|Charles A. Eastman (Ohiyesa) was the most widely known Native American author in the United States and abroad during the first
decades of the twentieth century. His eleven books and many articles for national magazines explained Indian customs, beliefs, and
history to non-Indian Americans. Reformers held Eastman up as a model for other Indians to emulate; unlike most of these reformers,
however, Eastman did not view Indian cultures with disdain but took pride in his Indianness. His writings frequently demonstrated the
superiority of Indian ways to the practices of the dominant culture.
The child who would later be known as Charles Alexander Eastman was born near Redwood Falls, Minnesota, on 19 February 1858.
His father, Ite Wakanhdi Ota (Many Lightnings), a hunter and warrior, belonged to the Wahpeton band of the Eastern, or Santee, Sioux.
His mother, Wakantankanwin (Goddess) or Mary Nancy Eastman, was the granddaughter of Mahpiya Wichasta (Cloud Man), a leader
of a Mdewakanton band of the Eastern Sioux, and the daughter of the artist Capt. Seth Eastman. As a result of complications in giving
birth to Charles, Wakantankanwin died shortly thereafter.
The motherless infant was given the name Hakadah (The Pitiful Last). Uncheedah (Grandmother), his father's mother, helped to raise
him in the traditional ways of a Santee Sioux. In 1862 he received the name Ohiyesa (The Winner) when his band defeated another in
a lacrosse game. He would use that name in conjunction with the English name he would acquire later in his life.
In August 1862 many Santee Sioux fled to Canada after an unsuccessful and short-lived uprising over conditions on the reservation.
Among them was Ohiyesa's father's younger brother, who adopted the boy -- Ite Wakanhdi Ota was believed to have been killed -- and
raised him as a warrior and hunter. Returning from a hunt in 1873, Ohiyesa was startled to meet his father, who had been sentenced to
death for his actions during the Minnesota uprising but had been pardoned by President Abraham Lincoln. While in confinement, Many
Lightnings had become a Christian and had adopted the name Jacob Eastman. After his release he had rejected reservation life and
established a homestead at Flandreau in Dakota Territory. He had then traveled to Canada to find his son.
Jacob Eastman persuaded Ohiyesa to accompany him to the homestead. The renamed Charles Alexander Eastman attended
Flandreau Mission School; Santee Normal Training School; and the preparatory departments of Beloit College, Knox College, and
Kimball Union Academy. He received a B.S. degree from Dartmouth College in 1887 and an M.D. from Boston University in 1890. The
Indian Rights Association and the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian, powerful Indian reform groups, hailed Eastman as
an example of what an Indian could achieve.
The thirty-two-year-old Eastman accepted an appointment as government physician at Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. There he
witnessed the massacre at Wounded Knee and also met Elaine Goodale, a social worker who supervised education for the Sioux. They
were married in New York City in June 1891 and had six children: Dora Winona, Irene Taluta, Virginia, Ohiyesa II, Eleanor, and
Florence. Eastman and the Indian agent at Pine Ridge exchanged accusations regarding policy violations and payments to Indians who
suffered property losses during the Ghost Dance, an Indian revitalization movement. Frustrated with the situation, Eastman resigned in
1893. He moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, and opened a private medical practice, but it was unsuccessful.
It was in 1893, while living in Saint Paul, that Eastman began writing sketches of his childhood. His wife edited the pieces and
encouraged him to have them published. The monthly St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, to which Elaine Eastman
had contributed previously, published the six articles between December 1893 and May 1894; they would become chapters in
Eastman's first book, Indian Boyhood (1902).
Eastman served as field secretary of the Young Men's Christian Association from 1894 to 1898, establishing Indian associations on
reservations. His article "The Sioux Mythology," published in Popular Science Monthly in November 1894 -- he had presented it as a
paper at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago -- helped establish Eastman as an authority on Indian religion. His major
treatise on Indian religious beliefs, The Soul of the Indian: An Interpretation, would appear in 1911.
In 1896 Eastman became a representative of the Santee Sioux in their efforts to secure the restoration of annuities that had been
taken from them after the Minnesota uprising in 1862; he would continue to fight for the Santee claims in Washington, D.C., for more
than twenty-five years. He served as "outing agent" for the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1899, helping Indian students
adjust to life among whites. He became government physician at the Crow Creek Agency in South Dakota in 1900.
In July 1900 Eastman's "The Story of the Little Big Horn" was published in The Chautauquan. It provided information on broken treaties
and white encroachment into the Black Hills and criticized white accounts of the battle that inflated the number of Indians engaged and
ignored the strategy the Indians employed against George Armstrong Custer. Eastman apparently interviewed several Indians who had
participated in the battle.
Eastman's first book appeared in 1902. Written for children, Indian Boyhood became extraordinarily popular; more than twenty editions,
some in foreign languages, had been published by the early 1990s. One of the first Indian autobiographies, the book describes
Eastman's fifteen years of training in the traditional ways of a hunter and warrior in Minnesota and Canada. Because time and place
are not as important to Indians as to non-Indians, events in Indian Boyhood are not presented chronologically; Indians primarily record
events by reference to the changing seasons. In addition, Indians do not separate historical facts and oral traditions as distinctly as do
Eastman does not ignore the harsh realities of the life he led as a youth: he describes famine, disease, confrontations with other Indian
bands, and conflicts with whites. But he devotes most of his attention to the more gratifying aspects of his childhood, idealizing and
romanticizing his past and investing it with an atmosphere of childlike simplicity. In an informal, at times intimate tone, Eastman conveys
a longing to return to a world in which nearly every activity helped develop courage, endurance, generosity, or patience. Among his
recollections is the story of how boys had to prove their courage by sacrificing a prized possession to Wakan Tanka (The Great
Mystery); Eastman sacrificed his beloved dog.
In the book Eastman praises his grandmother Uncheedah for providing for his early education as a Sioux. Elaine Goodale Eastman, an
ardent assimilationist, felt differently: she delivered a paper at the 1895 Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian that attacked
the role Indian grandmothers played as teachers of old customs and traditions and impediments to assimilation. One wonders what
Charles Eastman thought about his wife's speech.
As he had at Pine Ridge, Eastman became embroiled in controversy with the Indian agent at Crow Creek. He resigned in 1903, and the
Eastmans moved to Amherst, Massachusetts. Charles Eastman became head of a project to select surnames for the Sioux to protect
their property rights. He worked on the project until 1909, renaming about twenty-five thousand Sioux.
Between 1904 and 1909 Eastman published three collections of short stories that depict Sioux customs, values, and history. Eastman
had heard many of these stories as a youth, as he sat around the campfire with other boys listening to the elders relate Indian
traditions and history. Although the books are written for young readers, adults found them fascinating as well.
The twelve stories in Red Hunters and the Animal People (1904) illustrate the Sioux respect for animals, such as the white bison in "The
Mustering of the Herds" and eagles in "The Sky Warrior." In "On Wolf Mountain" Indians show respect for wolves by offering them food,
whereas whites kill the wolves by giving them poisoned food; in "The River People" Indians admire the industrious beaver, while whites
destroy the beaver dams; in "Wild Animals from the Indian Stand-Point" Indian hunters learn from animals in the hope of acquiring their
resourcefulness, while whites indiscriminately kill the animals. Eastman provides a glossary of Sioux words and phrases at the end of
Old Indian Days (1907) has more emphasis on plot, character development, and ethnology than Red Hunters and the Animal People,
and the stories have more excitement and suspense. In eight of the fifteen stories the protagonists are women; Eastman was one of the
first authors to provide a comprehensive and accurate view of the major roles women played in Sioux society. "Winona, The
Woman-Child" and "Winona, The Child-Woman" depict the training of a Sioux girl.
In "Snana's Fawn" an Indian woman's love for a baby deer is later transferred to a warrior. In "The Faithfulness of Long Ears" a mule
saves a woman's twin babies from the Crow Indians, the enemies of the Sioux. In "Blue Sky" a Sioux woman finds her lover, who has
been captured by the Crow; later the Crow allow them to return to their village. "The Peace-Maker" concerns the brave deeds of a
Sioux woman against the Sac and the Fox tribes; she also speaks out against the use of liquor by her people.
In "She Who Has a Soul" a Sioux woman persuades her father to spare the life of a Catholic priest, while the exploits of a woman warrior
are detailed in "The War Maiden." "The Chief Soldier," "The Famine," and "The White Man's Errand" concern the Minnesota Uprising of
1862 and provide information on real people such as Little Crow, one of the Santee leaders. Stories about Indian warriors deal with
such subjects as peer approval and honor ("The Madness of Bald Eagle"), marriage and mourning customs and the practice of
counting coup ("The Love of Antelope"), a Canadian métis (mixed-blood) on a buffalo hunt ("The Singing Spirit"), and the close bond
between a hunter and his dog ("The Grave of the Dog"). Old Indian Days also includes a glossary of Sioux words.
Eastman's wife is listed as co-author of Wigwam Evenings: Sioux Folk Tales Retold (1909). Smoky Day, a wise Indian storyteller,
narrates most of the twenty-seven "evenings," or chapters, to an audience of Sioux children. Like Aesop's fables and Joel Chandler
Harris's Uncle Remus tales, many of the stories involve animals who behave in human fashion, and all of them provide a moral. In one
story a turtle has been captured by his enemies. They discuss burning him to death, but the turtle replies that he will scatter the
burning coals and kill them all. Next they consider boiling him, but the turtle warns them that he will dance in the boiling kettle, and the
steam will blind them forever.
Finally, the turtle's captors suggest drowning. When the turtle has nothing to say about this form of death, his enemies throw him into
the water; the turtle, of course, escapes. The moral of the story is the importance of being patient and of using quick wit. In another
story a drake outwits a falcon; later, believing that the falcon is dead, the drake is boasting of this feat when he is overtaken and killed
by the falcon. The message of the story is that one should not boast too soon or too loudly.
Other stories communicate such morals as working hard, keeping promises, doing one's best, avoiding greediness, and being positive.
The temptations, frustrations, and adventures of Little Boy Man and Star Boy provide information about Sioux origin beliefs and other
concepts of the cosmos.
In 1910 Eastman began his long association with the Boy Scouts of America. He wrote articles for Boys' Life, the organization's
magazine; spoke at scout meetings; and served as a camp director and national councilman. During the summer of 1910 Eastman
conducted fieldwork for the University of Pennsylvania among the Ojibwa, hereditary enemies of the Sioux, in northern Minnesota and
Canada. Chosen to represent North American Indians at the First Universal Races Congress in London from 26 to 29 July 1911,
Eastman read a paper that presented a historical and sociological overview of Indians before and after European contact, stressed the
need for Indians to participate in mainstream American life, and condemned the paternalistic policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. W.
E. B. Du Bois, representing African Americans, spoke at the same session.
In 1911 Eastman was one of the founders of the Society of American Indians, an organization that attempted to improve reservation
conditions, to protect Indians from injustice, and to gain citizenship for all Indians. Eastman contributed several articles to the society's
journal, the American Indian Magazine; he would serve as president of the organization in 1918. The society's effectiveness was limited
by divisions among its leaders regarding such issues as the use of peyote in religious ceremonies, the role of the Bureau of Indian
Affairs, and the relationship between the society and the journal.
Also in 1911 Eastman published The Soul of the Indian, an account of Indian religious beliefs. Although a convert to Christianity,
Eastman was proud of his ancestral religion, which seemed to give meaning and perspective to his life. The Indian expression for God
is Wakan Tanka (The Great Mystery), an all-powerful force to be worshipped in silence and solitude. Spiritual training was provided
mainly by Indian women, who instructed children about the wonders of nature, respectfulness and other values, and the importance of
prayer. Eastman fondly recalls the religious instruction he received from his surrogate mother, Uncheedah. Indians accepted the
supernatural and, consequently, readily believed biblical accounts of miracles; they could not understand why their creation stories
were not equally accepted by Christians.
Eastman takes to task white missionaries who condemn Indian beliefs and laments that the tenets of Christianity are professed in
theory but not practiced; modern Christianity, he believes, is linked too closely with white society's emphasis on competition and
materialism. He is shocked to hear whites use God's name in vain, something that Indians would never do. A problem in this book, as in
his other works, is that Eastman frequently neglects to make it clear whether he is discussing traits of Indians in general or only of the
In 1914 Eastman published Indian Scout Talks, a guide for Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls on such topics as how to make bows and
arrows, tepees, and canoes and how to survive in the wilderness. In 1915 the Eastmans established a girls' summer camp, Camp
Oahe, at Granite Lake, near Munsonville, New Hampshire. They printed elaborate brochures that showed campers engaged in
activities directed by a "real" Indian. The camp was an instant success.
In The Indian Today: The Past and Future of the First American (1915) Eastman offers a broad overview of Indian history, customs,
and beliefs, and he documents the devastating results of ill-conceived government policies toward the Indians. He declares that the two
greatest white "civilizers" were whiskey and gunpowder and shows how white contact destroyed Indian societies. Drawing on his
personal experience, Eastman vehemently criticizes the reservation system, condemning unqualified Indian agents, the locating of
reservations on poor agricultural land, unhealthful living conditions, and inadequate educational facilities. He calls for the abolition of
the Bureau of Indian Affairs and its replacement by a commission of which at least half the members would be Indians.
Like many other reform-minded individuals, Eastman supports the Dawes Act of 1887, which provided for land allotments in severalty
and the breakup of reservations; he particularly favors a provision that granted citizenship to Indians who accepted allotments. By
becoming citizens, he thinks, Indians can obtain more rights -- especially suffrage, which will give Indians more influence in decisions
affecting their lives. Eastman also reminds his readers of the many contributions Indians have made to American society. There was
discussion of Eastman's becoming commissioner of Indian affairs under President Woodrow Wilson in 1915, but nothing came of the
In 1916 Eastman published his second autobiographical work, From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of
an Indian, which starts where Indian Boyhood ended. Readers soon become aware that the youthful optimism and idealism that
Eastman possessed when he began his passage into an alien culture diminished with the sobering experiences of adulthood. He
attacks the evils of white society and laments the sorrows Indians endured as a result of cultural contact.
From the Deep Woods includes valuable information about Eastman's education and career in the white world. Certain omissions are
noteworthy, however. For example, his account of his confrontations with the Indian agent at the Pine Ridge Reservation are entirely
one-sided, and he does not even mention the turmoil he experienced at the Crow Creek Reservation.
In 1918 Eastman published his final book, Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains. The work comprises biographical sketches of fifteen
Indian leaders, several of whom he interviewed. Most of the subjects are Sioux, including Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and
Spotted Tail; among the non-Sioux leaders included are the Cheyenne chiefs Roman Nose and Dull Knife, and Chief Joseph of the Nez
Eastman's portrayal of these men is sympathetic and, in the main, accurate, although the historian George A. Hyde found several
errors in Eastman's account of Spotted Tail. Eastman shows how these leaders struggled to protect their people and maintain their
Indian ways. He condemns the economic warfare whites waged on the Plains Indians and frequent breaking of treaties by whites. He
again criticizes white accounts of Indian victories, such as the Battle of the Little Big Horn, for not recognizing Indian military prowess.
Nearly all Indian wars, he laments, ended with the loss of tribal lands and Indian imprisonment on reservations.
Although Eastman's books sold well, and he delivered many paid lectures, by 1920 he was having financial problems. The summer
camp fell on hard times, attracting fewer campers. There were also mounting tensions between Eastman and his wife. Rumors of their
incompatibility had been circulating since the mid 1890s, and the couple secretly separated in August 1921. The reasons for the
separation remain shrouded in mystery.
Possible causes include Eastman's prolonged absences from home and his alleged promiscuity; the conflict between Elaine's staunch
assimilationist views and his emphasis on acculturation; her overbearing manner; and disagreements arising from their collaboration on
Eastman's writings. Although he was working on several projects, including a novel about Pontiac, a biography of Sacajawea, and a
book on Sioux history and legends, Eastman published no major works after the separation. Although Elaine did continue to publish,
her works never achieved the popularity or recognition of his. They had been, despite their problems, an excellent writing team: he had
furnished the experiences and ideas, and she had supplied the literary skill.
In 1923 Eastman finally received payment -- perhaps $5,000 -- for the work he had performed since the 1890s in the Santee Sioux
claims case. He had expected more. He reentered the Indian service for the fifth and final time in August 1923, becoming a U.S. Indian
inspector. In his new job Eastman investigated charges against Indians and government employees at reservations and inspected
general conditions and health problems. He played major roles in entertaining Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain, who
wanted to meet some Indians during his October 1923 visit to the United States, and in the controversy concerning the year of death of
Sacajawea, in which Eastman supported 1884 over 1812.
In December 1923 Eastman was one of the prominent figures invited by Secretary of the Interior Hubert W. Work to study federal Indian
policy. Called the Committee of One Hundred, the group made several recommendations that included development of comprehensive
Indian educational programs, improvement of health and sanitary conditions on reservations, and continued study of the peyote issue
and granting Indian citizenship.
The grueling schedule of an Indian inspector took its toll on the sixty-five-year-old Eastman, and he resigned in March 1925. After
spending the next several months regaining his strength Eastman resumed his lecture schedule, traveling to New York City;
Washington, D.C.; and Chicago. Also in 1925 Eastman accepted an offer to become a director of the Brooks-Bryce Foundation, which
promoted better relations between the United States and Great Britain. His speeches for the foundation so impressed its founder,
Florence Brooks-Aten, that she asked him to represent the organization on a two-month speaking tour in England. Eastman sailed for
England for the second time in January 1928. He gave popular talks before large audiences and presented special lectures on Indian
culture at the University of Oxford, Eton College, and the Royal Colonial Institute.
Returning from Britain, Eastman purchased a site on the shore of Lake Huron near Desbarats, Ontario, and built a cabin there. He
spent the warmer months there, enjoying the solitude, and spent the winters with his son in Detroit. In 1933 the Indian Council Fire, a
national fraternal Pan-Indian organization, chose Eastman to receive its first annual award recognizing distinguished achievements by
In spite of failing health, he continued to give lectures in 1938. He died on 8 January 1939 and was buried in an unmarked grave at
Evergreen Cemetery, Detroit. After his death his estranged wife acquired his manuscripts; she published his work on Sacajawea under
his name in a series of articles in the Great Falls Tribune in 1949. She died in December 1953, at age ninety, and was buried in
Northampton, Massachusetts. Raymond Wilson and the Dartmouth Club of Detroit erected a stone on Charles Eastman's grave in 1984.
Many prominent Indian reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries considered Eastman the prime example of what
an Indian could achieve. Most reformers failed, however, to realize that Eastman was an acculturated rather than an assimilated Indian:
as his writings attest, he did not forsake his Indianness.
Nearly every aspect of his long, varied, and controversial career was related to Indian-white relations. He was the first major Indian
author to write Indian history from the Indian perspective; the main objective of his publications was to tear down the wall of prejudice
that separated Indians and whites.
Copeland, M. C. Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa). 1978.
Wilson, R. Ohiyesa: Charles Eastman, Santee Sioux. 1983.
Writings by Eastman
Eastman, C. Indian Boyhood. 1902.
Eastman, C. Red Hunters and the Animal People. 1904.
Eastman, C. Old Indian Days. 1907.
Eastman, C. Wigwam Evenings: Sioux Folk Tales Retold. 1909.
Eastman, C. Smoky Day's Wigwam Evenings. 1910.
Eastman, C. The Soul of the Indian: An Interpretation. 1911.
Eastman, C. Indian Child Life. 1913.
Eastman, C. Indian Scout Talks. 1914)
Eastman, C. The Indian Today: The Past and Future of the First American. 1915.
Eastman, C. From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of an Indian. 1916.
Eastman, C. Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains. 1918.
|Charles Eastman, Sioux Indian