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.

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