Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian
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Although filmmaker Syd Beane (Flandreau Santee Sioux) has worked closely with well-known film industry figures like Floyd Red Crow Westerman (Sisseton-Wapheton Sioux) and Peter Coyote, when the time arrived to start telling the story of his relative, Dakota writer and physician Charles Alexander Eastman, he realized it was a history best conveyed by his daughter, Kate Beane (Flandreau Santee Sioux). “As a filmmaker, I’ve learned that all the films have to be about you, or you won’t understand them,” says Syd. “Peter Coyote wanted to be in my next film, so I put him in the treatment. In the meantime, I saw Kate on film. I saw Kate’s ability to articulate and project. I didn’t want to write. I wanted her to say what she felt. I wanted the passion of a young relative going through education, exploring herself and her future the way Charles might have in his time.”
For Kate, being in front of the camera took a grand leap of faith and trust in her father’s vision. A historian and self-described “very private person,” she had originally planned to maintain an off-camera role conducting research for her father’s film. But in Ohiyesa: The Soul of An Indian, the pursuit of knowledge and ways of knowing, as a filial responsibility and an honor, drives both the film and its principal figures. As we watch Kate journey from Minnesota to Dartmouth to Flandreau and back to Minnesota, attaining her doctorate as well as details from archives and elders about Eastman, we are also presented with the events and desires that shaped Eastman’s work and character. We revisit how four-year-old Eastman, known as Hakadah, is forced to flee his Dakota home in Minnesota to Canada when life is ruptured by the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War as well as by the wave of white settlers.
“To the Dakota, this was an invasion,” civil rights leader and pastor Sid Byrd explains in the film. “It was an American holocaust.” Over 1,700 Dakota are forcibly marched to concentration camps along the Mississippi River. Hundreds die. Thirty-eight are hanged under order from President Abraham Lincoln. Eastman’s mother is dead and his father, Many Lightnings, is sent to military prison in Davenport, Iowa. In exile in Manitoba, Eastman’s family raises him in traditional Dakota ways until he is 15-years old. His father, who has converted to Christianity and now goes by Jacob Eastman, sees that books are “the bows and arrows of the white man,” and brings Eastman back to his farm in Flandreau. From there, Eastman attends Nebraska’s Santee Normal Training School, then Dartmouth, and eventually obtains a medical degree from Boston University. Eastman moves to Pine Ridge and Crow Creek where he works as agency doctor for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Caring for the injured after the Wounded Knee Massacre, Eastman wrote, “It took all of my nerve to keep my composure in the face of this spectacle.” Discouraged by the massacre and the corruption at the agency, Eastman moves his family to St. Paul, then to Amherst, Massachusetts, eventually living out his days with his son, Ohiyesa II in Michigan.
In addition to helping to establish Indian YMCAs and the Society of American Indians rights organization, Eastman published 11 books, including the memoirs Indian Boyhood, From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of An Indian, and The Soul of the Indian, in which Eastman reflects deeply on his identity as both Indian and American.
How to recount Eastman’s epic lifetime, intertwined with his granddaughter’s contemporary journey, both of which are sweeping and intimate as they unfold? For Syd, who was born and raised in the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation, and currently lives in Plymouth, MN, the film started with how Syd’s family ended up in South Dakota and was guided by a quotation from Eastman’s The Soul of the Indian: “Understanding the religion of the American Indian is the most difficult thing for a non-Indian to understand.” From this quotation the film flowed. “Ohiyesa (Always a Winner) was Charles Eastman’s Dakota name and The Soul of the Indian was the best book I had read about Charles in terms of spirituality, where he pulls everything together in his life as to what his purpose was,” says Syd. “I let the film develop itself. I let Kate follow the path she was supposed to follow in a spiritual sense and looked at the parallels. I think that’s what you see in the film. There are amazing parallels.”
For Kate, who was raised in Lincoln, NE, and the San Francisco Bay area, and who lived throughout the U.S. before returning to her Dakota family’s ancestral land in Minnesota, the film helps demonstrate her family’s relationship to their Mni Sota homeland. “The land connection is incredibly important, because there’s so much there that a lot of people don’t necessarily see or understand,” says Kate. “It’s through the language and through that connection with the land and understanding that historical past that we really have a better understanding of who we are as a people. That’s incredible to think about as we’re going into the future. It’s all connected.”
Kate first went to Minnesota as an 18-year old when she helped a friend move. “I had a camera at the time,” says Kate. "I did a lot of walking along the river around downtown Minneapolis and I remember wondering how I just didn’t see my people reflected in that space and wondering what our historical narrative was there.” Since that time, Kate and Syd contributed to Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota, which won the 2012 Minnesota History Book of the Year. They and others worked diligently to change Minneapolis’s famed Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, (pronounced beh-DAY mah-KAH skah), meaning White Earth Lake. Kate also works as a program and outreach manager with the Minnesota Historical Society, helping to “ensure American Indian voices and perspectives people are not only included, but are a part of the process” in the Society’s 26 historic sites.
Eastman’s descendants continue the legacy of creating spaces and reclaiming representation in the U.S.’s public, academic and historic institutions. “There’s definitely a need for more of our community members to be telling our own stories in order to add the complexity, to fully unpack some of the most difficult elements of our history and tell it in a way that is complex, nuanced, and real,” says Kate. “We don’t need to be simplified anymore. That’s not reality.”
Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian includes Kate’s grandmother Lillian Beane, grandfather John Beane, uncle William Beane, aunt Roxie Johnson, and Reverend Sid Byrd of Flandreau, and sister Carly Bad Heart Bull, as well as Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Wilmer Mesteth, author Louise Erdrich, scholar David Martínez (Pima), and physician and actor Dr. Evan Adams (Coast Salish).
The Soul of an Indian premieres Sunday, June 17, 10pm (9 MT) on SDPB1.
Join Kate Beane and Syd Beane for a free, public screening of Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian on Saturday, June 16, 6pm, at SDPB’s Sioux Falls Studios, 601 N. Phillips Avenue, Suite 100.