Lessons from the Sioux in How to Turn a Boy Into a Man

“The Indian, in his simple philosophy, was careful to avoid a centralized population, wherein lies civilization’s devil. He would not be forced to accept materialism as the basic principle of his life, but preferred to reduce existence to its simplest terms. His roving out-of-door life was more precarious, no doubt, than life reduced to a system, a mechanical routine; yet in his view it was and is infinitely happier. To be sure, this philosophy of his had its disadvantages and obvious defects, yet it was reasonably consistent with itself, which is more than can be said for our modern civilization. He knew that virtue is essential to the maintenance of physical excellence, and that strength, in the sense of endurance and vitality, underlies all genuine beauty. He was as a rule prepared to volunteer his services at any time in behalf of his fellows, at any cost of inconvenience and real hardship, and thus to grow in personality and soul-culture. Generous to the last mouthful of food, fearless of hunger, suffering, and death, he was surely something of a hero. Not ‘to have,’ but ‘to be,’ was his national motto.” –Charles Alexander Eastman

It has sometimes been said that the life of the American Indian has been overly romanticized by those who lack firsthand knowledge of what that life really consisted of, and are merely looking back through the hazy mists of time. The Soul of the Indian... Eastman, Charles Alexa... Best Price: $2.00 Buy New $4.01 (as of 12:20 UTC - Details)

Yet one who was not long removed from growing up immersed in Native American culture, remembered it as wistfully as anyone, saying, “The Indian boy enjoyed such a life as almost all boys dream of and would choose for themselves if they were permitted to do so.”

The writer of this sentiment was a man known at his death as Charles Alexander Eastman. But that was not his original name. He was born a member of the Eastern Dakota (or Santee) Sioux tribe in 1858 and dubbed Hakadah, or “pitiful last,” for his mother died in giving birth to him. The boy’s father, Many Lightnings, was thought to have been killed by whites during the Dakota War of 1862, and he was raised by his grandmother and uncle in the ways of traditional Sioux life; this included being given a new name when he became a young man: Ohiyesa or “always wins.”

Before this boy’s life would take a dramatic and unexpected turn, and Ohiyesa would became Eastman, he would nearly complete the Sioux journey from boy to man. The elements of this journey contain much wisdom for young men in the present day, and the grown men who wish to see them raised to honorable manhood.

How a Sioux Boy Became a Man

“From childhood I was consciously trained to be a man; that was, after all, the basic thing; but after this I was trained 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, Indian Boyhood (Native... Charles A. Eastman Best Price: $3.55 Buy New $5.32 (as of 12:10 UTC - Details) 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.” –Charles Alexander Eastman

The education of a Sioux boy began before he was even born. While he grew in his mother’s womb, she would choose a model of manhood from among the heroes of the tribe whom she hoped her son would one day emulate. She would then wander the woods alone and rehearse the valiant deeds of this exemplar to herself and her unborn child. These inspiring words, along with the peace and silence of the natural backdrop, were thought to exercise a strengthening influence on the baby-to-be.

As Eastman later recalled, after a boy was born, his family and tribe wasted no time in continuing this natal initiation into the role of man:

“Scarcely was the embyro warrior ushered into the world, when he was met by lullabies that speak of wonderful exploits in hunting and war. Those ideas which so fully occupied his mother’s mind before his birth are now put into words by all about the child, who is as yet quite unresponsive to their appeals to his honor and ambition. He is called the future defender of his people, whose lives may depend upon his courage and skill.”

During a Sioux boy’s younger years, he was largely raised by his mother. In Ohiyesa’s case, his wise grandmother Stands Sacred filled that role. As soon as he started crawling around, she began pointing out the names and features of different animals and plants in his environment, developing him into a true “prince of the wilderness.”

The 6 Virtues of Sioux Character Development

Stands Sacred also began Ohiyesa’s education in the character traits and virtues he would need in order to one day take his place in the The Essential Charles ... Charles Eastman Best Price: $7.50 Buy New $13.46 (as of 07:55 UTC - Details) tribe’s circle of men. “Silence, love, reverence — this is the trinity of first lessons; and to these she later adds generosity, courage, and chastity”:

Silence. The Sioux believed in avoiding trivialities and speaking only that which was important. The youth were not to speak to their elders at all unless specifically requested to. As Eastman explains, the virtue of silence was part of a larger standard of “Indian etiquette”:

“No one who is at all acquainted with the Indian in his home can deny that we are a polite people. As a rule, the warrior who inspired the greatest terror in the hearts of his enemies was a man of the most exemplary gentleness, and almost feminine refinement, among his family and friends. A soft, low voice was considered an excellent thing in man, as well as in woman! Indeed, the enforced intimacy of tent life would soon become intolerable, were it not for these instinctive reserves and delicacies, this unfailing respect for the established place and possessions of every other member of the family circle, this habitual quiet, order, and decorum.”

Love. The love of a male Sioux did not revolve around a romantic sentimentality, but was rather shown through adherence to service and duty:

“Every boy, from the very beginning of his training, is an embryo public servant. He puts into daily practice the lessons that in this way become part of himself. There are no salaries, no ‘tips,’ no prizes to work for. He takes his pay in the recognition of the community and the consciousness of unselfish service.”

The finest love a man could develop was for his fellow men; friendship was thought “to be the severest test of character”:

“It is easy, we think, to be loyal to family and clan, whose blood is in our own veins. Love between man and woman is founded Indian Heroes and Grea... Eastman, Charles A. Best Price: $3.37 Buy New $6.84 (as of 12:15 UTC - Details) on the mating instinct and is not free from desire and self-seeking. But to have a friend, and to be true under any and all trials, is the mark of a man! The highest type of friendship is the relation of ‘brother-friend’ or ‘life-and-death friend.’ This bond is between man and man, is usually formed in early youth, and can only be broken by death. It is the essence of comradeship and fraternal love, without thought of pleasure or gain, but rather for moral support and inspiration. Each is vowed to die for the other, if need be, and nothing denied the brother-friend, but neither is anything required that is not in accord with the highest conceptions of the Indian mind.”

Reverence. “Religion was the basis of all Indian training,” and a Sioux’s spirituality was inextricably tied into an awareness of the natural world, which he believed was sacred. All living things were thought to have a soul — not of the same kind as man, but a spirit created by the Maker nonetheless. The Sioux man felt a kinship with both the land and the animals upon it, and was grateful for the clothing and food the natural world provided him. He retained an awe and wonder in this connection his whole life through:

“The splendor of life stands out preeminently, while beyond all, and in all, dwells the Great Mystery, unsolved and unsolvable, except in those things which it is good for his own spirit to know.”

Generosity. The Sioux believed that “the love of possessions [was] a weakness to be overcome.” Acquisitiveness was thought to weaken one’s manhood and hinder spiritual growth.

To overcome the attachment to possessions, and maintain a minimal lifestyle, public giving was a prominent part of weddings, births, and funerals, and any other occasion in which a member of the tribe was especially honored. During such ceremonies, the Sioux often gave “to the point of utter impoverishment”:

“The Indian in his simplicity literally gives away all that he has, to relatives, to guests of another tribe or clan, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom he can hope for no return. Finally, the gift to the ‘Great Mystery,’ the religious offering, may be of little value in itself, but to the giver’s own thought it should carry the meaning and reward of true sacrifice.”

The skilled hunter would regularly invite the old men of the tribe to feast with him and his family; in return, the old men entertained and edified the household with their stories of days gone by. By showing himself to be a generous host, “his reputation is won as a hunter and a feast-maker, and almost as famous in his way as the great warrior is he who has a recognized name and standing as a ‘man of peace.’”

Courage. The importance of courage to a Sioux is encapsulated in Eastman’s recollection that he had “wished to be a brave man as much as a white boy desires to be a great lawyer or even President of the United States.”

Courage was predicated on the ability to forget oneself in the pursuit of duty and the desire to serve and protect others. As Eastman explained: “The Sioux conception of bravery makes of it a high moral virtue, for to him it consists not so much in aggressive self-assertion as in absolute self-control”:

“The truly brave man, we contend, yields neither to fear nor anger, desire nor agony; he is at all times master of himself; his courage rises to the heights of chivalry, patriotism, and real heroism. ‘Let neither cold, hunger, nor pain, nor the fear of them, neither the bristling teeth of danger nor the very jaws of death itself, prevent you from doing a good deed,’ said an old chief to a scout who was about to seek the buffalo in midwinter for the relief of a starving people.”

Chastity. Chastity was not only prized in a Sioux woman, but in a Sioux man as well. Certain feasts were held for the young men that only those boys who had never spoken to a girl in courtship could attend. Demonstrating one’s worth as a man was considered a prerequisite to making oneself eligible to be a suitor. “It was considered ridiculous to do so before attaining some honor as a warrior, and the novices prided themselves greatly upon their self-control.” The highest honor went to the man who had “won some distinction in war and the chase, and above all to have been invited to a seat in the council, before one had spoken to any girl save his own sister.”

Part of the salutatory effect of the vigorous physical training young men participated in was thought to be the way such sports and games served as an outlet for their sexual energy, so that they might maintain a courageous self-mastery in that area of their lives as well. 

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