ONE can never be sure of what a day may bring to pass. At the age of fifteen
years, the deepening current of my life swung upon such a pivotal day, and in the
twinkling of an eye its whole course was utterly changed; as if a little mountain
brook should pause and turn upon itself to gather strength for the long journey toward
an unknown ocean.
From childhood I was consciously trained to be a man ; that was, after all, the basic
thing; but after this I was^jtrained_to be a warrior and a hunter, and not to care for
money or possessions, but to be in the broadest sense a public servant. After arriving
at a reverent sense of the pervading presence of the Spirit and Giver of Life, and a deep
consciousness of the brotherhood of man, the first thing for me to accomplish was to adapt
myself perfectly to natural things in other words, to harmonize myself with nature.
To this end I was made to build a body both symmetrical and enduring a house for
the soul to live in a sturdy house, defying the elements. I must have faith and patience ; I must learn self-control and be able to maintain silence. I must do with as little as possible and start with nothing most of the time, because a true Indian always shares whatever he may possess.
I felt no hatred for our tribal foes. I looked upon them more as the college athlete regards his rivals from another college. There was no thought of destroying a nation, taking away their country or reducing the people to servitude, for my people rather honored and bestowed gifts upon their enemies at the next peaceful meeting, until they had adopted the usages of the white
man s warfare for spoliation and conquest. There was one unfortunate thing about my early training, however; that is, I was taught never to spare a citizen of the United States, although we were on friendly terms with the Canadian white men. The explanation is simple. My people had been turned out of some of the finest country in the world, now forming the great states of Minnesota and Iowa.
During the summer and winter of 1871, the band of Sioux to which I belonged a clan of the Wahpetons, or “Dwellers among the Leaves” – roamed in the upper Missouri region and along the Yellowstone River. In that year I tasted to the full the joy and plenty of wild existence. I saw buffalo, elk, and antelope in herds numbering thou sands. The forests teemed with deer, and
in the “Bad Lands” dwelt the Big Horns or Rocky Mountain sheep. At this period, grizzly bears were numerous and were brought into camp quite commonly, like any other game. In the summer we gathered together in large numbers, but towards fall we divided into small groups or bands and scatter for the trapping and the winter hunt. Most of us hugged the wooded river
bottoms; some depended entirely upon the buffalo for food, while others, and among
these my immediate kindred, hunted all kinds of game, and trapped and fished as well.
Thus I was trained thoroughly for an all-round out-door life and for all natural emergencies. I was a good rider and a good shot with the bow and arrow, alert and alive to everything that came within my ken. I had never known nor ever expected to know any life but this.
In the winter and summer of 1872, we drifted toward the southern part of what is now Manitoba. In this wild, rolling country I rapidly matured, and laid, as I supposed, the foundations of my life career, never dreaming of anything beyond this manful and honest, unhampered existence. My
horse and my dog were my closest companions. I regarded them as brothers, and if there was a hereafter, I expected to meet them there. With them I went out daily into the wilderness to seek inspiration and store up strength for coming manhood.had attained the age of fifteen years and
was about to enter into and realize a man s life, as we Indians understood it, when the change came. One fine September morning as I returned from the daily hunt, there seemed to be an unusual stir and excitement as I approached our camp. My faithful grandmother was on the watch and met me to break the news. “Your father has come – he whom we thought dead at the hands of the white men,” she said.
It was a day of miracle in the deep Canadian wilderness, before the Canadian Pacific
had been even dreamed of, while the Indian and the buffalo still held sway over the vast
plains of Manitoba east of the Rocky Mountains. It was, perhaps, because he was my
honored father that I lent my bewildered ear to his eloquent exposition of the so-called
civilized life, or the way of the white man.I could not doubt my own father, so mysteriously come back to us, as it were, from the spirit land ; yet there was a voice within saying to me, “A false life! a treacherous life!”
In accordance with my training, I asked few questions, although many arose in my mind. I simply tried silently to fit the new ideas like so many blocks into the pattern of my philosophy, while according to my un tutored logic some did not seem to have straight sides or square corners to fit in with the cardinal principles of eternal justice. My father had been converted by Protestant
missionaries, and he gave me a totally new vision of the white man.”Our own life, I will admit, is the best in a world of our own, such as we have enjoyed for ages,” said my father. “But here is a
race which has learned to weigh and measure everything, time and labor and the results
of labor, and has learned to accumulate and preserve both wealth and the records of experience for future generations. You your selves know and use some of the wonderful inventions of the white man, such as guns and gunpowder, knives and hatchets, garments of every description, and there are thousands of other things both beautiful and useful.
My father, He had been accustomed to the buffalo- skin teepee all his life, until he opposed the
white man and was defeated and made a prisoner of war at Davenport, Iowa. It was because of his meditations during those four years in a military prison that he had severed
himself from his tribe and taken up a home stead. He declared that he would never join
in another Indian outbreak, but would work with his hands for the rest of his life.
“I have hunted every day,” he said, “for the support of my family. I sometimes chase the deer all day. One must work, and work hard, whether chasing the deer or planting corn. After all, the corn-planting is the surer provision.” These were my father s new views, and in
this radical change of life he had persuaded a few other families to join him. They formed a little colony at Flandreau, on the Big Sioux River.
To be sure, his beginnings in civilization had not been attended with all the success that he had hoped for. One year the crops had been devoured by grasshoppers, and another year ruined by drought. But he was still satisfied that there was no alternative for the Indian. He was now anxious to have his boys learn the English language and some thing about books, for he could see that these were the “bow and arrows” of the white man.
“You will be taught the language of the white man, and also how to count your money and tell the prices of your horses and of your furs. The white teacher will first teach you the signs by which you can make out the words on their books. They call them A, B, C, and so forth. Old as I am, I have learned some of them.” The matter having been thus far explained, I was soon on my way to the little mission school, two miles distant over the prairie. There was no clear idea in my mind as to what I had to do, but as I galloped along the road I turned over and over what my father had said, and the more I thought of it the less I was satisfied. Finally I said aloud :
“Why do we need a sign language, when we can both hear and talk?” And unconsciously I pulled on the lariat and the pony came to a stop.
[Ohiyesa is riding with two other boys he met]
Red Feather and White Fish spoke both together, while I listened attentively, for everything was strange to me. “What do you mean by the holy days ?” I asked. “Well, that s another of the white people’s customs. Every seventh day they call a holy day , and on that day they go to a Holy House , where they pray to their Great Mystery. They also say that no one should work on that day.” This definition of Sunday and church- going set me to thinking again, for I never knew before that there was any difference in the days.
“But how do you count the days, and how do you know what day to begin with?” I inquired. “Oh, that s easy! The white men have everything in their books. They know how many days in a year, and they have even divided the day itself into so many equal parts ; in fact, they have divided them again and again until they know how many times one can breathe in a day,” said White Fish, with the air of a learned man. “That s impossible,” I thought, so I shook my head.
Presently the teacher came out and rang a bell, and all the children went in, but I waited
for some time before entering, and then slid inside and took the seat nearest the door. I felt singularly out of place, and for the twentieth time wished my father had not
When the teacher spoke to me, I had not the slightest idea what he meant, so I did not trouble myself to make any demonstration, for fear of giving offense. Finally he asked in broken Sioux: “What is your name?” Evidently he had not been among the Indians long, or he would not have asked that question. It takes a tactician and a diplomat to get an Indian to tell his name ! The poor man was compelled to give up the attempt and resume his seat on the platform.He then gave some unintelligible directions, and, to my great surprise, the pupils in turn held their books open and talked the talk of a strange people. Afterward the teacher made some curious signs upon a blackboard on the wall, and seemed to ask the children to read them. To me they did not compare in interest with my bird s-track and fish-fin studies on the sands. I was something like a wild cub caught overnight, and appearing in the corral next morning with the lambs. I had seen nothing thus far to prove to me the good of civilization.
I didn’t want to go to that place again; but father s logic was too strong for me, and the next morning I
had my long hair cut, and started in to school in earnest. I obeyed my father s wishes, and went
regularly to the little day-school, but as yet my mind was in darkness.
After some time it was settled that I was to go to school at Santee agency, Nebraska, where Dr. Alfred
L. Riggs was then fairly started in the work of his great mission school, which has turned out some of the best educated Sioux Indians. It was at that time the Mecca of the Sioux country; even though Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were still at large, harassing soldiers and emigrants alike, and General Custer had
just been placed in military command of the Dakota Territory. IT was in the fall of 1874 that I started
from Flandreau, then only an Indian settlement, with a good neighbor of ours on his way to Santee. There were only a dozen houses or so at Sioux Falls, and the whole country was practically uninhabited,
when we embarked in a home-made prairie schooner, on that bright September morning.
I had still my Hudson Bay flintlock gun, which I had brought down with me from Canada the year before. I took that old companion, with my shot-pouch and a well-filled powder-horn. All I had besides
was a blanket, and an extra shirt. I wore my hunting suit, which was a compromise between Indian attire and a frontiersman’s outfit. I was about sixteen years old and small of my age.
“Remember, my boy, it is the same as if I sent you on your first war-path. I shall expect you to conquer,” was my father’s farewell.The thought of my father’s wish kept me on my true course. Leaving my gun
with Peter, I took my blanket on my back and started for the Missouri on foot.
“Tell my father,” I said, “that I shall not return until I finish my war-path.”
But the voice of the waterfall, near what is now the city of Sioux Falls, sounded like the spirits of woods and water crying for their lost playmate, and I thought for a moment of turning back to Canada, there
to regain my freedom and wild life. Still, I had sent word to my father that this war path should be completed, and I remembered how he had said that if I did not return, he would shed proud tears.
About this time I did some of the hardest thinking that I have ever done in my life. All day I traveled, and did not see any one until, late in the afternoon, descending into the valley of a stream, I came suddenly
upon a solitary farm-house of sod, and was met by a white man a man with much hair on his face.
I was hungry and thirsty as a moose in burned timber. I had some money that my father had given me I hardly knew the different denominations; so I showed the man all of it, and told him by signs that he
might take what he pleased if only he would let me have something to eat, and a little food to carry with me. After supper I got up and held out to the farmer nearly all the money I had. I did not care whether he took it all or not. I was grateful for the food, and money had no such hold on my mind as it has gained
since. To my astonishment, he simply smiled, shook his head, and stroked his shaggy beard.
Presently I walked over to a shed where the farmer seemed to be very busy with his son, earnestly hammering something with all their might in the midst of glowing fire and sparks. He had an old breaking-plow which he was putting into shape on his rude forge. With sleeves rolled up, face and hands blackened and streaming with sweat, I thought he looked not unlike a successful warrior just returned from the field of battle. His powerful muscles and the manly way in which he handled the iron impressed me
tremendously. “I shall learn that profession if ever I reach the school and learn the white man s way,” I thought.
I took up my blanket and continued on my journey, which for three days was a lonely one. I had nothing with which to kill any game, so I stopped now and then at a sod house for food. When I reached
the back hills of the Missouri, there lay before me a long slope leading to the river bottom, and upon the broad flat, as far as my eyes could reach, lay farm-houses and farms. Ah ! I thought, this is the way of
civilization, the basis upon which it rests! I desired to know that life.
I hardly think I was ever tired in my life until those first days of boarding-school. All day things seemed to come and pass with a wearisome regularity, like walking railway ties the step was too short for
me. At times I felt something of the fascination of the new life, and again there would arise in me a dogged resistance, and a voice seemed to be saying, “It is cowardly to depart from the old things!” Aside from repeating and spelling words, we had to count and add imaginary amounts. We never had had any money to count, nor potatoes, nor turnips, nor bricks. Why, we valued nothing except honor; that cannot be purchased ! It seemed now that everything must be measured in time or money or distance. And when the teacher placed before us a painted globe, and said that our world was like that that upon such a thing our forefathers had roamed and hunted for untold ages, as it whirled and danced around the sun in space I felt that my foothold was deserting me. All my wilderness training and philosophy was in the air, if
these things were true.I did not go back to my home, but in September, 1876, after two years at the mission school, I started from Santee to Beloit to begin my more serious studies at college.
It must be remembered that this was September, 1876, less than three months after Custer’s gallant command was annihilated by the hostile Sioux and Cheyenne [at the Little Big Horn]. I was especially troubled when I learned that my two uncles whom we left in Canada had taken part in this famous fight.
I was now a stranger in a strange country, and deep in a strange life from which I could not retreat. I was like a deaf man with eyes continually on the alert for the expression of faces, and to find them in general
friendly toward me was somewhat reassuring.
In spite of some nerve-trying moments, I soon recovered my balance and set to work. I absorbed knowledge through every pore. The more I got, the larger my capacity grew, and my appetite increased in proportion. I discovered that my anticipations of this new life were nearly all wrong, and was suddenly
confronted with problems entirely foreign to my experience. If I had been told to swim across a lake, or run with a message through an unknown country, I should have had some conception of the task; but the
idea of each word as having an office and a place and a specific name, and standing in relation to other words like the bricks in a wall, was almost beyond my grasp. As for history and geography, to me they were legends and traditions, and I soon learned to appreciate the pure logic of mathematics.
It was here and now that my eyes were opened intelligently to the Christian civilization, the ideal civilization, as it unfolded itself before my eyes. I saw it as the development of every natural resource; the broad brotherhood of mankind; the blending of all languages and the gathering of all races under one religious faith. There must be no more warfare within our borders; we must quit the forest trail for the breaking-plow, since pastoral life was the next thing for the Indian. I renounced finally my bow and arrows for the spade and the pen; I took off my soft moccasins and put on the heavy and clumsy but durable
shoes. Every day of my life I put into use every English word that I knew, and for the first time permitted myself to think and act as a white man.
At the end of three years, other Sioux Indians had been sent to Beloit, and I felt that I might progress faster where I was not surrounded by my tribesmen. The next question to decide was what should be my special work in life. It appeared that in civilization one must have a definite occupation a profession. I wished to share with my people whatever I might attain, and I looked about me for a distinct field of usefulness apart from the ministry, which was the first to be adopted by the educated Sioux.
Gradually my choice narrowed down to law and medicine, for both of which I had a strong taste; but the latter seemed to me to offer a better opportunity of service to my race ; therefore I determined upon the study of medicine long before I entered upon college studies. Over summer vacation, at my home in
Dakota, Dr. Riggs told me the story of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and how it was originally founded as a school for Indian youth. The news was timely and good news ; and yet I hesitated. I dreaded
to cut myself off from my people, and in my heart I knew that if I went, I should not return until I had accomplished my purpose.
It was a critical moment in my life, but the decision could be only one way. I taught
the little day-school where my first lessons had been learned, throughout the fall term, and in January, 1882, I set out for the far East, at a period when the Government was still at considerable trouble to subdue and settle some of my race upon reservations. Though a man in years, I had very little
practical knowledge of the world, and in my inexperience I was still susceptible to the adventurous and curious side of things rather than to their profounder meanings. Therefore, while somewhat prepared, I was not yet conscious of the seriousness and terrific power of modern civilization.
It was a crisp winter morning when the train pulled into Chicago. I had in mind the Fort Dearborn incident, and it seemed to me that we were being drawn into the deep gulches of the Bad Lands as we entered the
city. I realized vividly at that moment that the day of the Indian had passed forever. …After we left Albany, I found myself in a country the like of which, I thought, I would have given much to hunt over before
it was stripped of its primeval forests, and while deer and bears roamed over it undisturbed. I looked with delight upon mountains and valleys, and even the little hamlets perched upon the shelves of the high hills. The sight of these rocky farms and little villages reminded me of the presence of an earnest and persistent people.
Even the deserted farmhouse, the ruined mill, had an air of saying, “I have done my
part in the progress of civilization. Now I can rest.” And all the mountains seemed to say, Amen.
What is the great difference between these people and my own? I asked myself. Is it not that the one keeps the old things and continually adds to them new improvements, while the other is too well contented with the old, and will not change his ways nor seek to improve them?
When I reached Boston, I was struck with the old, mossy, granite edifices, and the
narrow, crooked streets. Here, too, the people hurried along as if the gray wolf were on their trail. Their ways impressed me as cold, but I forgot that when I had learned to know some of them better.
I went on to Dartmouth College, away up among the granite hills. The country around
it is rugged and wild; and thinking of the time when red men lived here in plenty and freedom, it seemed as if I had been destined to come view their graves and bones. No, I said to myself, I have come to continue that which in their last struggle they proposed to take up, in order to save themselves
from extinction; but alas it was too late. Had our New England tribes but followed
the example of that great Indian, Samson Occum, and kept up with the development of Dartmouth College, they would have brought forth leaders and men of culture.
This was my ambition that the Sioux should accept civilization before it was too late ! I wished that our young men might at once take up the white man’s way, and prepare themselves to hold office and wield
influence in their native states. Although this hope has not been fully realized, I have the satisfaction of knowing that not a few Indians now hold positions of trust and exercise some political power.
At Dartmouth College I found the buildings much older and more imposing than any
I had seen before. There was a true scholastic air about them; in fact, the whole village impressed me as touched with the spirit of learning and refinement. My understanding of English was now so much
enlarged as to enable me to grasp current events, as well as the principles of civilization, in a more intelligent manner.
For the first time, I became really interested in literature and history. Here it was that civilization began to loom up before me colossal in its greatness, when the fact dawned upon me that nations and tongues, as well as individuals, have lived and died. There were two men of the past who were much in my thoughts : my countryman Samson Occum, who matriculated there a century before me, and the great Daniel Webster (said to have a strain of Indian blood), who came to Dartmouth as impecunious as I was.
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 also 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 deep jungles God s own sun light 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 am an Indian ; and while I have learned much from civilization, for which I am
grateful, I have never lost my Indian sense of right and justice. I am for development
and progress along social and spiritual lines, rather than those of commerce, nationalism,
or material efficiency. Nevertheless, so long
as I live, I am an American.