Ohiyesa (1858-1939) was a Santee Sioux mixed with Anglo ancestry, born into the Dakota Native-American community. Upon converting to Christianity, he added the Anglo-American name Charles Alexander Eastman. Eastman attended various mission and preparatory schools, went on to attend Beloit and Knox colleges, graduating from Dartmouth College. He then went on to medical school at Boston College (now Boston University) and became the first Native American to be certified as a European-style doctor. He then served as a physician for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including attending to the wounded after the massacre at Wounded Knee. In the late 1800s through the early 1900s, he became a nationally known writer and spokesperson regarding Native-America history and experience, serving on various human rights panels and as an advisor to Presidents regarding Native-America issues. He continually attempted to bring cultural understanding between Native- and non-Native-Americans.
Toward these efforts at understanding, in 1911 Ohiyesa/Eastman published “The Soul of the Indian,” an attempt “to paint the religious life of the typical American Indian as it was before he knew the white man.” Though I have never before given over one of my postings to another writer, for this one time I offer you these selected excerpts from “Chapter 1 – The Great Mystery” from Mr. Eastman’s book. Written exactly 100 years ago in a different time and circumstance, from a vantage point of several hundred years of cultural assault and deception, yet rooted in a heritage of a communal life deeply interconnected with a greater spirit and nature’s offerings, I present Mr. Eastman’s thoughts without further unneeded words from me.
***“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 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. It was solitary, because they believed that He is nearer to us in solitude, and there were no priests authorized to come between a man and his Maker. None might exhort or confess or in any way meddle with the religious experience of another. Among us all men were created sons of God and stood erect, as conscious of their divinity. Our faith might not be formulated in creeds, nor forced upon any unwilling to receive it; hence there was no preaching, proselyting, nor persecution, neither were there any scoffers or atheists.
There were no temples or shrines among us save those of nature. Being a natural man, the Indian was intensely poetical. He would deem it sacrilege to build a house for Him who may be met face to face in the mysterious, shadowy aisles of the primeval forest, or on the sunlit bosom of virgin prairies, upon dizzy spires and pinnacles of naked rock, and yonder in the jeweled vault of the night sky… He needs no lesser cathedral!
… The Native American has been generally despised by his white conquerors for his poverty and simplicity. They forget, perhaps, that his religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of luxury. To him… the love of possessions has appeared a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation. Furthermore, it was the rule of his life to share the fruits of his skill and success with his less fortunate brothers. Thus he kept his spirit free from the clog of pride, cupidity, or envy, and carried out… the divine decree – a matter profoundly important to him.
It was not, then, wholly from ignorance or improvidence that he failed to establish permanent towns and to develop a material civilization… 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.
The red man divided mind into two parts – the spiritual mind and the physical mind. The first is pure spirit, concerned only with the essence of things, and it was this he sought to strengthen by spiritual prayer… All matters of personal concern… were definitely relegated to the plane of the lower or material mind
The rites of this physical worship were wholly symbolic, and the Indian no more worshiped the Sun than the Christian adores the Cross... The Sun and the earth… were in his view the parents of all organic life... Therefore our reverence and love for them was really an imaginative extension of our love for our immediate parents … The elements and majestic forces in nature [Lightning, Wind, Water, Fire and Frost] were regarded as spiritual powers, but always secondary and intermediate in character. We believed that the spirit pervades all creation and that every creature possess a soul in some degree… The Indian loved to come into sympathy and spiritual communion with his brothers of the animal kingdom, whose inarticulate souls had for him something of the sinless purity that we attribute to the innocent and irresponsible child... While he humbly accepted the supposed voluntary sacrifice of their bodies to preserve his own, he paid homage to their spirits in prescribed prayers and offerings.
With his limited knowledge of [science and] cause and effect, he saw miracles of life in seed and egg, the miracle of death in lightning flash and in the swelling deep. Nothing of the marvelous could astonish him… Let us not forget that, after all, science has not explained everything. We have still to face the ultimate miracle – the origin and principle of life! Here is the supreme mystery that is the essence of worship, without which there can be no religion… [we] behold with awe the Divine in all creation.
There was undoubtedly much in primitive Christianity to appeal to [the Indian], and Jesus’ hard sayings to the rich and about the rich would have been entirely comprehensible to him… It is my personal belief, after 35 years experience of it, that there is no such thing as 'Christian civilization.' I believe that Christianity and modern civilization are opposed and irreconcilable, and that the spirit of Christianity and of our ancient religion is essentially the same.”