Ohiyesa, or Charles Alexander Eastman, led a long and fruitful life. Ohiyesa wore many hats: he was a husband, father, educator, physician, author, reformer, government employee, translator, U.S. Indian inspector, and lecturer. He was a man of two worlds, grounded in the traditional Indian way of life, but sojourning into the white man’s world to help his people.
In February 1858, Ohiyesa was born into the Lakota (Sioux) Nation, in a traditional buffalo-hide teepee, on a Santee Dakota (Lakota band) reservation near Redwood Falls, Minnesota. Ohiyesa was reared in the ancient, nomadic way of his people, yet unbounded by the white man’s society that was threatening Native Americans' very survival. Those were the days when the mighty Tatonka¹ still ruled the plains. Nomadic bands of Plains Indians followed Tatonka, living in comparative isolation from the white men who were invading their traditional lands.
At birth, Ohiyesa was named Hakadah, which means “the pitiful last." He had three brothers and a sister. Ohiyesa was the son of Face of Many Lightnings (Tawakanhdeota) and Mary Nancy Eastman. His mother died soon after his birth. Mary was the daughter of the well-known army officer and painter, Captain Seth Eastman, and Stands Sacred, the daughter of Chief Cloud Man, a leader of the Mde Wakanton band of the Eastern Sioux (Dakota).
In 1862, the Santee Dakota Rebellion erupted, the direct result of the federal government's malfeasance in its administration of the Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota. Rebellion has always been an option of a wronged people, and the Santee rebellion was no exception. Driven to general suffering, poverty, and starvation, the Santee Dakota saw no recourse but to take what they needed to survive. The sad course of actions by the government and the Santee sparked a brush fire that spread across the Great Plains, ending in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.
Hakadah's father was among a number of warriors arrested for their part in the uprising. He was sentenced to hang. Since Hakadah's mother had died, and his father and siblings were presumed to be rubbed out by the whites, the baby was taken in by his paternal grandmother and uncle.
During the rebellion, Hakadah's grandmother fled with other Santee, taking the four-year-old boy. Under the guidance of headman Standing Buffalo, they trekked to the Dakota Territory and eventually into Canada. About that time, Hakadah received the name Ohiyesa, meaning "The Winner."
Ohiyesa lived for 11 years in the traditional nomadic life of his people. While being reared in the care of his grandmother and uncle, he received the training of a young hunter, warrior, and disciplined member of the tribe.
President Abraham Lincoln pardoned Ohiyesa’s father, who was released from prison at Davenport, Iowa, in 1873. Taking his deceased wife’s surname, he called himself Jacob Many Lightnings Eastman.
A father's return, and schooling
At age 15, now a man in the eyes of his people, Ohiyesa was preparing to go on his first warpath to avenge the death of his father when the latter, Jacob Many Lightnings Eastman, reappeared. Eastman had traveled to Canada and found his son in southeastern Manitoba. Eastman had adopted the white man's religion and customs, and had come to take his son back with him. He brought Ohiyesa to Flandreau, South Dakota and began farming under the United States Homestead law.
Ohiyesa’s native life had ended, and his school days began. With his father's encouragement, Ohiyesa — now Charles Alexander Eastman — was sent to a mission day school, where his first impulse was to run away and return to the natural ways of his people. His father's words, however, overcame any resistance. Ohiyesa cut his long hair and became a model of the civilized Indian, copying the clothing and ways of the dominant white culture. He was unhappy, but applied himself to his studies.
In 1874, Charles set out on the road to higher Euro-American learning by walking 150 miles to attend the Santee Normal Training School in Santee, Nebraska. Charles excelled, and continued to study for the following 17 years, accumulating an academic record impressive even to the white people of his day.
Charles attended Beloit College from 1876 to 1879, Knox College from 1879 to 1881, Kimball Union Academy in 1882 and 1883, then Dartmouth College from 1883 to 1887. He graduated that year with a BS degree. Charles then enrolled as a medical student at Boston University. He graduated with a medical degree in 1889.
While Charles was in college, he became friendly with numerous important and passionate people who were dedicated to integrating Indians into the surrounding society. Impressed by Charles' academic accomplishments, they became a supportive resource when he sought his first job as a physician with the federal government.
In the fall of 1889, Charles Eastman found his first position with the Indian Health Service branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the (Lakota) Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. He was 32 when he accepted the appointment as a Government Physician.
Eastman had the misfortune of being present at Pine Ridge at the time of the Ghost Dance renewal movement, which the federal government feared was an uprising. The movement turned tragic when U.S. Army attacked the band of Lakota chief Big Foot, killing 300 in December 1890. Eastman was the first doctor to reach the blood-soaked field at the Wounded Knee Massacre. He cared for the wounded survivors; the experience lacerated his spirit.
Within the first few weeks of his residency at Pine Ridge, Eastman met Elaine Goodale, a social worker and the superintendent of Indian education for the reservations within the Dakota Territory. Goodale was a white woman from Massachusetts. In 1891, they married, and would produce six children.
Private practice and the YMCA
In 1893, Eastman resigned his position with the Indian Health Service and left the Pine Ridge Reservation. His family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he established a private practice, maintaining it from 1894 until about 1897. During that time, he began to write for periodicals. Writing would become a vocation.
After closing his medical practice in St. Paul, Eastman accepted a position as field secretary and organizer for the International Committee of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). He spent the following three years traveling throughout the U.S. and Canada, visiting many Indian tribes in an attempt to create new YMCAs. Eastman established 32 Indian groups of the YMCA.
From 1899 to 1900, Eastman was a student recruiter for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Beginning about 1900, he again served as a physician to the Lakota, this time at the Crow Creek Agency in South Dakota. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt assigned Eastman the task of improving the way tribal lands were allocated. Eastman worked to protect Lakota property rights and land titles through a project to institute “American" names for the Dakota and Lakota Sioux. He held the position until 1908.
Writing and traveling
Ohiyesa, or Charles Alexander Eastman, was a bi-cultural man of profound words. The catalyst for his growing vocation as a writer was his wife, Elaine, when she suggested that he write stories about his childhood for their children. In 1893, the horizons of his literary world opened up as he began to write articles for a such publications as the Chautauquan, and Harper's Magazine. In the Chautauquan, he authored a story entitled The Story of the Little Big Horn. In Harper's, he published an article titled First Impressions of Civilization. Later, some of his articles formed the catalyst for his book, Indian Boyhood. His writing became popular with children and adults, and success inspired him to write a range of books and become a lecturer on the Chautauqua circuits². Through his writing and lectures, he made it possible for the public to understand the spiritual depth and greatness of the American Indian tradition, which was vanishing quickly.
Eastman began to travel throughout the United States and abroad, lecturing on his life and the traditions and culture of Native Americans. Often when lecturing, he spoke in the tongue of his people. His genre of writing fell into three basic groups: autobiographical, philosophical, and children's stories. Indian Boyhood is the autobiographical account of his first years, his early “wild life," from living in the traditional nomadic life among the Lakota in the Canadian wilderness, to the period when his father returned and Ohiyesa joined the white man’s world. He published Indian Boyhood in 1902.
In From the Deep Woods to Civilization, published in 1916, Eastman recounted what he saw and did in the bloody aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
A man dedicated to elevating the public to an understanding about the Native American, Eastman wrote a number of thoughtful books that include, The Soul of the Indian (1911), and The Indian Today (1915).
As much as he enjoyed the success of his adult-oriented books, Eastman's original endeavor, children’s stories, still held a place in his heart. From 1904 to 1918, he published Red Hunters and the Animal People, Old Indian Days, Wigwam Evenings, Indian Child Life, Indian Scout Talks, and Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains.
A deeply rooted organization
In 1910, Charles Eastman joined forces with Ernest Thompson Seton and Daniel Carter Beard to establish an organization to teach young men self-reliance (field craft), service, and leadership skills, based in large part on American Indian traditions and culture. The organization became known as the Boy Scouts of America.
Feeling the weight of the world and severed from his native traditions and culture, Eastman arranged to spend the summer of 1910 on a sojourn with Indian peoples in northern Minnesota and southern Ontario. He returned refreshed and reconnected, with the seed of his book, The Soul of the Indian, in his heart. In 1910, Eastman became active in such organizations as the Society of American Indians, which endeavored to improve the lot of various Indian tribes, a mission that he would continue for the remainder of his life.
For five years, beginning in 1915, Charles and Elaine set up and operated a summer camp for girls, on property they had acquired in southern New Hampshire. When he was not lecturing, Eastman spent his time at the camp.
In August 1921, when Charles Eastman was 63, he and his wife separated.
In 1923, Eastman served President Calvin Coolidge and his administration as an appointee to a three-year term as an U.S. Indian inspector, and as a member of the Committee of One Hundred, a reform panel examining federal institutions and activities dealing with Indian nations. In addition, Eastman became the national spokesman for Indian concerns and aspirations. He was considered to be one of the foremost Indians of his time.
In 1928, Eastman purchased Canadian land and went to live alone in the woods in a log cabin on Lake Huron, near Desbarats, Ontario. For the remainder of his life, when he was not traveling and lecturing, advising hobbyist groups and telling his stories to rapt audiences, he lived in his primitive cabin in communion with the virgin nature that he loved so dearly.
For many years, Eastman worked on a project about the Lakota, but he died before the project was fulfilled. He translated into English a large amount of wisdom on Indian ideas, values, philosophy, and religion; it was his gift to humanity. Eastman's translations added to knowledge and understanding of the American Indian so significantly, that at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, he was honored with the first Indian Achievement Award, a special medal honoring the most distinguished achievements by an American Indian.
During his last years, he spent the coldest winter months with his son in Detroit, Michigan, where he died on January 8, 1939, at the age of 80.
² The Chautauqua Circuit was a traveling show that attracted communities to gather for several days in a festival tent setting. The circuit provided largely uneducated rural Americans with programs to educate, inspire, and entertain. The Chautauqua experience was crucial in stimulating thought and discussion on important political, social, and cultural issues, and helped to plant them in the minds of the citizens.
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