Eagle Man Interview
by Jean Holmes
Ed McGaa "Eagle Man", is the author of Native Wisdom, Perceptions of the Natural Way, and Mother Earth Spirituality. This interview by Jean Holmes won a prestigious award from Social Issues Resource System (SirS).
Eagle Man: I'm not a Medicine Man, I'm an author. But I've been around spirituality considerably more than many, many people that claim to be Medicine Men.
Holmes: You're an Ogalala Sioux?
Eagle Man: Right. Born on the Reservation. So, at one time Indian religion was not popular at all, even Sioux religion. The missionaries were so effective to stamp it out that the majority of Indians actually turned against the old religion. They won't admit that, but that's exactly what happened. Just look at the tribes. They became Christians. They gave up the old ways and even ridiculed them. But I don't fault them because they were put through government indoctrination programs when the missionary and government agent worked hand in hand.
Holmes: What did they actually do to the Indians to bring them to this?
Eagle Man: They put them in boarding schools and they kept them away from their parents for 4-1/2 to 9 months a year. Sometimes they'd get to come home for Christmas vacation. They were separated. Most all your western tribes from Minnesota on to the west have gone through this experience. My tribe has only been in 100 years. It's only come into so-called modern living. They were captives on the reservation. They had to have passes. The Cavalry was, and of course, they were overly watchful of the Sioux because we had defeated the Army and won the Treaty of 1868. So they did everything possible to stamp out our religion. They put us into boarding schools and all of my brothers and sisters have gone to those boarding schools.
Holmes: Where were these schools?
Eagle Man: They were at Pine Ridge. They were on every reservation. You name it, they got it.
Holmes: And these were basically slanted to take away the Indians' belief system in nature and to put in the Christian belief system.
Eagle Man: The Indians' nature belief system was totally forbidden. The language was forbidden. People don't want to believe this. But it's all true what happened. So very effectively did they stamp out any religion. They also stamped out pride in culture. There were some old stalwarts that would not give up their way. Our reservation was so big, 100 miles practically by 100 miles. The Rosebud Reservation was about the same size. Standing Rock and Cheyenne Eagle Butte. These were all Sioux reservations. Big. In those reservations you had real stalwart families that were fullbloods that would not give up. They were punished severely. And their kids were punished severely in the boarding schools. They were put on half rations. Some even starved to death or committed suicide because they were so rejected. Missionaries were given land grants on U.S. Indian land. It was given to them to do all this tax free to build these structures and force their propaganda. So consequently, when I was a young boy, I was lucky. They made a bombing range out of our parents' ranch and we had to go off the reservation and I got to go to public school.
Holmes: They made a bombing range on your land, on the reservation?
Eagle Man: It was other lands, the northern part of the reservation. All the ranches north of Rocky Ford, a huge area, were made into more of a machine gun range. You couldn't live out there because the machine guns were shooting all over.
Holmes: This was after you had already been given that land by Treaty?
Eagle Man: Oh yes. Yes, by the Government during World War II. But the Indians never protested. We did not know how to protest. We all joined the military, our young boys. We are a very patriotic people, super patriotic. They all joined the service and they were off fighting the Germans and Japs, and my father was working on the Air Force runways that airplanes would come down and shoot up all their land. We never even questioned. We never questioned our government. We were a different kind of people. Whether you agreed with it or not, this is what we did. I can only tell you what we did. You have to make your own judgments.
So I got to go to school in public school. In my graduating class there were five maybe six Indian kids. I was the only one that danced Indian. I started dancing Indian when I was little, pow-wow dancing. From that, that led me to the Sun Dance that led me to my religion. Kids in my own class would not even talk to me because I showed I liked dancing Indian.
Holmes: What was wrong with dancing Indian?
Eagle Man: At that time everything was looked down on. You had Indians who pretended to be White. In those days Black people straightened out their hair and people wanted to be White. That's just where it was at. You have to keep out judgment. We were so oppressed and we were taught that the White man's was the only way. We were happy in a sense because we had our own people. We liked our dancing. The old Indians would come up from the Reservation and stay at my folks' place and my dad had worked hard and had a decent home. We were happy. I had a good mom and dad, and we were happy in our own little bliss.
I played basketball and played sports, and I got on the team, and did normal things. But I always danced Indian. And I loved it.
Holmes: What is the symbology of dancing Indian? What does that mean to an Indian to dance?
Eagle Man: It was pow-wow dancing. In those days we danced in a circle, an arena, and actually White people would come and take our pictures and all that stuff. It did not bother us one way or the other. It's like being a ballet dancer. You like to do what you like to do. Beautiful costumery.
So my mother was President of the Winona Indian Women's Club in Rapid City. We did our own thing and were happy with our ethnic background. Then the Sun Dance started in the '50s. Old Bill Eagle Feather, a holy man, Chief Bill Eagle Feather, he and Fool's Crow brought the Sun Dance out in the open. He said we're going to bring it out in the open. Before we had to hide and go back in the Badlands and do it secretly.
Eagle Man: They did it secretly and so Bill said this is not right. We should be honest about this and come out in the open. Well, the missionaries and the government had let up. The cavalry was gone and four of my brothers had been in World War II and I had been in Korea. So the government did not put so many clamps on us, so many restrictions. The missionaries were the only ones that really got uptight because we were going to bring our Sun Dance back. But they were so successful that they also had relaxed as you do when you're flushed with success.
Holmes: You're talking about the religious people.
Eagle Man: Yeah. There were so many Catholic Indians running around there, they didn't think a few Indians doing Sun Dance was going to hurt anything. So we were allowed to do our Sun Dance and Bill Eagle Feather brought it back. So these two holy men were the main ones. There were several others, John Fire and Peter Catches, but I was mainly close to the others. There was another person in there named Ben Black Elk who had interpreted every word of the book Black Elk Speaks to John Neihardt. The great book Black Elk Speaks.
Holmes: That was originally done in native tongue?
Eagle Man: It had to be because the old man did not know how to talk English. So he gave it in the native tongue to Ben. Then Ben transferred it to Neihardt. So Ben knew all of Black Elk's vision. He was a good friend of mine. He was older. In fact he named me Wanbli Hokeshilah (Eagle Boy), and then later on as I got older my name was changed to Wanbli Wichasha, "Eagle Man."
Holmes: And that is your sacred native name.
Eagle Man: I was just a little kid. He named me Eagle Boy. There's nothing sacred about it, it's just a name. Then later on when I was in the Sun Dance he was there and he had me carry his father's pipe in the Sun Dance, there were six Sun Dances, six years in a row for me. He said, "You are going to carry my father's pipe - and I did as he said. Now we are going to give you a new name.
Your name's going to be Wanbli Wichasha. They didn't make a big ceremony out of it. They were inside the Lodge. They told me the priest was coming there. He was trying to stop our Sun Dance. He had a portable altar in the back of his pickup. The year before he had stopped our dancing. He allowed us to only dance on Thursday, Friday and Saturday - but not Sunday - The Lord's Day to him... We pierced on Saturday. The fourth day we couldn't do Sun Dance. We always have things in four lots of times. He brought his portable altar there. The Indians unloaded it. He said mass at the base of the Sun Dance tree.
The next year I stood up against him. The other Indians were afraid so they all participated on Saturday, but I was the only guy who appeared on Sunday. We had a confrontation and I won the confrontation. The next year after that I brought AIM [American Indian Movement] and they stood by while we had our Sun Dance. The year after that the AIM members actually danced in the Sun Dance. From then on it was protected.
Holmes: Would you explain a bit about what the law was about Sun Dancing and why you went back to it?
Eagle Man: It was an illegal law. Charles Burke was Commissioner in the 1920s and he wrote an administrative law, which was an illegal law that, just like it was an illegal law that Blacks drink out of different drinking fountains and they had to have different rooms for a bus station. That was illegal yet it was put into effect across the South. This illegal law was put into effect clear across the reservation. We were forbidden to dance any ceremonial religious-type dances. This Sun Dance was our annual coming together to thank the Great Spirit.
The missionaries coerced Burke into writing these administrative laws that forbade us to do this. Of course, there were other Commissioners in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Interior that put out these illegal administrative laws. But the Jim Crow days allowed them to happen.
But we rebelled, as soon as we rebelled - and I was one of the few young guys there, all these young guys running around trying to be so Indian. That's good, but back in my day we didn't have very many young guys to support us. In fact, there were only two others - I can name them. There was Buddy Red Bow and Sonny Larive, who were the first two young guys that supported the Sun Dance, and I was the third. We were pretty much alone.
END OF PART 1
Ed McGaa "Eagle
Man", is the author of Native Wisdom, Perceptions of the Natural Way, and Mother
Earth Spirituality. It is recommended that those interested in contacting Eagle Man
try through his publishers. You may also visit http://members.aol.com/eagleman4/ Jean Holmes' interview won a prestigious
award from Social Issues Resource System (SirS). a repository of outstanding reference
articles from newspapers, magazines, government publications and journals that are made
available to schools and libraries in the United States. SirS website is www.sirs.com.