Words from Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa)

Monday, June 29, 2015

On our research trip, I bought From the Deep Woods to Civilization, by Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa). Since the author’s experience was not directly on point with my story (he was Dakota Sioux, not Chippewa, and his schooling followed a different path), I was going to get the book from the library eventually—with an emphasis on the eventually. But when I saw it, I decided to buy it. And because it was short, I went ahead and read it.

I’m very glad I did.

Eastman was the first Native American to become a physician, and he treated the wounded from both sides after Wounded Knee. The book covers his experiences during the middle years of his life, and I highly recommend it. From one point of view, neither his book nor this post have anything to do with writing. But from another point of view, they show that writing can be a powerful way to get a thought across. What struck me particularly was Eastman’s evaluation of how white people live out their professed Christianity.

First, some background. Eastman converted as a teenager and appears to have remained a strong Christian for the rest of his life. But during that time he lost much of his innocence regarding the motives of many white people who called themselves Christians. After reading this insightful passage, I just had to share it.

       From the time I first accepted the Christ ideal it has grown upon me steadily, but I also see more and more plainly our modern divergence from that ideal. I confess I have wondered much that Christianity is not practiced by the very people who vouch for that wonderful conception of exemplary living. It appears that they are anxious to pass on their religion to all races of men, but keep very little of it themselves. I have not yet seen the meek inherit the earth, or the peacemakers receive high honor.

     Why do we find so much evil and wickedness practised by the nations composed of professedly “Christian” individuals? The pages of history are full of licensed murder and the plundering of weaker and less developed peoples, and obviously the world to-day has not outgrown this system. Behind the material and intellectual splendor of our civilization, primitive savagery and cruelty and lust hold sway, undiminished, and as it seems, unheeded. When I let go of my simple, instinctive nature religion, I hoped to gain something far loftier as well as more satisfying to the reason. Alas! it is more confusing and contradictory. The higher and spiritual life, though first in theory, is clearly secondary, if not entirely neglected, in actual practice. When I reduce civilization to its lowest terms, it becomes a system of life based upon trade. The dollar is the measure of value, and might still spells right; otherwise, why war?

     Yet even in the deep jungles God’s own sunlight penetrates, and I stand before my own people still as an advocate of civilization. Why? First, because there is no chance for our former simple life any more; and second, because I realize that the white man’s religion is not responsible for his mistakes. There is every evidence that God has given him all the light necessary by which to live in peace and good-will with his brother; and we also know that many brilliant civilizations have collapsed in physical and moral decadence. It is for us to avoid their fate if we can.

I couldn’t have said it half as well.


From the Deep Woods to Civilization was originally published in 1916. Both the passage from the book and the portrait of Charles Eastman are in the public domain because of their age.

Boarding School History

Monday, June 22, 2015

Although the purpose of my research trip was to learn more about the life my Chippewa/Ojibwe protagonist would have lived on the reservation, the book’s primary focus will be her boarding school years. So the two times I had the opportunity to visit the grounds of an old Indian boarding school, I took it.

The first opportunity was in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, which was the site of the off-reservation Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School. The entire site was marked with NO TRESPASSING signs, but the man at the desk of the museum on the other side of town told us how to get there and said he didn’t think it would be a problem as long as we didn’t get too close. He also told us that the buildings were unsafe because they were filled with lead and asbestos materials.

The administration must have been concerned about the children’s safety when the school was built in the late 1800s. Fire escapes were prominent on the side of each building, and you can see one at the right in the top picture. But nobody knew about the hazards of lead and asbestos in those days.

Even though I didn’t get to go inside, I did get a feel for the grounds. They reminded me of a small college campus, with multiple brick buildings, trees, and even a fountain (no longer in service).

And before you ask, I wasn’t trying to make the picture look old. Somehow I set my camera to grayscale and didn’t notice it until later.

The second opportunity to visit a boarding school came in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin. The Tribal Historic Preservation Office had just renovated the former boys’ dormitory into administrative offices, using the original color scheme. (See the second picture.) One room was lined with old pictures of the school. As with Mount Pleasant, the Lac du Flambeau boarding school had also been a multi-structure campus, but this was apparently the only school building that remained.

My story features an off-reservation boarding school, like the one at Mount Pleasant. Lac du Flambeau, on the other hand, was an on-reservation boarding school. Although they had similar set-ups, on-reservation schools catered to students from a single tribe and families had more contact with their children because of the shorter distances. Students often went home for the summer rather than being away for years (as was common at off-reservation schools).
Or at least I had thought the distinction was that simple. But the historian at the Tribal Historic Preservation Office said that the federal government sent students from other tribes and locations to the Lac du Flambeau school and sent children from the Lac du Flambeau reservation elsewhere. Some students even came from Tomah, Wisconsin, which had its own off-reservation boarding school. To us, this shuffling around makes no sense. But the government wanted to break down tribal identities and keep students away from the “uncivilized” lives their families were living. In the government’s misguided logic, it was the perfect response.
But I beg to differ.

A Regional State of Affairs

Monday, June 15, 2015

Roland and I just returned from a research trip for my current work-in-progress. This is another middle-grade historical novel, and it tells about the Indian boarding school experience in the late 19th century. But my protagonist is Chippewa (or Ojibwe, as discussed below), and the story starts before she leaves home. So we travelled throughout Chippewa country in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to visit museums and reservations.

I already knew, of course, that different tribes had different customs and ways of life. But I didn’t know that a few hundred miles could make a difference within a tribe.

The main elements were the same at each location. Every exhibit we saw referred to the Chippewas’ seasonal way of life: collecting maple syrup in the spring, fishing and berrying and planting gardens in the summer, harvesting wild rice in the fall, and hunting in the winter. Families moved from one place to another for these seasonal activities but tended to return to the same spot every spring, every summer, every fall, and every winter. In all regions, the members of the tribe also had the same clan system (although not always the same clans) and the same teachings passed down through their oral history.

But they didn’t all live in the same type of birch-bark housing.

Before we left, I thought the earlier Chippewas always lived in birch-bark wigwams with the rounded shape shown in the first picture. On this trip, I learned that the construction materials varied somewhat depending on the season. Woven mats covered the frame under the birch-bark in the hot summer months, which allowed the birch-bark to be raised so that air could circulate through the lower part of the walls. In the winter the walls were insulated with moss and the floors used a radiant heating system. This picture shows how the winter home was constructed.

All of that was helpful new information, and none of it surprised me.
What did surprise me was that the Minnesota Chippewas used a birch-bark teepee during the winter. We saw no evidence of this in Michigan or Wisconsin, where winter dwellings were built using the wigwam shape.
Grand Portage National Monument has a reproduction of a trading post, which only operated for a few weeks during the winter. The birch-bark-covered structure in the next picture shows how the Chippewa Indians lived while they stayed there to trade. A guide at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, also in Minnesota, told us that the teepee shape keeps the dwelling warmer. (Since heat rises, the smaller air space near the ceiling would keep more of the heat down by the floor.) During the warmer months, there were no regional differences—all dwellings were built as wigwams. But the winter shape seems to have been modified as members of the tribe moved farther west and closer to the plains Indians, who lived in animal skin teepees.
There were also differences in how the groups describe themselves. Although Chippewa is the legal name of the tribe, most prefer to call themselves Ojibwe, or even the original name of Anishinabek (or Anishinaabeg). Since the name Chippewa is easier for my audience to pronounce than Ojibwe is, I’ll have to think that through before making a final decision.
But one thing is clear. Regional differences exist, and a careful writer will reflect them.
I certainly will.
I took the first picture at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabek Culture and Lifeways at Mount Pleasant, Michigan; the second at the Ojibwe Museum & Cultural Center at Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin; and the third at Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota.


Back It Up and Away--Part II

Monday, June 8, 2015

Maybe last week’s post convinced you to back up your manuscripts or other important documents. But what is the best way to do it? And where should you keep the backup copy?

You have to answer that question for yourself, but I will give you my input. Here is the second part of the IWC blog, originally posted on October 9, 2013.

* * * * *

A TV commercial shows three men watching the news on an iPad they got from Dish Network when they signed up for the Hopper. The action starts in the kitchen, where the men listen to a female news anchor announcing that the kitchen may be the most dangerous room in the house. In the next scene, the men have moved to a tree house when the same anchor reports that a tree house is even more dangerous than a kitchen. The final scene has the three men under a bed and the anchorwoman saying, “Think you’re safe under a queen-size bed in the guest room? Well, you’re dead wrong.”

We can never be totally safe, and neither can our manuscripts. Still, documents have an advantage over people because text can be in several different places at the same time.

So what is the best way to back up your manuscripts?

Each solution has its problems. In the long run, the best response is to make sure you have a backup that is likely to survive if the original is lost.

Last week’s post mentioned the problem with storing the hard copy in the same office as the computer. If the computer crashes, the hard copy survives. But if there is a fire, both copies are gone.

One solution is to back up your manuscript to a thumb drive and carry it with you at all times. If you burn up in the fire, you probably won’t care about your unfinished book. But if you get out, your backup copy will, too. Of course, this isn’t always a good solution. Imagine taking a flash drive into the shower.

Or you could keep the thumb drive in your safe deposit box. Practical for completed manuscripts, but less so for your work in progress. Still, as long as you switch out the flash drives often enough, you will have a recent version to start from.

Another solution is to e-mail yourself a copy of the manuscript. Then it will be available on your e-mail server if something happens to your original.

Or you could back it up to a “cloud,” which may be similar to what happens when you e-mail it to yourself. As a non-techie, I don’t understand this concept very well. I have heard people say they don’t even keep a copy on their computer because they can always retrieve it from the cloud. But what if you lose Internet connectivity? And if your “cloud” is located on a remote server, it could crash. I have even heard horror stories about the government “seizing” servers operated by service providers who are suspected of encouraging copyright violations or other illegal behavior.

So what is the best way to back up your manuscripts? Do whatever works for you, but keep these two principles in mind:

(1) make sure you have at least one copy besides the “original,” and

(2) keep them far away from each other so that the same disaster won’t affect both.

Even though our manuscripts can never be totally safe, good planning can minimize the possibility of loss.

Back It Up and Away--Part I

Monday, June 1, 2015

It always amazes me when a writing friend says he or she lost a manuscript that hadn’t been backed up. Why not? It was too much trouble. I always want to ask, “Too much trouble compared to what? Starting all over again?”

I thought this would be a good time to reprint a two-part blog that I wrote for the Indiana Writers’ Consortium almost two years ago. Part I, which talks about why backing it up isn’t always enough, was originally posted on the IWC blog on October 2, 2013 and is reprinted below. Next week I’ll post Part II, which discusses back-up choices.

* * * * *

Have you ever lost the only copy of your manuscript? A tragedy, yes, but also a lesson. So now you make a backup copy.


Don’t be so sure.

Imagine that you have a hard copy sitting on your desk next to your computer. If your computer crashes, you still have the hard copy. It may be a pain to retype it, but at least you don’t have to start from scratch.

But what if your house burns down and melts the computer to an unrecognizable mess? The hard copy isn’t likely to survive, either.

Ernest Hemingway understood the value of backing up his manuscripts. In the days before computers, he made a carbon copy of each of his stories. That would have worked if they had been kept in two separate places. Or if his wife had understood the reason for a backup copy.

Hemingway tells the story in his book, A Moveable Feast. It was early in his career, and he and his wife, Hadley, were living in Paris and holidaying in Lausanne, Switzerland. Hadley decided to take Hemingway’s manuscripts along as a surprise so he could work on them during the holidays. She took the originals and the copies and put them all in her suitcase. Then someone stole the suitcase, and Hemingway’s manuscripts were gone.

I assume that both Hadley and Hemingway learned a valuable lesson about keeping the original separate from the backup.

The financial industry learned this same lesson on 9-11. It was already common practice to back up trading records and account documents, but some of the copies were only a few floors or a few blocks away. When the towers disintegrated, it didn’t matter how many floors separated the records. And even those records stored in a building down the street became inaccessible for days or weeks when the entire area was cordoned off.

So don’t keep the backup too close to the original. 

Join me next week for a post on how and where to back up your manuscripts.