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Charles A. Eastman

Charles A. Eastman

Charles Eastman (1858-1939) was the first Native American physician to serve on the Pine Ridge Reservation and a prolific author of works about Indian life and culture.

Born near Redwood Falls, Minnesota, of mixed Santee Sioux and white parentage, Charles Eastman was much influenced in his distinguished career as a writer, physician, and Indian spokesman by two of the last bloody Indian-white conflicts on the North American prairies and plains. He published two autobiographical accounts of his youth—Indian Boyhood and From the Deep Woods to Civilization—which were widely credited with raising white awareness of Indian issues.

His parents were Jacob Eastman ["Many Lightnings"], a Wahpeton Sioux, and Mary Nancy Eastman, a mixed-blood Sioux who died when he was a baby. His maternal grandfather was artist Seth Eastman. The youngest of five children, and given the name Hakadah ["The Pitiful Last"] because of his mother's early death, Eastman fled with his family from Minnesota to British Columbia following the Sioux Indian Uprising of 1862. Ten years later, after thorough training as a hunter and warrior, he was reclaimed by his father, who had been in prison during most of that time for his part in the uprising.

At his father's insistence, Eastman enrolled in the Flandreau Indian School and thus was abruptly introduced into an alien society that he would struggle to understand for the rest of his life. Eastman went on to study at Beloit College, Knox College, Dartmouth College (where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1887), and Boston University (where he received his doctorate in 1890). In his first position as government physician at Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota, he treated the survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre. There he also met—and the next year married— Elaine Goodale, a poet, educator, and reformer.

A succession of positions followed with the YMCA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and he was much in demand in America and England throughout his life as an authority on Indian concerns. With his wife's assistance, Eastman began his career as a published author in 1893 with a series called "Recollections of the Wild Life" in St. Nicholas magazine. Over the next 27 years he gained increasing fame as America's distinguished Indian writer with many more articles and ten books, one of them written jointly with his wife Elaine. In addition to collaborating as writers, the couple produced six children. In 1933, Eastman was recognized by the Indian Council Fire, a national organization, with its first award for "most distinguished achievement by an American Indian."

Throughout his life, Eastman's reputation as a writer, speaker, and advocate of Indian rights rested largely on the fact that he had made the dramatic transition from the life of a traditional Sioux Indian in the wilds of Canada to the drawing rooms and lecture halls of white America. As an articulate and accomplished physician, with a dynamic wife who spoke Lakota like a native, Eastman amazed many auditors and readers. Even some Congressmen were startled, as Rob Eshman points out in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. From 1897 to 1900 Eastman was a lobbyist for the Santee Sioux Tribe in Washington, D.C. Following one presentation before a Congressional committee, the only responses from the Congressmen were, "Where did you go to school? Why are there not more Indians like you?"

Began Literary Career with Autobiography

Eastman's literary career began in earnest in 1902 with the publication of Indian Boyhood. He had previously published a handful of short pieces, mostly in Red Man and St. Nicholas magazines, but this autobiography—dedicated to his son Ohiyesa the second—appealed to a wide non-Indian public with its depiction of "the freest life in the world," as Eastman called it. It consists of his earliest recollections from childhood; tributes to Uncheedah, his paternal grandmother who reared him, and to Mysterious Medicine, his uncle who taught him the lore of a life lived close to nature; and a moving conclusion that recounts the return of his father, just released from the federal penitentiary at Davenport, Iowa.

Of his grandmother, Eastman wrote, she "was a wonder to the young maidens of the tribe." Although she was 60 years old, she cared for Eastman as if he were her own child. "Every little attention that is due to a loved child she performed with much skill and devotion. She made all my scanty garments and my tiny moccasins with a great deal of taste. It was said by all that I could not have had more attention had my mother been living." For his uncle, his father's brother, Eastman had the greatest admiration. He characterized the warrior as "a father to me for ten years of my life," a teacher with infinite patience who knew his subject—nature—thoroughly. Said Eastman, "Nothing irritated him more than to hear some natural fact misrepresented. I have often thought that with education he might have made a Darwin or an Agassiz." But Mysterious Medicine also realized that the things he knew and taught would soon lose their value. After telling Eastman the story of one of his most exciting hunting adventures, he concluded: "But all this life is fast disappearing, and the world is becoming different."

The world became shockingly different for Eastman when his father sought him out in Canada in 1873 and returned him to the United States, to Flandreau, Dakota Territory, where a group of Santees lived as homesteaders among the whites. "Here," wrote Eastman, "my wild life came to an end, and my school days began." It was an ironic reunion and return, for Eastman had thought his father dead, had pledged himself to take revenge upon the whites for that death, and now would be living among them with his father and adopting their ways.

Eastman would go on to publish the sequel to Indian Boyhood in 1916, when From the Deep Woods to Civilization appeared. In it, as Raymond Wilson concludes in Ohiyesa: Charles Eastman, Santee Sioux, Eastman presents a more realistic picture of the white world, "openly attacking the evils of white society and lamenting the sorrows Indians encountered as a result of cultural contact…." In particular, his versions of the controversies in which he was embroiled at Pine Ridge and later at Crow Creek are clearly presented in a one-sided way. In addition, the pervasive tone of innocence in Indian Boyhood is now replaced by one of frustration, expressed in its most ironic form by his comment on his years at Dartmouth College: "It was here that I had most of my savage gentleness and native refinement knocked out of me. I do not complain, for I know that I gained more than their equivalent." Above all, Eastman was profoundly depressed by the failure of Americans to practice the Christianity that they professed, so that the meek might inherit the earth and "the peacemakers receive high honor." Instead, he wrote in From the Deep Woods to Civilization, "When I reduce civilization to its lowest terms, it becomes a system of life based upon trade…"

All told, Eastman wrote ten books, and they established him as the leading apologist for his people and a storyteller of historic significance. Other titles include Red Hunters and the Animal People (1904), stories and legends for youth; Old Indian Days (1907), divided into stories about warriors and women; Smoky Day's Wigwam Evenings: Indian Stories Retold (1910), written with his wife Elaine; The Soul of the Indian (1911), the most fully developed statement of his religious beliefs; and The Indian Today: The Past and Future of the First American (1915), a review of Indian history, contributions, and problems. Eastman's last book was Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains (1918), a collection of short biographies of Sioux leaders written for young people.

Throughout the years that Charles and Elaine Eastman lived together, she served as his editorial assistant in all of his writing. Although on occasion Eastman resented some of Elaine's rewriting, she seems to have been essential to his publishing success, for after their separation in 1921 he published nothing more. What he had done by then was to contribute substantially to a better understanding by whites of Indians in general and the Sioux in particular. For Sioux readers, Wilson explained, Eastman's books "provide a bridge to self-respect … expressing their stories, beliefs, and customs in the language of White men." As a cultural bridge builder in the early twentieth century, Eastman was unequaled.

Served Sioux People in Other Capacities

Throughout his career as a writer, Eastman also served his people and the larger society in a variety of roles. His training as a physician he used on the Pine Ridge Reservation (1890-1893), in private practice in St. Paul, Minnesota (1894-1897), and at Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota (1900-1903). While in St. Paul he began to work for the YMCA, organizing chapters around the country, and from 1897 to 1900 he lobbied for the Santee Sioux. For seven years (1903-09) Eastman was engaged, at Hamlin Garland's urging, in a BIA project to re-name the Sioux, giving them legal names in order to protect their interests. In 1910 he began a lifelong association with the Boy Scouts of America, and from 1914 to 1925 he and Elaine operated a girls' camp near Munsonville, New Hampshire. In 1923 he entered the Indian service for the last time, working until 1925 as an Indian inspector on and off the reservations. The last years of his life, until his death in 1939, Eastman devoted principally to lecturing.

In the last analysis, Charles Eastman's most important contribution to American letters is as a writer of autobiography and as a preserver of Sioux Indian legends, myths, and history. As autobiography, his Indian Boyhood is without equal. As William Bloodworth concludes in Where the West Begins, nearly all other life stories by his contemporaries consist of "coup stories, stories that explain an individual's name, and narrative elements in oratory and prophecy." Moreover, Eastman is the most prolific teller of Sioux Indian myths and legends. In her essay for American Indian Quarterly, Anna Lee Stensland concludes that despite our uncertainty over which stories are tribal legends and which are Eastman's own creations, and to what degree Eastman's Christianity led him to modify incompatible Indian concepts, Eastman is still the George Bird Grinnell and Stith Thompson of his people: "In the prolific writings of Charles Eastman there is probably more Sioux legend, myth, and history than is recorded any place else."

Further Reading

Copeland, Marion W., Charles Alexander Eastman, Boise State University Western Writers Series, 1978.

Eastman, Elaine Goodale, Pratt, The Red Man Moses, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1935.

Graber, Kay, editor, Sister to the Sioux: The Memoirs of Elaine Goodale Eastman, 1885-91, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

Hassrick, Royal B., The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Meyer, Roy W., History of the Santee Sioux: United States Indian Policy on Trial, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1967.

Mooney, James, The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Prucha, Francis Paul, editor, Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the "Friends of the Indian," 1880-1900, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1973.

Riggs, Stephen R., Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux, Chicago, W.G. Holmes, 1880.

Utley, Robert M., The Last Days of the Sioux Nation, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1963.

Wilson, Raymond, Ohiyesa: Charles Eastman, Santee Sioux, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Alexander, Ruth, "Building a Cultural Bridge: Elaine and Charles Eastman," South Dakota Leaders, edited by Herbert T. Hoover and Larry J. Zimmerman, Vermillion, University of South Dakota Press, 1989; 355-66.

Alexander, "Finding Oneself through a Cause: Elaine Goodale Eastman and Indian Reform in the 1880s," South Dakota History, 22:1, Spring 1992; 1-37.

Bloodworth, William, "Neihardt, Momaday, and the Art of Indian Autobiography," Where the West Begins, edited by Arthur R. Huseboe and William Geyer, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Center for Western Studies Press, 1978; 152-60.

Eastman, Charles Alexander (Ohiyesa), "A Canoe Trip among the Northern Ojibways," The Red Man 3, February 1911; 236-44.

Eastman, Charles, "Recollections of the Wild Life," St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks 21, December 1893-May 1894.

Eastman, Charles, "Report on Sacajawea," Annals of Wyoming 13, July 1941; 187-94.

Eastman, Elaine Goodale, "All the Days of My Life," South Dakota Historical Review 2, July 1937; 171-84.

Eshman, Rob, "The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890-91," Nebraska History 26, January 1945; 26-42.

Eshman, Rob, "Stranger in the Land," Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, January/February 1981; 20-23.

Fowler, Herbert B., "Ohiyesa, The First Sioux M.D.," Association of American Indian Physicians Newsletter 4, April 1976; 1, 6.

Holm, Tom, "American Indian Intellectuals and the Continuity of Tribal Ideals," Book Forum 5.3, 1981; 349-56.

Johnson, Stanley Edwards, "The Indian Ohiyesa," Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, June 1929; 521-23.

Milroy, Thomas W., "A Physician by the Name of Ohiyesa: Charles Alexander Eastman, M.D.," Minnesota Medicine 5, July 1971; 569-72.

Oandasan, William, "A Cross-Disciplinary Note on Charles Eastman (Santee Sioux)," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 7.2, 1983; 75-78.

Stensland, Anna Lee, "Charles Alexander Eastman: Sioux Storyteller and Historian," American Indian Quarterly 3, 1977; 199-207. □

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