Charles Alexander Eastman Critical Essays

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.