Elaine Goodale Eastman, originally from Massachusetts, was a talented teacher who established a day school on a Sioux Indian reservation in the territory of South Dakota. She believed very strongly that it was best to keep Native American children at home rather than transport them far away from their families to Indian boarding schools. She hadn’t taught on the reservation very long when she was promoted to the position of Superintendent of Indian Education for the Two Dakotas. In this capacity, she travelled throughout the five Dakota reservations, visiting the more than sixty government and missionary schools within her jurisdiction, writing detailed evaluation reports on each school she visited.
It was because of her work that Elaine just happened to be visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation when the tragic Wounded Knee Massacre took place. As a result of this tragedy, more than two hundred men, women, and children from the Lakota tribe were killed, and another fifty-one were wounded. In addition, twenty-five government soldiers were also killed, most by “friendly fire,” and another thirty-nine were wounded. Following the massacre, she and her fiance, physician Charles Eastman of the Santee Sioux tribe, cared for the survivors and wrote detailed government reports to accurately describe what happened.
In her later years, when America was experiencing a back-to-nature revival, Elaine and her husband operated Indian-themed summer camps in New Hampshire. Read more of the life story of this fascinating educator in Theodore D. Sargent’s biography The Life of Elaine Goodale Eastman, or an encapsulated version in Chalkboard Champions: Twelve Remarkable Teachers Who Educated America’s Disenfranchised Students, both available on amazon.
There are times when extraordinary circumstances of history present already gutsy teachers with unexpected challenges. This is certainly true of the intrepid Etta Schureman Jones, an elementary school teacher and trained nurse from originally from Vineland, New Jersey.
Etta Schureman was over forty years old when she and her sister, Marie, ventured into Alaska Territory to teach Native American Eskimos in primitive rural schools. After one year, Marie returned to the Lower 48, but Etta, who had met the love of her life and married, settled permanently in Alaska. The picture here is the happy couple on their wedding day.
Eighteen years later, Etta and her beloved husband, C. Foster Jones, were working together in the remote Aleutian island of Attu when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of Japan on December, 7, 1941, “a day that will live in infamy.” The couple and their students were slated to be evacuated by the U.S. Navy when the island was invaded by Japanese troops. Although the couple were in their sixties, Japanese soldiers killed Foster and removed Etta to an internment camp in Japan, where she was incarcerated with a small group of Australian nurses who were also prisoners of war. The Attuan natives, about three dozen of them, were also taken to Japan, with the apparent intention of assimilating them into the Japanese population. Although Etta was rescued buy American troops after the war, and she and the surviving Attuans were eventually repatriated after the war, Etta never saw her students or their families again.
Etta’s intriguing tale of survival is told brilliantly by Mary Breu in her book Last Letters from Attu: The True Story of Etta Jones: Alaska Pioneer and Japanese POW. A fascinating read, to be sure. You can find this book at amazon at the following link: Last Letters from Attu. I have also included a chapter about this courageous teacher in my recently published book, Chalkboard Heroes: Twelve Courageous Teaches and their Deeds of Valor, also available at amazon at this link: Chalkboard Heroes.
It seems to be a universal practice in classrooms to ask students to think about, talk about, and write about the topic of heroism. Teachers frequently ask, “Who are our heroes?” “What are the qualities of a hero?” “What actions are considered heroic?” Often, a common response to these questions is a hero is an individual who goes above and beyond the usual, the expected, or the required, and that a heroic act involves significant courage, risk, and sacrifice.
In my next book, Chalkboard Heroes, which will be available in about three months, you will find the stories of twelve courageous teachers in American history who took considerable risks and made substantial sacrifices. For example, there are the countless teachers who protect our country by serving in the armed forces and the National Guard. If the times call for it, they valiantly march off to war. Henry Alvin Cameron who fought in World War I and Francis Wayland Parker, a Civil War veteran, are but two of these soldier teachers. There are the social reformers, the chalkboard heroes who endanger their personal safety to bring about improved conditions and better lives for America’s disenfranchised citizens. Teachers like Dolores Huerta, the champion of migrant farm workers; Robert Parris Moses, the 1960’s civil rights activist; Prudence Crandall, who defied prevailing social convention to open a school for African American girls; Carrie Chapman Catt, the suffragist; and Zitkala Sa, who campaigned tirelessly for the constitutional rights of Native Americans. There are the courageous pioneers who take great risks to blaze a trail for others to follow. Educators like Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space; Willa Brown Chappell, the pioneer aviatrix who taught Tuskegee airmen to fly; Etta Schureman Jones, the Alaskan pioneer who landed in a POW camp in Japan during WWII; and Olive Mann Isbell, who immigrated to the West and established the first English school in California—while the Mexican American War raged all around her. And then there are the teachers who lay down their lives to protect the students whose safety has been entrusted to their care. Teachers like Dave Sanders, the chalkboard hero of Columbine High School.
These twelve are but a few of the countless heroic teachers in American history. Their stories are perhaps all the more remarkable when we consider that in our society, teaching is usually considered a safe profession, classrooms are typically considered safe places, teachers are not usually recognized as risk-takers. The accounts of the twelve chalkboard heroes presented here show us that these perceptions are not at all a reflection of reality.