Study Guide

Charles Alexander Eastman

Charles Alexander Eastman Essay - Critical Essays

Eastman, Charles Alexander

Introduction

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 Information

The 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Henry Chester Tracy (essay date 1930)

[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, restrained English, without bitterness or unfairness, it strips away the veil of self-complacency that so often obscures a white man's view of his own culture...

(The entire section is 664 words.)

David Reed Miller (essay date 1976)

[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...

(The entire section is 3160 words.)

Anna Lee Stensland (essay date 1977)

[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...

(The entire section is 3795 words.)

Marion W. Copeland (essay date 1978)

[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...

(The entire section is 4927 words.)

Tom Holm (essay date 1981)

[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...

(The entire section is 847 words.)

Raymond Wilson (essay date 1983)

[ 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...

(The entire section is 5832 words.)

H. David Brumble III (essay date 1986)

[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.]

(The entire section is 5467 words.)

Hertha Dawn Wong (essay date 1992)

[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...

(The entire section is 4598 words.)