| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Charles Alexander Eastman (Sioux)
What's in a name? In the case of Charles Eastman, a complicated story of cross cultural relations. Born in 1858, he was given the name Hakadah ("Pitiful Last"), because his mother soon died. Raised in the culture of the Santee Sioux, at the age of four he was given a new name, Ohiyesa ("The Winner"), after his village won a game of lacrosse. Eastman was in more ways than one a champion, but he would also face more than his share of losses.
Tensions between encroaching whites and Indians in Minnesota were mounting, and the failure of the U.S. government to adhere to its treaty obligations created a desperate situation. In 1862 some Sioux rebelled, killing a number of settlers. When the U.S. Army put down the insurrection, some three hundred Sioux were imprisoned and sentenced to die—including Eastman's father, Many Lightnings. His uncle and grandmother escaped with other Santee into the "deep woods" of Canada. His uncle gave Ohiyesa a warrior's education, preparing him to take revenge.
But in 1873 Ohiyesa's father reappeared, as if back from the dead. Abraham Lincoln had commuted his sentence to a term in prison, where he had converted to Christianity. The elder Eastman now read the Bible and took up the plow, following a model that reformers had advocated for hunting-and-gathering Indians. To symbolize the change, he adopted the last name of his deceased wife Mary Eastman, whose father was a white soldier. He expected his son to follow in his footsteps along this new path, and thus Ohiyesa journeyed with him to his farm in South Dakota and was there christened Charles Eastman.
Eastman began his cultural re-education by going to a nearby missionary-run school, where he soon excelled. Reversing the westward route of manifest destiny, he then traveled ever eastward from school to school—Beloit in Wisconsin, Knox in Illinois, Dartmouth in New Hampshire, and finally Boston University, where he earned a medical degree in 1890. He was then ready to go back to the West to serve his people at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota, where he became known as the "white doctor who is an Indian."
In 1890, the Ghost Dance religion was spreading among the Sioux. Following the vision of the prophet Wovoka, some Sioux believed that if the Ghost Dance was performed, whites would vanish, the buffalo would return, and Indian land, life, and culture would be restored. Attempting to quell this millenarian movement, the army ended up massacring approximately 200 men, women, and children at Wounded Knee. Although Eastman had adopted much of what the white world offered, the sight of so many brutalized bodies shattered the idea that white society represented only light and progress.
Many reformers of his day clung to this idea and tried to convince both Native Americans and whites that native cultures were inferior and backward. They espoused a "Kill the Indian and save the man" philosophy, believing that the only way Indians could survive in modern America was to wash their hands of the old ways and completely assimilate. Reformers often held up educated Native Americans like Eastman as confirmation of their views. While Eastman's life proved that American Indians could succeed on the white man's terms, he himself insisted that Native American culture was valuable in its own right and, further, that it had much to offer modern America. While the missionaries believed that Christianity would civilize the "savage," Eastman held that Indians could educate white Americans on how to become truly civilized and spiritual. His motto could have been "Save the Indian and save the American."
Interestingly, he found a receptive audience among white Americans. As the country stepped up the pace of industrialization, many people became unsettled in the increasingly urbanized landscape. Seeking a kind of therapy for the anxieties of the machine age, many turned to Native Americans to try to reconnect with nature and recover a soul seemingly being exhausted by smokestack America.
Much of what Eastman wrote responded to this desire. His wife, Elaine Goodale, a poet and writer whom he had met at Pine Ridge in 1890 when she was serving as a supervisor of Indian education, encouraged his literary efforts. In 1902, in Indian Boyhood, he told the story of the years before his introduction to white education. With the editorial help of his wife he wrote several other popular works, becoming a leading light in the Boy Scout movement and lecturing widely. In books such as The Soul of an Indian (1911) and his autobiographical From Deep Woods to Civilization (1916), Eastman acted as a spokesperson, explaining Native American culture to white America. In the process of explaining, though, he was also creating, for, as he well knew, there was no single Indian culture. Eastman was helping forge a pan-Indian identity that could both command the respect of whites and offer a vantage point from which to criticize the materialism and other drawbacks of mainstream American culture. The traditional ways and wisdom he celebrated were thus reinvented for a new audience, a new time, and a new purpose.
Eastman's legacy is perhaps best illustrated by the work he did between 1903 and 1909 to standardize the family names of the Sioux. This project involved more than simple translation from Lakota into English, because the Sioux followed a different cultural logic in their naming than did the dominant society. Eastman had to negotiate between two cultures in order to create a synthesis that was somehow true to both sides. This was the sort of challenge Eastman faced his whole life; and because he met this particular one, his people gave him a new and most appropriate appellation: Name Giver. Through his writing and other work, Eastman made a name both for himself and for Indian people at a time when they otherwise might have been deleted from the rolls of the nation.
Douglas C. Sackman|
University of Puget Sound
In the Heath Anthology
from The Deep Woods to Civilization
Chapter VII: "The Ghost Dance War"
from The Soul of the Indian
Chapter I: "The Great Mystery"
Red Hunters and the Animal People
Old Indian Days
Wigwam Evenings (with Elaine Goodale Eastman)
Indian Child Life
Indian Scout Talks
The Indian To-Day
Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
Dr. Charles A. Eastman Ohiyesa (Winner) Wahpeton Dakota
Indigenous Peoples' Literature
Links to Eastman's work, including reflections on numerous Native American chiefs.
Native American M.D., Author
Focuses on Eastman's contribution to medicine.
"Charles Alexander Eastman: Santee Sioux, 1958-1939," American Indian Intellectuals, Margot Liberty, ed., 1978
Philip Deloria, Playing Indian, 1998
Frederick Hoxie, "Exploring a Cultural Borderland: Native American Journeys of Discovery in the Early Twentieth Century," Journal of American History (December 1992)
Frances Karttunen, Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors, 1994
James D. McLaird, "From Deep Woods to Civilization: Charles Alexander Eastman, Dakota Author," Dakota Book News, 13 (1968):1-1
David Reed Miller, "Charles Alexander Eastman: One Man's Journey in Two World," M.A. Thesis, University of South Dakota, 1976
Bo Scholer, "Images and Counter-images: Ohiyesa, Standing Bear and American Literature," American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 5 (1981)
Anna Lee Stensland, "Charles Alexander Eastman: Sioux Storyteller and Historian," American Indian Quarterly, 3 (Autumn 1977):199-208
Robert Allen Warrior, "Reading American Indian Intellectual Traditions," World Literature Today, 66 (1992):236-240
Raymond Wilson, Ohiyesa: Charles Eastman, Santee Sioux, 1983
Hertha Wong, Sending My Heart Back Across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography, 1992
"The Writing of Ohiyesa-Charles Alexander Eastman, M.D., Santee Sioux," South Dakota History, 6 (1975):55-73