The Soul of an Indian: And Other Writings from Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman)

The Soul of an Indian: And Other Writings from Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman)

by Kent Nerburn

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Ohiyesa, a Dakota Indian also known as Charles Alexander Eastman, is one of America's most fascinating and overlooked individuals. Born in Minnesota in 1858, he obtained postgraduate degrees and advised U.S. presidents before returning to traditional living in native forests. This reissue contains Ohiyesa's insights on spirit, the human experience, and white culture's impact on Native American culture.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781577312581
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 10/13/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 914,432
File size: 189 KB

About the Author

Kent Nerburn is an author, sculptor, and educator who has been deeply involved in Native American issues and education. He developed and directed an award-winning oral history project on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota. In addition to being a program evaluator for the Minnesota Humanities Commission and serving on their selection board, he has served as a consultant in curriculum development for the American Indian Institute in Norman, Oklahoma, and has been a presenter before various groups, including the National Indian Education Association and the President’s blue-ribbon panel on Indian Education. Nerburn has edited three highly acclaimed books on Native American subjects: Native American Wisdom, The Wisdom of the Native Americans, and The Soul of an Indian. Nerburn is also the author of Letters to My Son; Neither Wolf Nor Dog, winner of the Minnesota Book Award for 1995; The Wolf at Twilight; Simple Truths: Clear and Gentle Guidance on the Big Issues of Life; Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life; and Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life. Kent Nerburn holds a PhD in both Theology and Art and lives with his family in northern Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt

The Soul of an Indian

And Other Writings From Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman)

By Charles Alexander Eastman, Kent Nerburn

New World Library

Copyright © 2001 Kent Nerburn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-258-1



We do not chart and measure the vast field of nature or express her wonders in the terms of science; on the contrary, we see miracles on every hand — the miracle of life in seed and egg, the miracle of death in a lightning flash and in the swelling deep!

— Ohiyesa


The attitude of the American Indian toward the Eternal, the Great Mystery that surrounds and embraces us, is as simple as it is exalted. To us it is the supreme conception, bringing with it the fullest measure of joy and satisfaction possible in this life.

The worship of the Great Mystery is silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking.

It is silent, because all speech is of necessity feeble and imperfect; therefore the souls of our ancestors ascended to God in wordless adoration.

It is solitary, because we believe that God is nearer to us in solitude, and there are no priests authorized to come between us and our Maker. None can exhort or confess or in any way meddle with the religious experience of another. All of us are created children of God, and all stand erect, conscious of our divinity. Our faith cannot be formulated in creeds, nor forced upon any who are unwilling to receive it; hence there is no preaching, proselytizing, nor persecution, neither are there any scoffers or atheists.

Our religion is an attitude of mind, not a dogma.


There are no temples or shrines among us save those of nature. Being children of nature, we are intensely poetical. We would deem it sacrilege to build a house for The One 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 in the vast jeweled vault of the night sky! A God who is enrobed in filmy veils of cloud, there on the rim of the visible world where our Great-Grandfather Sun kindles his evening camp-fire; who rides upon the rigorous wind of the north, or breathes forth spirit upon fragrant southern airs, whose war canoe is launched upon majestic rivers and inland seas — such a God needs no lesser cathedral.


We first Americans mingle with our pride an exceptional humility. Spiritual arrogance is foreign to our nature and teaching. We never claimed that the power of articulate speech is proof of superiority over "dumb creation"; on the other hand, it is to us a perilous gift.

We believe profoundly in silence — the sign of a perfect equilibrium. Silence is the absolute poise or balance of body, mind, and spirit. Those who can preserve their selfhood ever calm and unshaken by the storms of existence — not a leaf, as it were, astir on the tree; not a ripple upon the shining pool — those, in the mind of the person of nature, possess the ideal attitude and conduct of life.

If you ask us, "What is silence?" we will answer, "It is the Great Mystery. The holy silence is God's voice."

If you ask, "What are the fruits of silence?" we will answer, "They are self-control, true courage or endurance, patience, dignity, and reverence. Silence is the cornerstone of character."

"Guard your tongue in youth," said the old chief, Wabasha, "and in age you may mature a thought that will be of service to your people."


Naturally magnanimous and open-minded, we have always preferred to believe that the Spirit of God is not breathed into humans alone, but that the whole created universe shares in the immortal perfection of its Maker.

The elements and majestic forces in nature — lightning, wind, water, fire, and frost — are regarded with awe as spiritual powers, but always secondary and intermediate in character. We believe that the spirit pervades all creation and that every creature possesses a soul in some degree, though not necessarily a soul conscious of itself. The tree, the waterfall, the grizzly bear, each is an embodied Force, and as such an object of reverence.

We Indians love to come into sympathy and spiritual communion with our brothers and sisters of the animal kingdom, whose inarticulate souls hold for us something of the sinless purity that we attribute to the innocent and irresponsible child. We have a faith in their instincts, as in a mysterious wisdom given from above; and while we humbly accept the sacrifice of their bodies to preserve our own, we pay homage to their spirits in prescribed prayers and offerings.


We original Americans have generally been despised by our white conquerors for our poverty and simplicity. They forget, perhaps, that our religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of luxury. To us, as to other spiritually minded people in every age and race, the love of possessions is a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation.

It is simple truth that we Indians did not, so long as our native philosophy held sway over our minds, either envy or desire to imitate the splendid achievements of the white race. In our own thought we rose superior to them! We scorned them, even as a lofty spirit absorbed in its own task rejects the soft beds, the luxurious food, the pleasure-worshiping dalliance of a rich neighbor. It was clear to us that virtue and happiness are independent of these things, if not incompatible with them.

Furthermore, it was the rule of our life to share the fruits of our skill and success with our less fortunate brothers and sisters. Thus we kept our spirits free from the clog of pride, avarice, or envy, and carried out, as we believed, the divine decree — a matter profoundly important to us.


As children of nature, we have always looked upon the concentration of population as the prolific mother of all evils, moral no less than physical. It was not, then, wholly from ignorance or improvidence that we failed to establish permanent towns and to develop a material civilization. We have always believed that food is good, while surfeit kills; that love is good, but lust destroys; and not less dreaded than the pestilence following upon crowded and unsanitary dwellings is the loss of spiritual power inseparable from too close contact with one's fellow men.

All who have lived much out of doors, whether Indian or otherwise, know that there is a magnetic and powerful force that accumulates in solitude but is quickly dissipated by life in a crowd. Even our enemies have recognized that for a certain innate power and self-poise, wholly independent of circumstances, the American Indian is unsurpassed among the races.


Prayer — the daily recognition of the Unseen and the Eternal — is our one inevitable duty.

We Indian people have traditionally divided mind into two parts — the spiritual mind and the physical mind. The first — the spiritual mind — is concerned only with the essence of things, and it is this we seek to strengthen by spiritual prayer, during which the body is subdued by fasting and hardship. In this type of prayer there is no beseeching of favor or help.

The second, or physical, mind, is lower. It is concerned with all personal or selfish matters, like success in hunting or warfare, relief from sickness, or the sparing of a beloved life. All ceremonies, charms, or incantations designed to secure a benefit or to avert a danger are recognized as emanating from the physical self.

The rites of this physical worship are wholly symbolic; we may have sundances and other ceremonies, but the Indian no more worships the sun than the Christian worships the cross. In our view, the Sun and the Earth are the parents of all organic life. And, it must be admitted, in this our thinking is scientific truth as well as poetic metaphor.

For the Sun, as the universal father, sparks the principle of growth in nature, and in the patient and fruitful womb of our mother, the Earth, are hidden embryos of plants and men. Therefore our reverence and love for the Sun and the Earth are really an imaginative extension of our love for our immediate parents, and with this feeling of filial devotion is joined a willingness to appeal to them for such good gifts as we may desire. This is the material or physical prayer.

But, in a broader sense, our whole life is prayer because every act of our life is, in a very real sense, a religious act. Our daily devotions are more important to us than food.

We wake at daybreak, put on our moccasins, and step down to the water's edge. Here we throw handfuls of clear, cold water into our face, or plunge in bodily.

After the bath, we stand erect before the advancing dawn, facing the sun as it dances upon the horizon, and offer our unspoken prayer. Our mate may proceed or follow us in our devotions, but never accompanies us. Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new sweet earth, and the Great Silence alone.

Whenever, in the course of our day, we might come upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime — the black thundercloud with the rainbow's glowing arch above the mountain; a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of sunset — we pause for an instant in the attitude of worship.

We recognize the spirit in all creation, and believe that we draw spiritual power from it. Our respect for the immortal part of our brothers and sisters, the animals, often leads us so far as to lay out the body of any game we catch and decorate the head with symbolic paint or feathers. We then stand before it in an attitude of prayer, holding up the pipe that contains our sacred tobacco, as a gesture that we have freed with honor the spirit of our brother or sister, whose body we were compelled to take to sustain our own life.

When food is taken, the woman murmurs a "grace" — an act so softly and unobtrusively performed that one who does not know the custom usually fails to catch the whisper: "Spirit, partake!"

As her husband receives his bowl or plate, he likewise murmurs his invocation to the spirit. When he becomes an old man, he loves to make a particular effort to prove his gratitude. He cuts off the choicest morsel of the meat and casts it into the fire — the purest and most ethereal element.

Thus we see no need for the setting apart one day in seven as a holy day, since to us all days belong to God.


In the appreciation of beauty, which is closely akin to religious feeling, the American Indian stands alone. In accord with our nature and beliefs, we do not pretend to imitate the inimitable, or to reproduce exactly the work of the Great Artist. That which is beautiful must not be trafficked with, but must only be revered and adored.

I have seen in our midsummer celebrations cool arbors built of fresh-cut branches for council and dance halls, while those who attended decked themselves with leafy boughs, carrying shields and fans of the same, and even making wreaths for their horses' necks. But, strange to say, they seldom make free use of flowers. I once asked the reason for this.

"Why," said one, "the flowers are for our souls to enjoy; not for our bodies to wear. Leave them alone and they will live out their lives and reproduce themselves as the Great Gardener intended. He planted them; we must not pluck them, for it would be selfish to do so."

This is the spirit of the original American. We hold nature to be the measure of consummate beauty, and we consider its destruction to be a sacrilege.

I once showed a party of Sioux chiefs the sights of Washington, and endeavored to impress them with the wonderful achievements of civilization. After visiting the Capitol and other famous buildings, we passed through the Corcoran Art Gallery, where I tried to explain how the white man valued this or that painting as a work of genius and a masterpiece of art.

"Ah!" exclaimed an old man, "such is the strange philosophy of the white man! He hews down the forest that has stood for centuries in its pride and grandeur, tears up the bosom of Mother Earth, and causes the silvery watercourses to waste and vanish away. He ruthlessly disfigures God's own pictures and monuments, and then daubs a flat surface with many colors, and praises his work as a masterpiece!"

Here we have the root of the failure of the Indian to approach the "artistic" standard of the civilized world. It lies not in our lack of creative imagination — for in this quality we are born artists — it lies rather in our point of view. Beauty, in our eyes, is always fresh and living, even as God, the Great Mystery, dresses the world anew at each season of the year.


We Indians have always been clear thinkers within the scope of our understanding, but cause and effect have not formed the basis for our thinking. We do not chart and measure the vast field of nature or express her wonders in the terms of science; on the contrary, we see miracles on every hand — the miracle of life in seed and egg, the miracle of death in a lightning flash and in the swelling deep!

Nothing of the marvelous can astonish us — a beast could speak or the sun stand still. The virgin birth seems scarcely more miraculous than is the birth of every child that comes into the world, and the miracle of the loaves and fishes excites no greater wonder than the harvest that springs from a single ear of corn.

Let us not forget that even for the most contemporary thinker, who sees a majesty and grandeur in natural law, science cannot explain everything. We all still have to face the ultimate miracle — the origin and principle of life. This is the supreme mystery that is the essence of worship and without which there can be no religion. In the presence of this mystery all peoples must take an attitude much like that of the Indian, who beholds with awe the Divine in all creation.



Let those I serve express their thanks according to their own upbringing and sense of honor.

— Ohiyesa


It is commonly supposed that there was no systematic means of education for Indian children. Nothing could be further from the truth. All the customs of our people were held to be divinely instituted, and customs involving the training of children were scrupulously adhered to and transmitted from one generation to another.

It is true that we had no schoolhouses, no books, no regular school hours. Our children were trained in the natural way — they kept in close contact with the natural world. In this way, they found themselves and became conscious of their relationship to all of life. The spiritual world was real to them, and the splendor of life stood out above all else. And beyond all, and in all, was seen to dwell the Great Mystery, unsolved and unsolvable, except in those things that it is good for one's spirit to know.

We taught our children by both example and instruction, but with emphasis on example, because all learning is a dead language to one who gets it secondhand. Our physical training was thorough and intelligent, while as to the moral and spiritual side of our teaching, I am not afraid to compare it with that of any race.

We conceived the art of teaching as, first and foremost, the development of personality; and we considered the fundamentals of education to be love of the Great Mystery, love of nature, and love of people and country.


Our education begins in our mother's womb. Her attitude and secret meditations are such as to instill into the receptive soul of the unborn child the love of the Great Mystery and a sense of kinship with all creation.

A pregnant Indian woman often chooses one of the great individuals of her family and tribe as a model for her child. This hero is daily called to mind. She gathers from tradition all of his noted deeds and daring exploits, and rehearses them to herself when alone. In order that the impression might be more distinct, she avoids company. She isolates herself as much as possible, and wanders prayerful in the stillness of the great woods, or on the bosom of the untrodden prairie, not thoughtlessly, but with an eye to the impressions received from the grand and beautiful scenery.

To her poetic mind the imminent birth of her child prefigures the advent of a great spirit — a hero, or the mother of heroes — a thought conceived in the virgin breast of primeval nature, and dreamed out in a hush broken only by the sighing of the pine tree or the thrilling orchestra of a distant waterfall.


Excerpted from The Soul of an Indian by Charles Alexander Eastman, Kent Nerburn. Copyright © 2001 Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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