February's First Four

22 Feb 2021

February is the birth or death month of four authors in the pantheon of the Oceti Sakowin Confederacy’s literary forebears. They were born in the 30-year period from 1858 to 1888, and three of them died in the 13-month period from January, 1938 to February, 1939. Interestingly, two of them have craters on other planets named after them.

The earliest born of these is Charles Eastman, born near Redwood Falls, Minnesota, on February 19, 1858. His mother was of the Mdewakantonwan and Wahpetonwan nations, and his father was also of the Wahpetonwan nation. Within days of his birth, his mother died. When he was 14, he was told that his father had been hanged after the 1862 Dakota War.  So he moved with relatives to what is now Canada and lived in exile.

In 1871, his father, who had not been hanged after all, miraculously found him and persuaded him to return to what is now South Dakota. Soon thereafter, Charles’ schooling began at a mission school near Flandreau, then continued at Beloit College, Knox College and finally, Boston University Medical School, where he graduated in 1890.

Four of his noteworthy books are Indian Boyhood (1902), Old Indian Days (1907), The Soul of the Indian (1911), and From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916), which was the last of his autobiographical works. On its final page he wrote:

“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.”

Charles Eastman died on January 8, 1939, in Detroit, Michigan. A crater on Mercury is named in his honor.

Luther Standing Bear died in Huntington Beach, California, on February 20, 1939, at age 70. He was born on an unknown day in December 1868 to parents who both were of the Titonwan nation of the Oceti Sakowin Confederacy. His formal schooling began in 1879 when he was a student in the first class at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, and it ended when he graduated in 1884. His three notable books, all autobiographical, were published in a five-year period when he was in his early 60s: My People the Sioux (1928), My Indian Boyhood (1931), and Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933). On the final page of his last book, he wrote:

“So if today I had a young mind to direct, to start on the journey of life, and I was faced with the duty of choosing between the natural ways of my forefathers and that of the white man’s present way of civilization, I would, for its welfare, unhesitatingly set that child’s feet in the path of my forefathers. I would raise him to be an Indian!”

Zitkala Sa, the third born of February’s First Four, was born on February 22, 1876, in the Yankton Reservation. Her mother was of the Ihanktonwan nation and her father, who left before she was born, of the United States of America. She attended White’s Manual Labor Institute in Indiana from 1884 to 1887, a mission school at Yankton Reservation from 1887 to 1891, and White’s Manual Labor Institute again from 1891 to 1895, earning her diploma the year the school closed. From there, she attended Earlham College and then studied music in Boston from 1897 to 1899, after which she was hired to teach music at Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Her two notable books published during her lifetime are Old Indian Legends (1901) and American Indian Stories (1921). She also collaborated in writing The Sun Dance Opera (1913) and Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians (1924). She concluded her article, “Why I Am a Pagan,” in a 1902 issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, this way:

“Still I would not forget that the pale-faced missionary and the hoodooed aborigine are both God’s creatures, though small indeed their own conceptions of Infinite Love. A wee child toddling in a wonder world, I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.”

Zitkala Sa died on January 26, 1938, in Washington, DC. A crater on Venus is named in her honor.

Ella Deloria was born on January 31, 1888, in White Swan District, Yankton Reservation. Her parents were both of the Ihanktonwan nation. She attended a mission school in Standing Rock Reservation and a missionary girls’ boarding school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and then studied at Oberlin College for two years and graduated in 1915 with a Bachelor of Science degree from Columbia Teachers College in New York.

Three of her notable books are Dakota Texts (1932), Speaking of Indians (1944), and Waterlily (completed in 1948 and finally published in 1988). At the end of Speaking of Indians, she wrote:

“The old Indian fatalism said, ‘Since it must be so, it is so’; and the result was a passive acceptance, a stoical resignation. But that must go now. From here on, the progression must be rapid: what can be, ought to be; what ought to be, shall be!”

Ella Deloria died on February 12, 1971, at Tripp, South Dakota, about 170 miles southwest of where Charles Eastman had been born almost 103 years earlier. These two, along with Zitkala Sa and Luther Standing Bear, are the Oceti Sakowin Confederacy’s earliest acclaimed authors who were born or died during February.

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