In 1862 the eastern Sioux Indians, the Santee of Minnesota, rose up against white settlers, killing some 800 men, women and children within a month. American retaliation was swift, and Charles Alexander Eastman, then four years old, was among the Santee refugees who fled to Canada for sanctuary. When his father was turned over to United Stares authorities, relatives raised the boy near Fort Ellis in southern Manitoba.
Born with the Indian name “The Pitiful Last,” but later called “the Winner” (Ohiyesa), Eastman did not see a white person until he was 16. He then became one of a stream of Indians who since the 18th century had attended Dartmouth College. In 1890 he earned his medical degree from Boston University. Just after the turn of the century his books an Sioux life and philosophy gained great popularity, especially among young readers. In this selection from the autobiographical work, “Indian Boyhood” (1902). Eastman recalls his own amazement at his uncle’s eyewitness report on white culture.
I had heard marvelous things of this people. In some things we despised them; in others we regarded them as wakan (mysterious), a race whose power bordered upon the supernatural. I learned that they had made a “fireboat.” I could not understand how they could unite two elements which cannot exist together. I thought the water would put out the fire, and the fire would consume the boat if it had the shadow of a chance. This was to me a preposterous thing. But when I was told that the Big Knives had created a “fire-boat-walks-on-mountains” (a locomotive) it was too much to believe… I had seen guns and various other things brought to us by the French Canadians, so that I had already some notion of the supernatural gifts of the white man; but I had never before heard such tales as I listened to that morning. It was said that they had bridged the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and that they made immense houses of stone and brick, piled on top of one another until they were as high as high hills. My brain was puzzled with these things for many a day. Finally I asked my uncle why the Great Mystery gave such power to the Washichu (the rich) — sometimes we called them by this name — and not to us Dakotas [Sioux].
“For the same reason,” he answered, “that he gave to Duta the skill to make fine bows and arrows, and to Wachesne no skill to make anything.”
“And why do the Big Knives increase so much more in numbers than the Dakotas?” I continued.
“It has been said, and I think it must be true, that they have larger families than we do. I went into the house of an Eashicha (a German), and I counted no less than nine children. The eldest of them could not have been over 15. When my grandfather first visited them, down at the mouth of the Mississippi, they were comparatively few; later my father visited their Great Father at Washington, and they had already spread over the whole country.
“Certainly they are a heartless nation. They have made some of their people servants —yes slaves! We have never believed in keeping slaves, but it seems those Washichu do! It is our belief that they painted their servants black a long time ago, to tell them from the rest, and now the slaves have children born to them of the same color!
“The greatest object of their lives seems to be to acquire possessions —to be rich. They desire to possess the whole world. For 30 years they were trying to entice us to sell them our land. Finally the outbreak [Minnesota, 1862] gave them all, and we have been driven away from our beautiful country.
“They are a wonderful people. They have divided the day into hours, like the moons of the year. In fact, they measure everything. Not one of them would let so much as a turnip go from his field unless he received full value for it. I understand that their great men make a feast and invite many, but when the feast is over the guests are required to pay for what they have eaten before leaving the house. I myself saw at White Cliff [the name given to St. Paul, Minnesota] a man who kept a brass drum and a bell to call people to his table; but when he got them in he would make them pay for the food!
“I am also informed,” said my uncle, “but this I hardly believe, that their Great Chief [President] compels every man to pay him for the land he lives upon and all his personal goods — even for his own existence—every year!” [This was his idea of taxation.] “I am sure we could not live under such a law…
“In war they have leaders and war-chiefs of different grades. The common warriors are driven forward like a herd of antelopes to face the foe. It is on account of this manner of fighting—from, compulsion and not from personal bravery—that we count no coup on them. A lone warrior can do much harm to a large army of them in a bad country.”
It was this talk with my uncle that gave me my first clear idea of the white man.
By Charles Alexander Eastman, Santee Sioux