’t hold back, don’t punt. DO WHAT YOU LOVE BEST. Make your life doing what you love best, but do is as if it meant you were out to save the world. Because you are.”

In Eastman’s time, long before “green” or environmentalism,” the country was already suffering from pollution and watching species going extinct. He wrote in “Of Life and Art,” in the Society of American Indian's American Indian Magazine:

“I once showed a party of Sioux chiefs the sights of Washington, and endeavored to impress them with the wonderful achievements of civilization. . . ‘Ah!’ exclaimed an old man, ‘such is the strange philosophy of the white man! He hews down the forest that has stood for centuries in its pride and grandeur, tears up the bosom of Mother Earth, and causes the silvery water-courses to waste away and vanish. He ruthlessly disfigures God’s own pictures and monuments, and then daubs a flat surface with many colors and praises his work as masterpieces!’”

Ohiyesa means the "One Who Continually Wins" -- a name he lived out through perseverance, often facing failure and humiliation. Erdrich urged all to risk failing until they triumph because we, as a species, cannot survive if we give up.

Erdrich and Eastman are separated by divergent backgrounds and ninety years between their graduation dates, but they are connected by more than just their Dartmouth educations and Native American heritages. Erdrich co-wrote an introduction to a reprint of Eastman’s Wigwam Evenings, and if he could, as he did when he was alive, he would echo Erdrich's admonitions to couple knowledge with compassion and love:
“We must stop fighting endless wars and act to heal and love this world. Nindiniwemaganidok. You are my relatives. We are all related through our common humanity and through this college and all who endeavor, here, as one, to make this the best world possible.”

He would have put it this way: Mitakuye Owasin, We are all related.