The qualities of an Elder are not gained easily and the stature requires more than the advancement of years.
Although she would have probably countered the claim, few truly deserved the recognition of Elder more than Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota activist Fern Eastman Mathias who passed away on March 31 after a yearlong fight against ill health. For over 60 years she selflessly dedicated her life to Native rights. Her challenge against injustice was sparked by the incarceration of her father in 1936 after he protested against the BIA's land leasing double standards.
Fern entered the Relocation Program in March 1953 during the dark days of the Eisenhower administration's Draconian 'sell or starve' Indian policy. This was the era of termination and relocation spawned by Wyoming Republican Rep. William H. Harrison's House Concurrent Resolution 108, the 'sense of Congress' that ultimately provided for bills that terminated 133 tribes.
The harsh reality of relocation left some on skid row and others desperate to return to their reservations but Fern was among those who stayed. She united with other relocatees, when the traditional reinvigoration that began on the Hopi mesas was carried from Hotevilla to the cities. It was Fern and many of her fellow relocatees who gave Red Power its movement.
A descendant of Chief Cloud Man, a decisive figure in Dakota history, Fern's great-grandfather, Many Lightnings, was a veteran of the 1862 Dakota resistance in Minnesota and her grandfather, Ohiyesa ('The Winner'), became one of the first Native authors to have his works published.
Ohiyesa was able to recount experiences from his flight to Canada after the Minnesota Uprising through to being the post physician at the Pine Ridge Agency. As such, he was one of the first to witness the horror of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 and some eighty-three years later Ohiyesa's granddaughter, Fern Eastman, was among those who ventured in and out of Wounded Knee to carry word of the liberation.
Inspired by her ancestors and influenced by the likes of Cesar Chavez and Dr. Martin Luther King, the latter of whom she once met, in addition to the liberation of Wounded Knee in 1973, Fern could count the occupation of Alcatraz and the Longest Walk amongst the numerous events she contributed to. Directly after the June 26, 1975 'Incident at Oglala,' Fern entered the Jumping Bull property and photographed the family's bullet-ridden home. Those images first appeared in Indian Voice, the magazine she served as editor.
A founder of AIM's San Jose Chapter in 1970, Fern worked with Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash in Los Angeles to raise funds and awareness for the American Indian Movement, eventually becoming Director of AIM's Southern California Chapter. In that role, she fought doggedly for federal, state and city recognition and protection of Native American sacred sites and she was in the vanguard of the fight against the use of Native American mascots in sports.
Anybody who believes that one person alone can never make a difference did not have the privilege of meeting or knowing Fern Eastman Mathias. When asked what her message was to future generations she would say, 'Stand up. Be proud of who you are. Be proud that you are Indian and don't let others put you down.'
Her son John; her daughter Kym; her grandchildren; and her siblings Emmett Eastman, Sr., Joyce Eastman Rice, Junie Pink and Carole Eastman Standing Elk survive Fern.