A Feather For Knox College

by Mitakuye Oyasin

In the 1830s, an army man, Capt. Seth Eastman, while stationed at Ft. Snelling, Minn., "married" the daughterof Chief Cloudman, a Sioux. They had a daughter, Mary Nancy Eastman, and in the late 1840s she married a Sioux named Many Lightnings. They had five children, and soon after the birth of the last one, in 1858, Mary Eastman died.

It is this last child of theirs, a son, that I have written about on numerous occasions. His first name was Hakadah, which means "the Pitiful Last." Before her death, his mother made it known that she wanted her husband's mother to raise her children rather than her own mother. It was to Many Lightnings' mother, therefore, that the task of caring for this newborn baby fell. Even though she was in her 60s, she didn't flinch. Whatever chores she faced, she simply took him along.

When he was four years old, his band of Sioux won a lacrosse game over another band and he was awarded a new name, Ohiyesa, which means "the Winner." Something else happened that year which changed his life. It was 1862 and the Santee Sioux, located in Minnesota, became fed up with government fraud. They were starving and destitute, and the attitude of the white men cheating them out of their provisions was summed up in the words of one government official who said, "Let them eat grass ."

The Sioux rebelled, killing settlers arid running others out of the territory. In a demonstration of poetic justice, the man responsible for the infamous words was found with grass stuffed in his mouth. When the rebellion was finally put down, 38 Sioux were hanged in unison, and others went to prison. Ohiyesa and his grandmother were among those who fled to Canada. They assumed that Many Lightnings had been killed or executed but he was one of many sent to prison.

Until he was 15 and ready to be initiated as a warrior, Ohiyesa lived as his people had lived for thousands of years. His grandmother, with the aid of others in the tribe, taught him how to live at-one with nature, and reverence for the Great Mystery was part of his everyday life. It was a great life for a boy­­ hunting and fishing, riding his horse, going into the woods to commune with the birds and animals, and always accompanied by his dog.

Then, in 1873, his father made a sudden reappearance in his life. His father had not only converted to Christianity while he was in prison; he had converted to the ways of the white man and civilization. It was to this new life that Ohiyesa was introduced, at age 15, when his father came to take him back to their homestead in Dakota Territory.

Ohiyesa now became Charles Alexander Eastman. He spent three grueling years at the Santee Training School where, for the first time in his life, he was introduced into the language and customs of the white man. He did well enough that the superintendent arranged for him to enter the preparatory department at Beloit College in Wisconsin. It was on the eve of his departure that he learned his father was dead after a brief illness. "This was a severe shock to me," wrote Ohiyesa, "but I felt even more strongly that I must carry out his wishes. It was clear that he who had sought me out among the wild tribes at the risk of his life, and set my feet in the new trail, should be obeyed to the end."

He continued to progress rapidly and, after three years at Beloit, felt that he might progress even faster if he could attend a college where he was not surrounded by his tribesmen. Iÿt was then that a transfer was arranged to the preparatory department of Knox College in Galesburg.

The year was 1880. It had only been four years since Custer and his men had been wiped out by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn. At Beloit, he had experienced the good and the bad of the civilized white man and his fear of the Sioux. In Galesburg, he was welcomed without prejudice. "I was thrown into close contact with with the rugged, ambitious sons of western farmers," he writes. "Among my stanch friends at Knox were S.S. McClure, John S. Phillips of the American Magazine, Edgar A. Bancroft of Chicago, now attorney for the International Harvester Company, Judge Merritt Pinckney of Chicago, Representative Rainey, and other men who have become well known and whose friendship is still retained."

It was at Knox that, for the first time, he mingled with "the pale-face maidens, and as soon as I could shake off my Indian shyness, I found them very winning and companionable. It was through social intercourse with the American college girl that I gained my first conception of the home life and domestic ideals of the white man."

Following his Galesburg experience, he went on to Dartmouth, and then to Harvard, where he studied medicine and became a physician. He became a world famous author and lecturer, an advisor to four Presidents, and never stopped working to improve the condition of his people.

Throughout his life, the memory of Knox College remained with him. He had, in his mind, been thrown with the "best class of Christian white people," and he was grateful. In later years, he would come face to face with the vast discrepancy between the words and deeds of the white man's Christianity, and his faith would be sorely tested.

Then he would remember. Not all white men were greedy and power hungry. Not all who called themselves Christians were hypocrites. There were some who were good, honest, loving, and caring. And when he remembered, he had to include Knox College.

Posted to Zephyr Online October 16, 1998
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