Grade 8 History Lesson 42

Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa) and Chief Joseph

1876, 1877

     Today I will be talking about two Indians. Ohuyesa or Charles Alexander Eastman and Chief Joseph.

Ohuyesa was born near Redwood Falls, Minnesota, the fifth child of a Dakota family. His mother who was part Dakota, part white died while giving him life. And his father was presumed dead after a bloody battle between white Americans and Dakota Indians. So Ohuyesa was raised by his paternal grandmother, his uncle, and his cousins.

Ohiyesa lived a happy life with only the presumed murder of his father clouding it. However one day his father came back wearing the clothes of the white man. It turns out his father was spared death in a battle against white settlers and was kept alive as a prisoner of war under orders of Abraham Lincoln. While in captivity Ohiyesa’s father was exposed to Western teachings and to the Gospel of Christ. In hearing the good news he decided to become a believer. Ohiyesa’s father believed that the Dakota would thrive best if they fully embraced the ways of the white man. Ohiyesa and his siblings obeyed their father. He adopted the name Charles Alexander Eastman and headed to boarding school in Nebraska at his father’s request. And after three years of boarding school he showed he was a brilliant student. He chose to attend Beloit College in Wisconsin. Where he studied hard and adopted his father’s Christian faith. Three months before Charles went to Beloit, General George A. Custer was defeated by Dakota and Cheyenne Indians at the Battle of Little Bighorn by Chief Sitting Bull and other Indians. This stirred up some distrust of Indians living among whites, which was exactly what Charles was doing. However because of his good character Charles slowly overcame racial tensions at Beloit College and greatly contributed to the athletic program. With scholarship money he moved on to attend Knox College, graduate from Dartmouth College, and receive a medical degree from Boston University. He was loved by his classmates and was voted by them to give a speech.

However when he returned to the Dakota, as a doctor among them he found that even medicine couldn’t help cure them from a disease brought to America by Europeans. The U.S was “negotiating” with the Dakota to adopt reservation life in order to build a railroad that would stretch from one coast to another. In an effort to spur the Indians towards farming  and settling the U.S government authorized the killing of thousands of American Bison. The staggering loss of the buffalo weakened the Indians and increased their susceptibility to disease. Even worse Charles Eastman was appointed a government doctor to the Dakota just before the Wounded Knee Massacre, in 1890. During which 200 Dakota Indians, men, women, and children were shot to death by soldiers. Charles would be one of the many who dug into the snow to recover the bodies of the dead and wounded. Holding on to two worlds Charles went on to marry a compassionate white woman named Elaine Goodale, who shared his vision of improving relations between whites and the Dakota.

Charles retired from medicine and worked for the government, with the government, and against the government for the sake of his people. He drafted bill after bill to help protect the Dakota. However in the end the Dakota refused to sign any of the bills, they had been lied to, betrayed and shot at one too many times. The U.S eventually drove the Dakota onto reservations. However what they didn’t realize was that the Dakota people weren’t farmers, they were hunters. They traveled in groups and followed the buffalo that freely roamed the great plains. Confinement to solitary plots was genocide waiting to happen.

Greatly disheartened by all of this, after 20 years of struggling with Washington D.C, Charles Eastman gave up on politics. He poured efforts into starting 30 to 40 Indian chapters of the YMCA across America. In 1910 he was invited to help found the Boy Scouts of America and the Camp Fire Girls. And with the help of his wife he wrote 11 books about his unique experience in the middle of two conflicting worlds. Sadly Charles and his wife separated in their later years. They apparently had two different ideas for the American Indians. Elaine wanted the Indians to fully adopt white ways. Charles hoped for the coexistence of both cultures. Charles retired to a solitary cabin on the shore of Lake Huron and returned to wearing traditional Indian clothes. He died in 1939 at 80 and was laid to rest in Detroit. However his grave was not marked until 1984.

Now onto Chief Joseph. Chief Joseph was the chief of the Wallamwatkin band of the Chutepalu. That probably made no sense. We know them better as the Nez Perce. Around 1805, the first known white men met the Nez Perce. They were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Their encounter was a peaceful one. However with time settlers began to encroach on the lands of the Nez Perce. And in 1860 gold was found in the lands of the Nez Perce. The white settlers went crazy with greed and the U.S. government asked for 90 percent of the Nez Perce lands. I don’t know who in their right minds would accept that. Obviously the Nez Perce didn’t accept. On his deathbed Chief Joseph’s father asked his son never to abandon the land where he was to be buried. Unfortunately Chief Joseph found he would have to disobey his fathers last words. Because of the unceasing demands from the U.S. government. Two things would happen. Firstly, Chief Joseph would plan the escape of his people to Canada. Secondly, angry young warriors planned for war, and unleashed their fury on some white settlers. To the United States this was a declaration of war. So the chase began. Chief Joseph was an extraordinary military genius and was able to evade the troops that pursued him. He was able to get within 40 miles of the border of Canada, only to find 2,000 U.S. troops in the way. He surrendered as he didn’t want bloodshed. Though the U.S. promised safe passage back to Oregon, the Nez Perce spent 8 months at a prison camp. They were then moved to Oklahoma to spend 10 years on a diseased reservation. Then finally they were relocated to a safe reservation in Idaho. In later years Chief Joseph actually met Charles Alexander Eastman. Charles helped document the story of the Nez Perce. And Chief Joseph’s moving speeches have been preserved to this day.

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