by Brett & Kate McKay
Charles Alexander Eastman was born in 1858 and raised as “Ohiyesa” to be a hunter and warrior in the traditional ways of the Santee Sioux. When he was almost 16 years old, he left tribal life to learn the culture of European-American civilization and earn his undergraduate and medical degrees. Eastman became a doctor, a tireless advocate for the rights of his people, and a writer of many works in which he sought to share the true ways of the American Indian. We previously shared Eastman’s insights on the Sioux ideal of manhood. Having laid that foundational overview, we are now working our way through a series of edited collections of Eastman’s writing on 3 specific subjects: situational awareness, physical and mental toughness, and spirituality.
Living life in the wilderness offered the American Indian a freedom and autonomy those who dwelled in the cities of civilization could hardly conceive of. But such a life also came with its own dangers and struggles — challenges that required the Indian to develop a high level of both mental and physical toughness. A Sioux’s daily life called for a keen physicality; all men were hunters, and it was considered nothing special for a man to sling a deer around his shoulders and carry it many miles back to camp.
The overall cycle of native life was also seasonal and unpredictable. In the warmer months the game was plentiful and the Sioux enjoyed a variety of outdoor pastimes and celebrations. But the winters brought bitterly cold temperatures, and the need to largely live off the food that had been stored up, as well as to ride out days-long snowstorms with only a teepee as protection from the elements. In order to develop the resilience necessary to endure these ups and downs and “prepare the body for the extraordinary exertions that it might, at any moment, be required to undergo,” the Sioux intentionally trained for toughness: fasts from food and water were undertaken even when there was plenty to eat and drink, ice baths were regularly taken, and “hard exercise was kept up continually.” As a young man, Eastman exercised at least three hours a day (and even kept up this regimen throughout his college years), typically by engaging in a variety of vigorous sports and races with his peers. The Sioux placed such a heavy emphasis on physical activity, because they felt that building a young man’s fitness not only strengthened his body, but developed his ability to live a life of moral virtue and self-mastery.
Indeed, mental and physical discipline were seen as going hand-in-hand; a “trained mind” was necessary “to reach the height of one’s physical possibilities,” while physical prowess and hardihood helped the mind become more resilient and courageous. Together, these twin qualities were prerequisites to a Sioux attaining “true manhood.”
A Sioux’s all-around toughness was not cultivated merely for aesthetics (though they appreciated the beauty of a well-developed body), and using one’s physical power to engage in destructive pursuits for personal amusement was strictly condemned as an abuse of one’s strength. Instead, a man’s strength and endurance were to be developed in order that he might become a more excellent hunter and warrior and better serve his people. A Sioux man became strong to be useful.
To understand the tenets of the training “program” that was used to reach that goal, we turn now to the words of Charles Eastman.
The Sioux Guide to Mental and Physical Toughness
The desire to be a man — the native spirit of the explorer and the hero — this is the strong inner motive which leads a boy out on the wilderness trail to discover the world anew. First of all, he discovers what he himself must be in order to overcome difficulties, to resist pain and hardship, and to win the object of his quest. With these impulses at their purest and strongest, the Indian boy begins his career with the building of a sound and efficient body.
All boys were expected to endure hardship without complaint. In savage warfare, a young man must, of course, be an athlete and used to undergoing all sorts of privations. He must be able to go without food and water for two or three days without displaying any weakness, or to run for a day and a night without any rest. He must be able to traverse a pathless and wild country without losing his way either in the day or nighttime. He cannot refuse to do any of these things if he aspires to be a warrior.
The moment that man conceived of a perfect body, supple, symmetrical, graceful, and enduring — in that moment he had laid the foundation of a moral life! No man can hope to maintain such a temple of the spirit beyond the period of adolescence, unless he is able to curb his indulgence in the pleasures of the senses. Upon this truth the Indian built a rigid system of physical training, a social and moral code that was the law of his life. There was aroused in him as a child a high ideal of manly strength and beauty, the attainment of which must depend upon strict temperance in eating and in the sexual relation, together with severe and persistent exercise. He desired to be a worthy link in the generations, and that he might not destroy by his weakness that vigor and purity of blood which had been achieved at the cost of much self-denial by a long line of ancestors.
Mental and Emotional Self-Mastery
As a little child, it was instilled into me to be silent and reticent. This was one of the most important traits to form in the character of the Indian. As a hunter and warrior it was considered absolutely necessary to him, and was thought to lay the foundations of patience and self-control. There are times when boisterous mirth is indulged in by our people, but the rule is gravity and decorum…