What boy would not be an Indian for a while when he thinks of the freest life in the world? We were close students of nature. We studied the habits of animals just as you study your books. We watched the men of our people and acted like them in our play, then learned to emulate them in our lives.
Eastman was of Santee Dakota, Anglo-American and French ancestry. Active in politics and issues on American Indian rights, he worked to improve the lives of youths, and founded thirty-two Native American chapters of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). He also helped found the Boy Scouts of America. He is considered the first Native American author to write American history from the Native point of view.
Early life and educationEastman was named Hakadah at his birth in Minnesota; his name meant "pitiful last" in Dakota. Eastman was so named because his mother died following his birth. He was the last of five children of Wakantakawin, a mixed-race woman also known as Winona (first born) or Mary Nancy Eastman. She and Eastman's father, a Santee Dakota named Wak-anhdi Ota (Many Lightnings), lived on a Santee Dakota reservation near Redwood Falls, Minnesota.
Winona, meaning first-born daughter in Dakota, was the only child of Seth Eastman, a U.S. Army officer and illustrator, and Wakháŋ Inážiŋ Wiŋ (Stands Sacred), who married at Fort Snelling in 1830. This post later developed as Minneapolis. Stands Sacred was the fifteen-year-old daughter of Cloud Man, a Santee Dakota chief of French and Mdewakanton descent. Seth Eastman was reassigned from Fort Snelling in 1832, soon after the birth of his daughter Winona (meaning "first-born daughter"). Winona was later called Wakantakawin.
In the Dakota tradition of naming to mark life passages, Hakadah was later named Ohíye S’a (Dakota: "always wins"). He had three older brothers (John, David, and James) and an older sister Mary. During the Dakota War of 1862, Ohíye S’a was separated from his father Wak-anhdi Ota and siblings, and they were thought to have died. His maternal grandmother Stands Sacred (Wakháŋ Inážiŋ Wiŋ) and her family took the boy with them as they fled from the warfare into North Dakota and Manitoba, Canada.
Fifteen years later Ohíyesa was reunited with his father and oldest brother John in South Dakota. The father had converted to Christianity, after which he took the name of Jacob Eastman. John also converted and took the surname Eastman. The Eastman family established a homestead in Dakota Territory. When Ohiyesa accepted Christianity, he took the name Charles Alexander Eastman.
His father strongly supported his sons getting an education in European-American style schools. Eastman and his older brother John attended mission and preparatory schools, and college. Eastman first attended Beloit College and Knox colleges; he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1887. He went on to medical school at Boston University, where he graduated in 1889 and was among the first Native Americans to be certified as a European-style doctor.
His older brother became a minister. Rev. John (Maȟpiyawaku Kida) Eastman was a Presbyterian missionary at the Santee Dakota settlement of Flandreau, South Dakota.
Charles Eastman worked as an agency physician for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Indian Health Service on the Pine Ridge Reservation and later at the Crow Creek Reservation, both in South Dakota. He cared for Indians after the Wounded Knee massacre. He later established a private medical practice after being forced out of his position, but was not able to make it succeed.
As they were struggling financially, his European-American wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman, encouraged him to write some of the stories of his childhood. At her suggestion (and with her editing help), he published the first two in 1893 and 1894 in St. Nicholas Magazine. It had earlier published poetry of hers. These stories were collected in his first book.
Between 1894–98, Eastman established 32 Indian groups of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), and established leadership programs and outdoor youth camps. In 1899, he helped recruit students for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which had been established as the first Indian boarding school run by the federal government.
In 1902, Eastman published a memoir, Indian Boyhood, recounting his first fifteen years of life among the Dakota Sioux during the later years of the nineteenth century. In the following two decades, he wrote ten more books, most concerned with his Native American culture. In the early 20th century, he was "one of the most prolific authors and speakers on Sioux ethnohistory and American Indian affairs."
Ruth Ann Alexander, a scholar of his wife Elaine Goodale Eastman, noted that she worked more intensively on Eastman's stories about Indian life than she was given credit. This was a way to share his life and use her literary talents; he published nothing after they separated. Carol Lea Clark viewed their collaboration this way: "together they produced works of a public popularity that neither could produce separately." These views, however, are contested because of their bias toward a European American influence in Eastman's writing. Facts, gathered through careful research, indicate that Elaine was her husband's typist, since he not only did not publish any works after their separation, but also lost his government position because he could not type his reports (Heflin p. 55). While Elaine might also have contributed by helping him edit his work, Ruth J. Heflin produces a cogent discussion of why Elaine's claims that she actually wrote his works, which she did not come forward with until after Eastman's death, ring false (see pp. 53–58).
Some of Eastman's books were translated into French, German and other European languages, and the books have enjoyed regular reprints. A selection of his writings was published recently as The Essential Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa) (2007).
Inspired by his writings, Ernest Thompson Seton sought Eastman's counsel in forming the Woodcraft Indians, which became a popular group for boys. The New York YMCA asked both Seton and Eastman to help them design the YMCA Indian Scouts for urban boys, using rooftop gardens and city parks for their activities. In 1910, Seton invited Eastman to work with him and Daniel Carter Beard, of the Sons of Daniel Boone, to found the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Luther Gulick also consulted with Eastman to assist his developing the Camp Fire Girls with his wife Charlotte.
With his fame as an author and lecturer, Eastman promoted the fledgling Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls. He advised them on how to organize their summer camps, and directly managed one of the first Boy Scout camps along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. His daughter, Irene, worked as a counselor at a Camp Fire Girl camp in Pittsburgh. In 1915, the Eastman family organized its own summer camp at Granite Lake, New Hampshire, where all the family worked for years. Charles served as a BSA national councilman for many years.
National spokesmanIn 1911, Eastman was chosen to represent the American Indian at the Universal Races Congress in London. Throughout his speeches and teachings, he emphasized peace and living in harmony with nature.
He was active in national politics, particularly in matters dealing with Indian rights. He served as a lobbyist for the Dakota between 1894 and 1897. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt assigned Eastman to help members of the Sioux (Dakota, Nakota, Lakota) to choose English legal names to prevent individuals and families from losing their allotted lands due to confusion over names. Eastman was one of the co-founders of the Society of American Indians (SAI), which pushed for freedom and self-determination for the Indian. From 1923–25, Eastman served as an appointed US Indian inspector under President Calvin Coolidge.
The Calvin Coolidge administration (1923-1929) invited Eastman to the Committee of One Hundred, a reform panel examining federal institutions and activities dealing with Indian nations. This committee recommended that the government conduct an in-depth investigation into reservation life (health, education, economics, justice, civil rights, etc.). This was commissioned through the Department of Interior and conducted by the Brookings Institution, resulting in the groundbreaking Meriam Report (1928). The findings and recommendations served as the basis of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration's New Deal for the Indian, which included the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, encouraging tribes to establish self-government according to constitutional models.
In 1925, the Bureau of Indian Affairs asked Eastman to investigate the death and burial location of Sacagawea, the young woman who guided and interpreted for the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805. He determined that she died of old age at the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming on April 9, 1884. More recently, because of newly discovered contemporary records, historians believe that she died in 1812 as a result of an illness following childbirth, at Fort Lisa (North Dakota), in what became North Dakota.
Personal lifeIn 1891, Eastman married the poet and Indian welfare activist Elaine Goodale, who was serving as Superintendent of Indian Education for the Two Dakotas. She had first taught at Hampton Institute, which then had about 100 Native American students, in addition to African Americans, and at an Indian day school in South Dakota. She supported expanding day schools on reservations for education, rather than sending Native American children away from their families to boarding schools.
The Eastmans had six children together: five daughters and a son. The marriage prospered at first, and Elaine was always interested in Indian issues. Eastman's many jobs, failure to provide financially for the family, and absences on the lecture circuit, put increasing strain on the couple. In 1903, at Elaine's request, they returned to Massachusetts, where the family was based in Amherst.
Charles was traveling extensively, and Elaine Eastman took over managing his public appearances. He lectured about twenty-five times a year across the country. These were productive years for their literary collaboration; he published eight books and she published three. She and Charles separated around 1921, following the death of their daughter Irene in 1918 from influenza during the 1918 flu pandemic. They never divorced or publicly acknowledged the separation.
Theodore Sargent, a recent biographer of Goodale, noted that Eastman gained acclaim for the nine books he published on Sioux life, whereas Elaine Eastman's seven books received little notice. Others have suggested their differing views on assimilation led to strain. Alexander said the catalyst was a rumor that Eastman had an affair with Henrietta Martindale, a visitor at their camp in 1921 and got her pregnant, after which he and Goodale separated. Although the rumor was said to have been untrue, the couple did not reconcile.
Later lifeCharles Eastman built a cabin on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, where he spent his later-year summers. He wintered in Detroit, Michigan with his only son Charles, Jr., also called Ohiyesa. On January 8, 1939 the senior Eastman died from a heart attack in Detroit at age eighty. His interment was at Evergreen Cemetery.
Elaine Goodale Eastman was close to two daughters and families who lived in Massachusetts. Another lived in New Hampshire. Goodale Eastman died in 1953 and was buried in Northampton.
Legacy and honors
- As a child, Ohiyesa had learned about herbal medicine from his grandmother. Going to medical school enabled him to draw from both sides of his heritage in becoming a doctor.
- 1933, Eastman was the first to receive the Indian Achievement Award.
- His several books document Sioux Dakota culture at the end of the nineteenth century.
- A crater on Mercury was named for him.
- In the HBO film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007), Eastman was portrayed at different ages by the actors Adam Beach and Chevez Ezaneh.