While I was travelling to Death Valley in the summer of 2018, I had the pleasure of exploring Mesa Verde, Colorado. At the gift shop my eye was caught by the title of this book, Soul of the Indian by Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa).
It is a 45 page book that has transformed my life, with its views on Native spirituality I felt closer to my people than I have in a long time. It was like something was missing from me and this book has helped me on my path to the Great Mystery.
Dr. Eastman was the only doctor available to the victims of Wounded Knee in December 1890. http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.war.056
Here I have transcribed the pieces that touched me most.
Tiniki, miigwetch, thank you.
The Soul of the Indian, Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa), Dover Publications, 1911, 2003
After Dartmouth he went through Boston University Medical School, where his fellow class members elected him to deliver the oration during their graduation in June 1890. Later that year Dr. Eastman got his first job: physician for the Indian Agency at Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
At Pine Ridge, (where he became known as the “white doctor who is an Indian”) two life-altering events occurred. The first was meeting the woman who destined to become his wife-Elaine Goodale, a white Massachusetts woman (newly appointed as supervisor of Indian Education for the Dakotas) who had learned to speak the Lakota language (somewhat different from the Dakota Ohiyesa spoke) and who had written intelligently on Indian education. The second was Wounded Knee. Pg. vi and vii
Although Eastman had adopted many of the white man’s ways, this bitter sight destroyed any hope that those ways might be superior to those of his own people. “It took all my nerve to keep my composure in the face of this spectacle,” he later wrote, “and of the excitement and grief of my Indian companions, nearly every one of them was crying aloud or singing his death song.”
The religion of the Indian is the last thing about him that the man of another race will ever understand. Pg xv.
The original attitude of the American Indian toward the Eternal, the “Great Mystery” that surrounds and embraces us, was as simple as it was exalted. To him it was the supreme conception, bringing with it the fullest measure of joy and satisfaction possible in this life.
The worship of the “Great Mystery” was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking. It was silent, because all speech is of necessity feeble and imperfect, therefore the souls of my ancestors ascended to God in wordless adoration. Pg.1
All who have lived much out of doors know that there is a magnetic and nervous force that accumulates in solitude and that is quickly dissipated by life in a crowd; even his enemies have recognized the fact that for a certain innate power and self-poise, wholly independent of circumstances, the American Indian is unsurpassed among men. Pg. 3
There was no religious ceremony connected with marriage among us, while on the other hand the relation between man and woman was regarded as in itself mysterious and holy. It appears that where marriage is solemnized by the church and bless by the priest, it may at the same time be surrounded with customs and idea of a frivolous, superficial, and even prurient character. We believed that two who love should be united in secret, before the public acknowledgment of their union, and should taste their apotheosis alone with nature. The betrothal might or might not be discussed and approved by the parents, but in either case it was customary for the young pair to disappear into wilderness, there to pass some days, or weeks in perfect seclusion and dual solitude, afterward returning to the village as man and wife. Pg. 10
In the life of the Indian where was only one inevitable duty, – the duty of prayer-the daily recognition of the Unseen and Eternal. His daily devotions were more necessity to him than daily food. He wakes at daybreak puts on his moccasins and steps down to the water’s edge. Here he throws handfuls of clear, cold water into his face, or plunges in bodily. After the bath, he stands erect before the advancing dawn, facing the sun as it dances upon the horizon, and offers his unspoken orison. His mate may precede or follow him in his devotions, but never accompanies him. Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new, sweet earth, and the Great Silence alone! Pg. 12
The legend tells us that when fall came, the First-Born advised his younger brother to make for himself a warm tent of buffalo skins, and to store up much food. No sooner has he done this that it began to snow, and the snow fell steadily during many moons. The Little Boy Man made for himself snow-shoes, and was thus enabled to hunt easily, while the animals fled from him with difficulty. Finally wolves, foxes, and ravens came to his door to beg for food, and he helped them, but many of the fiercer wild animals died of cold and starvation.
One day, when the hungry ones appeared, the snow was higher than the tops of the teepee poles, but the Little Boy Man’s fire kept a hole open and clear. Down the hole they peered, and lo! The man had rubbed ashes on his face by the advice of his Elder Brother, and they both lay silently and motionless on either side of the fire.
Then the fox barked and the raven cawed his signal to the wandering tribes, and they all rejoices and said: “Now they are both dying and dead, and we shall have no more trouble!” But the sun appeared, and a warm wind melted the snow-banks, so that the land was full of water. The young man and his Teacher made a birch-bark canoe, which floated upon the surface of the flood, which of the animals there were saved only a few, who had found a foothold upon the highest peaks.
The youth had now passed triumphantly through the various ordeals of his manhood. One day his Elder Brother spoke to him and said: “You have now conquered the animal people, and withstood the force of the elements. You have subdued the earth to your will, and still you are alone! It is time to go forth and find a woman whom you can love, and by whose help you may reproduce your kind.”
“But how am I to do this?” replied the first man, who was only an inexperienced boy. “I am here alone, as you say, and I know not where to find a woman or a mate!”
“Go forth and seek her,” replied the Great Teacher; and forth with the youth set on his wanderings in search of a wife. He had no idea how to make love, so that the first courtship was done by the pretty and coquettish maidens of the Bird, Beaver, and Bear tribes. There are some touching and whimsical love stories which the rich imagination of the Indian has woven into the old legend.
It is said, for example, that at his first map he had built for himself a lodge of green boughs in the midst of the forest, and that there his reverie was interrupted by a voice from the wilderness-a voice that was irresistibly and profoundly sweet. In some mysterious way, the soul of the young man was touched as it had never been before, for this call of exquisite tenderness and allurement was the voice of the eternal woman! Pg. 35-36
Giving themselves up wholly to their grief, they are no longer concerned about any earthly possession, and often give away all that they have to the first comers, even to their beds and their home. Finally, the wailing for the dead is continued night and day to the point of utter voicelessness, a musical, weird, and heart-piercing sound, which has been compared to the “keening” of the Celtic mourner.
The old-time burial of the Plains Indian was upon a scaffold of poles, or a platform among the boughs of a tree-their only means of placing the body out of wild beasts, as they had no implements with which to dig a suitable grave. It was prepared by dressing in the finest clothes, together with some personal possessions and ornaments, wrapped in several robes, and finally in a secure covering of raw-hide. As a special mark of respect, the body of a young woman or warrior was sometimes laid out in state in a new teepee, with the usual household articles and even with a dish of food left beside it, not that they supposed the spirit could use the implements or eat the food, but merely as a last tribute. Then the whole people would break camp and depart to a distance, leaving the dead alone in honourable solitude.
There was no prescribed ceremony of burial, though the body was carried out with more or less solemnity by selected young men and sometimes noted warriors were the pall-bearers of a man of distinction. It was usual to choose a prominent hill with a commanding outlook for the last resting place of our dead. If a man were slain in battle, it was an old custom the place his body against a tree or rock in a sitting position, always facing the enemy, to indicate his undaunted defiance and bravery, even in death.
I recall a touching custom among us, which was designed to keep the memory of the departed near and warm in the bereaved household. .A lock of hair of the beloved was wrapped in pretty clothing, such as it was supposed that he or she would like to wear if living. This “spirit bundle,” as it was called, was suspended from a tripod, and occupied a certain place in the lodge which was the place of honour. At every meal time, a dish of food was placed under it, and some person of the same sex and age as the one who as gone must afterward be invited to partake of the food, At the end of a year from the time of death, the relatives made a public feast and gave away the clothing and gifts, while the lock of hair was interred with ceremonies. Pg. 40-41
Many Indians believed that one may be born more than once, and there were some who claimed to have full knowledge of a former incarnation. There were also those who held converse with a “twin spirit”, who had been born with another tribe or race.
There was a well-known Sioux prophet who lived in the middle of the last century, so that he is still remembered by the old men of his band. After he had reached middle age, he declared he had a spirit brother among the Ojibways, the ancestral enemies of the Sioux. He even named the band to which his brother belonged, and said that he also was a war-prophet among his people.
Upon one of their hunts along the border between the two tribes, the Sioux leader one evening called his warrior together, and solemnly declared to them that they were about to meet a like band of Ojibway hunters, led by his spirit twin. Since this was to be their first meeting since they were born as strangers, he earnestly begged the young men to resist the temptation to join battle with their tribal foes.
“You will know him at once,” the prophet said to them, “for he will not only look like me in face and form, but he will display the same totem, and even sing my war songs!”
They sent out scouts, who soon returned with news of the approaching party. Then the leading men started with their peace-pipe for the Ojibway camp, and when they were near at hand they fired three distinct volleys, a signal for their desire for a peaceful meeting.
The response came in like manner, and they entered the camp, with the peace-pipe in the hands of the prophet.
Lo, the stranger prophet advanced to meet them, and the people were greatly struck with the resemblance between the two men, who met and embraced one another with unusual fervor.
It was quickly agreed by both parties that they should camp together for several days, and one evening the Sioux made a “warriors feast” to which they invited many of the Ojibway. The prophet asked his twin brother to song one of his sacred songs, and behold! It was the very song he himself was wont to sing. This proved to the warriors beyond doubt or cavil the claims of the seer. Pg. 44-45