At one time, Native Americans lived all over the continent without fear of persecution or cultural suppression. They were not yet forcefully converted to new religions and new ways of thinking. The First Nations of the Great Plains were some of the last to finally admit defeat and go to the reservations where they were to live as white men dictated.
Ohiyesa, later known as the accomplished author and lecturer Charles Eastman, grew up in a traditional Dakota home in the culture of his ancestors. He was raised as a warrior and taught the importance of kinship obligations. Then his father, a convert to “white ways,” returned to the tribe after a long absence and took his son away to be educated in the white schools. Eastman later went on to become the doctor on Pine Ridge reservation, the place where Sitting Bull and other well-known Lakota ended their days.
While I’ve studied the culture of many Plains tribes over the course of nearly two decades, nothing grabs my attention like firsthand accounts. Books on Native American history often focus on the disastrous clash between their culture and that of European immigrants, as well as the ensuing horror of reservations and Indian schools. When I can find a book that focuses on the everyday culture quite apart from war and conflict, I’m absolutely thrilled. This is certainly one of those, and from the perspective of a boy who grew into a well-respected man whose efforts on behalf of his people have gone down in history.
Indian Boyhood, one of several autobiographical books on Eastman’s life, chronicles his life from birth until his father returned to the tribe. Eastman tells about the way he was educated, his home, his family, the hardships they faced on the Plains, and much more. His tale gives a pretty complete look at how children were expected to behave in this traditional nomadic society, and the struggles that young and old faced on a daily basis.
The style of writing is very easy to read and moves quickly in a refreshingly plain-spoken way that I wish more authors would adopt. The only potentially confusing aspect is the changing narrator perspective in different parts of the book. That is, at various times, Eastman refers to himself in third-person and then reverts to first-person. Additionally, Ohiyesa was his second name in the tribe and, depending on what time period he’s telling about, he will refer to himself either by that name or by his birth name.
This book repeats a lot of the cultural points outlined in Waterlily, by Ella Cara Deloria – not quite as in-depth, but in a non-fiction setting rather than Deloria’s fictional setting based on her own childhood. Both books are excellent for giving readers a real feel for childhood and society on the Plains.
Completely aside from history and culture, this is an easy read for a lazy weekend. Biographies and autobiographies have always been among my favorite book genres, and this one tells its tale with a more story-like atmosphere instead of bogging down with the specific names, dates and places that mire many biographies.
Overall, this was a great book for learning a little bit of culture and everyday Dakota life, as well as gathering a little bit more background on Charles Eastman. This man became famous for his medical efforts in Pine Ridge and was further immortalized in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, both the book and the movie, but he led a truly extraordinary life both on and off the page. I enjoyed this quick read, and Indian Boyhood is primarily responsible for drawing me in to learn more about this remarkable man.