Eastman, Charles Alexander
Charles Alexander Eastman 1858-1939
(Sioux name Ohiyesa) Santee Sioux autobiographer, lecturer, and essayist.
Eastman is remembered as the author of numerous writings through which he sought to educate whites about Native American spirituality, morality, and mythology. His best-known works—among the first such Native American records to have been written rather than dictated by their subject—are the autobiographies Indian Boyhood, in which he recounts the events of his youth, and From the Deep Woods to Civilization, which chronicles his experiences as a Native American living in the United States.
Biographical InformationThe son of a Santee Sioux father and a mixed-blood Sioux mother, Eastman lived the life of a traditional Santee Sioux until the age of fifteen. His mother died shortly after his birth, and his father disappeared and was believed to have been killed in the Minnesota Massacre of 1862. Eastman, who was raised in Ontario by his paternal grandmother and uncle, was beginning his quest to become a Sioux warrior when his father unexpectedly returned. After having been held prisoner in Minnesota, he had taken the name Jacob Eastman, converted to Christianity, and remarried. Eastman went with his father to a homestead in Flandreau, North Dakota, where he was baptized, renamed, and placed in a mission school. His education among whites took place in an era of "Indian reform," during which the U.S. government and many academic institutions were dedicated to "civilizing" Native Americans through schooling and Christian teachings. An accomplished student who attended Dartmouth College and earned his medical degree from Boston University, Eastman represented the ideal Sioux to many Indian reformers, including the woman he married, Elaine Goodale, who was a dedicated assimilationist. Eastman was one of the physicians who attended to the injured and dying after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, and he was a well-known advocate for better treatment of Native Americans. He became a sought-after lecturer and public speaker and, with the help and encouragement of his wife, began publishing works in which he sought to bridge the chasm between white society and the Sioux way of life. Together they also opened wilderness camps to introduce Indian customs and culture to young white people. As Eastman found himself increasingly drawn back to the values of his boyhood, he reluctantly concluded that white society would never truly accept the wisdom of native ways and that traditional Sioux life as he had known it was over forever. His marriage—which has been called his wife's ultimate experiment in assimilation—eventually failed, and his writing career, so dependent upon his wife's involvement, also ended. Weary of the strain of being "the model Indian," Eastman gradually withdrew from public life and lived alone until shortly before his death in 1939.
Eastman began writing to provide his six children with a record of his Indian boyhood, and continued because he believed that white society could benefit from an understanding of the Sioux way of life. In Indian Boyhood, Eastman used traditional Sioux narrative forms, including legends, stories, and songs, to provide an account of the first fifteen years of his life. Later, in From the Deep Woods to Civilization, Eastman documented the difficulties associated with the assimilation process and attempted to overturn European and American stereotypes about Native Americans. His works also include several volumes of traditional tales, legends, and Native American lore, and numerous articles, many of which were published in such magazines as Boy's Life, St. Nicholas, and The Craftsman.
While many of Eastman's works evidence ambivalent and sometimes contradictory feelings about his Native American heritage, critics note that Eastman never rejected his Sioux culture. Reviewers also acknowledge that critical interpretation of Eastman's works is difficult because he often blended history with Sioux legends—in Sioux culture the significance of events is considered more important than historical facts and chronology. Nonetheless, his works are praised for promoting respect for nature and the accomplishments of Native Americans, documenting Sioux history and culture, and revealing the pain and confusion associated with assimilation.
Indian Boyhood (autobiography) 1902
Red Hunters and the Animal People (legends) 1904
Old Indian Days (legends) 1907
Wigwam Evenings: Sioux Folktales Retold [with Elaine Goodale Eastman] (legends) 1909
The Soul of the Indian (legends) 1911
Indian Scout Talks: A Guide for Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls (nonfiction) 1914; also published as Indian Scout Craft and Lore, 1974
The Indian Today. The Past and Future of the First American (nonfiction) 1915
From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of an Indian (autobiography) 1916
Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains (nonfiction) 1918
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[In the following excerpt, Tracy comments on Eastman's portrayal of Native American morality and spirituality in Indian Boyhood and The Soul of the Indian.]
[When he was fifteen, Ohiyesa] was removed entirely from the loved wild life of the west and placed in school among white boys of his own age. With them he learned to express and to shape his thoughts in words that fitted a culture not his own. But with that achievement, and with such discipline as an American college can give, he remained a believer in the integrity of the Indian spirit and the poetry of the Indian mind. His own books are proof of it, and through them is diffused the convincing loyalty of his soul to its own upbringing, and a good forest life.
I do not feel that picture he has given us in AN Indian Boyhood is idealized. A selection has been made, doubtless, of those episodes and experiences that served to shape him and which impressed him most, as well as of those tales and teachings which he was expected to remember. Perhaps there were things which he wisely forgot. Certainly there are included in the picture accounts of savage warfare and of beliefs and practices based on superstition. No Indian is presented as a saint. Many, however, are seen as brave—not merely with an animal courage—and noble according to a consistent code.…
The Soul of the Indian is an important document. Written in grave,...
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[In the following excerpt, which was first presented as a paper at the 1976 Symposium of the American Ethnological Society, Miller explores Eastman's ambivalence toward his cultural identity as evidenced in his written works.]
Since 1893, Eastman had been writing stories and remembrances of his childhood, primarily for his own children, which his wife polished and submitted to magazines like St. Nicholas and Harpers. Soon he began to gain a literary reputation, and to think of writing books. In 1900, he was appointed Agency Physician at Crow Creek Reservation, South Dakota, and in 1902 his first book, Indian Boyhood, was published. But due to political problems in 1902 he became the center of a controversial investigation, with his personal reputation at stake. He remained in government service only through the aid of Hamlin Garland, who was attempting to obtain standard surnames for Indians as a means of protecting their property rights. Garland, convinced Eastman was the man to rename the Sioux, obtained his transfer from Crow Creek to this special project. Although Eastman was occasionally lecturing and writing articles, which he assembled later as books, he worked as Renaming Clerk through 1909.
By 1910, at fifty-one years of age, Eastman remained in many ways a frustrated and disillusioned man, still not having found his "place" in life. In his restlessness, he sought some sort of...
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[Stensland is an American educator. In the following essay, she provides an overview of Eastman's works, focusing on the apparent blending of history and legend in his autobiographical works.]
Charles Alexander Eastman, the Sioux, Ohiyesa, is unique among Indian writers. No other writer moved so far culturally in a lifetime, from the tribal life of the Santee Sioux, who were in exile following the Minnesota Uprising, to the white society of Dartmouth College and Boston University Medical School, a world in which he met Matthew Arnold, Theodore Roosevelt, Longfellow, Emerson and Francis Parkman. As a result, Eastman's autobiographies, biographies, and stories are told by him as he experienced and perceived them. His Indian contemporaries, on the other hand, have provided mainly "as told to" biographies, with all of the possible misunderstandings and misinterpretations which occur when there is a recorder or editor and often a translator as well. Consider, for example, Black Elk, who told his story in Sioux to his son Ben, who then translated it into English for John Neihardt, who then reworked it into his own style.
But because Eastman lived so successfully in two such diverse cultures, a number of problems appear in his recording of history and of the Santee Sioux tribal stories. The first problem arises because he was an Indian-thinking author writing for white readers. He is often quoted as an authority for...
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[In the following excerpt, Copeland asserts that Eastman's fictional works Red Hunters and the Animal People, Old Indian Days, and Wigwam Evenings together form a traditional Sioux "vision quest" autobiography.]
Because Charles Eastman's best known book is his earliest, Indian Boyhood (1902), and because that autobiography and its sequel, From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916), have been most often used as sources for studies of the cultural transition of the Sioux, the literary value of those and of Eastman's later books has gone largely unexamined. Eastman subtitled the 1916 volume The Autobiography of an Indian, but one cannot therefore assume that the conventions of European-American autobiography control Eastman's work.
In Plains Indian Autobiographies, Lynne Woods O'Brien explains that Indian autobiography does not "limit itself to 'real' or historical events in the autobiographer's present or past life." In fact, the forms of Plains Indian autobiography suggest that the Indian's reality is quite distinct from the historical perspective of the European tradition. "Vision," for instance, "allows the autobiographer to explore his future life by spiritual means," while the war or coup story recounts what white culture would call a historical event. Chronological tracing of a life was not traditional among the Plains tribes because, in their days of...
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[In the following excerpt, Holm discusses Eastman's presentation of Sioux philosophy in his writings.]
During the early part of this century there was a nationwide interest in American Indian life. As a result, Charles A. Eastman, a Sioux graduate of Boston Medical School, published a number of books about tribal life and culture. His style was genteel and not really upsetting to non-Indians, yet he professed many tribal values and ideals that ran counter to Anglo-American economic, political and social thinking.
Eastman was initially concerned with providing proof to whites that American Indians were intellectually capable of American citizenship and should, therefore, be treated with equality. In his first book, an autobiography entitled Indian Boyhood, he emphasized the idea that Indian people learned and had the capacity to be taught even while in transition from "savagery" to "civilization." Indian cultures, however, were different and the Indian child was taught according to the dictates of his own society. In many ways Eastman anticipated the acceptance of cultural pluralism as a social ideal.
In terms of technological knowledge, Eastman most often gave the edge to Western European civilization. He lived in an era when people were convinced that industrialization held the answer to the problems of mankind. But when the conservation movement began to show a wide-spread popular...
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[ Wilson is an American educator whose major area of research and writing is nineteenth-and twentieth-century Indian and white relations. In the following excerpt, he discusses Eastman's work as a writer and lecturer.]
Charles Eastman made his greatest impact on society as a writer and lecturer. He originally intended to preserve a written record of his Indian childhood for his children. After moving his burgeoning family to St. Paul in 1893, Eastman began to record his thoughts and recollections. Elaine [Goodale Eastman] read what her husband had written and persuaded him to send these earliest sketches of his childhood to St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks for possible publication. They were immediately accepted and were serialized in six installments. These articles would later be incorporated in his first book, Indian Boyhood, published in 1902. The six serialized articles were his first publications. In years to come he wrote many additional articles and eleven books (two of which were combinations of others and were published as special school editions).
Although all of these books except Wigwam Evenings: Sioux Folk Tales Retold (1909) and Smoky Day's Wigwam Evenings: Indian Stories Retold (1910) bore only Eastman's name, he acknowledged his wife's collaboration. Indeed, she served as his principal editor. "Dr. Eastman's books left his hand," Elaine...
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[Brumble is an American educator, editor, and translator who has written numerous works about Native American autobiographies. In the following excerpt, he discusses latenineteenth century Social Darwinism, evolutionary thinking, and their influence on Eastman and his writings.]
Charles Alexander Eastman is the first Indian author who tried self-consciously to write autobiography after the modern, Western fashion (aside from the few Indians like George Copway, Samson Occom, and William and Mary Apes who wrote...
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[In the following excerpt, Wong examines the ways in which Eastman's personal bicultural tension is revealed through the tone, syntax, and content of his autobiographies, Indian Boyhood and From the Deep Woods to Civilization.]
When his mother died shortly after his birth (1858) in the woodlands of southwest Minnesota, Hadakah (The Pitiful Last) was raised in the traditional Santee Sioux ways by his paternal grandmother (Uncheedah) and his uncle. A few years later, as an honor for his band's triumph in a lacrosse game, he was awarded the name Ohiyesa (The Winner). In 1862, when Ohiyesa was four years old, the first of three life-changing events occurred. Having been denied their rightful government annuities, factions of the starving Minnesota Sioux killed several hundred white settlers in what is now called the Minnesota Sioux Conflict. Believing Ohiyesa's father, Many Lightnings, had been arrested and executed by Euro-Americans, the rest of the family fled to Ontario, Canada. There Ohiyesa spent the next eleven years in the woods of the Turtle Mountains learning to be a hunter and a warrior in the pre-contact ways of his people.
At the age of fifteen, when Ohiyesa was just about ready to go on his vision quest, Many Lightnings appeared, as if returned from the dead, to take his son back to the United States to learn the ways of the whites. From this time on, Ohiyesa, soon to become Charles Eastman, had...
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Faris, John T. "Out of an Indian Tepee: The Wonderful Story of Charles A. Eastman." In his Men Who Conquered, pp. 57-68. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1922.
Romanticized account of Eastman's Santee Sioux childhood significant for its representation of early twentieth-century popular cultural sentiment toward Native Americans.
Wilson, Raymond. Ohiyesa: Charles Eastman, Santee Sioux. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983, 219 p.
The most complete scholarly overview of Eastman's life and work.
Additional coverage of Eastman's life and career is contained in the following source published by Gale Research: Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children.
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