Charles Eastman was born on February 19, 1858 on a reservation near Redwood Falls, Minnesota. His father, Wak-anhdi Ota, was a Santee Sioux and his mother, Wakantankanwin, was the daughter of an American painter and captain in the US Army, Seth Eastman, and the great-granddaughter of a Dakota chief. The youngest of five children, Charles’ life began without his mother, who died at his birth, leaving him with the name, Hakadah, “Pitiful Last.” Later, his grandmother changed his name to Ohiyesa, “The Winner,” after Charles led his tribe’s team to a victory in lacrosse over another tribe.
After the Minnesota Uprising of the Dakota in 1862-63, Charles, his father, and an older brother settled on a homestead in South Dakota. By this time, they had converted to Christianity and taken the surname, Eastman. His father knew the value of education and sent his sons to missionary and preparatory schools. He is quoted as saying of Charles, “Here is one Sioux who will sacrifice everything to win the wisdom of the white man!” With great reluctance, in 1874, Charles walked 150 miles through the woods he had come to love to attend the Santee Normal Day School in Santee, Nebraska, where he excelled in his studies surpassing all other students. From there, he entered Beloit College at a time when anti-Native American sentiment was rampant. His first exposure to American higher education was being followed in the streets of Beloit “…by gangs of little white savages giving imitation war whoops.” While he endured this and, later, three years at Knox College in Illinois, Dartmouth was recommended to him as a small college founded for Indians and “…boasting the famous Samson Occom as an alumnus.” But first, he came here to Kimball Union where he studied for two years.
Eastman later wrote of his time here, “At Kimball Union Academy, the little ancient institution at which I completed my preparation for college by direction of President Bartlett of Dartmouth, I absorbed much knowledge of the New Englander and his peculiarities. I found Yankees of the uneducated class very Indian-like in their views and habits; a people of strong character, plain-spoken, and opinionated. However, I observed that the students of the academy and their parents were very frugal and saving. Nothing could have been more instructive to me, as we Indians are inclined to be improvident. I had been accustomed to broad, fertile prairies, and liberal ways. Here they seemed to count their barrels of potatoes and apples before they were grown. Every little brooklet was forced to do a river’s work in their mills and factories.”
At Dartmouth “…he was the captain of the rugby team, a track champion in the two-mile run, a prize orator and a popular and excellent student” and of the college, he said “…the whole village seemed touched with the spirit of learning and refinement.” And added, with irony, “…it was here I had most of my savage gentleness and native refinement knocked out of me.” Charles graduated in 1887 and received his medical degree in 1890 at age 32 from Boston University Medical School. He became the first Native American physician at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where he was known as the “Indian white doctor.” At this time, the Sioux were fasting, praying and performing “Ghost Dances” in the hopes of hastening the demise of the white man and the return of the buffalo. Unfortunately, the opposite happened as the government viewed this as an uprising and their leader, Sitting Bull, was shot dead by the army, soon followed by the Wounded Knee massacre. Charles had rushed to the site of the massacre and searched among the 300 dead for survivors and tended both the Cavalry and Indians in the reservation church. He wrote that, “All this was a severe ordeal for one who had put all his faith in the Christian love and lofty ideals of the white man.”
A 1908 Kimball Union publication featured an article by Eastman entitled, Re-Naming the Sioux Indians. According to the editor, he was “…an author of widely recognized distinction…recently…engaged in a very responsible task, that of re-naming the sturdy braves and modest squaws of the Sioux.” Charles wrote that because of land allotments, he felt it was necessary to give family names to Indians, and especially so if they were to become citizens and vote. He added this thought, “Young Copper-face, grinding beside scions of Puritan stock, who spend their Harvard years playing tag with Boston’s police or ambushing stage entrances, finds it no easier to demonstrate his theory before giggling freshmen if the professor has to call him up as ‘Mr. Drowsy Coyote.’”
Charles worried that by being educated in the white world, he would become a stranger in both, but realized that he could become a bridge between the two worlds and spent his life as a reformer in pursuit of improving relations between the two cultures. Some of his accomplishments were helping to establish 32 Native American groups of the YMCA and in 1910, he worked with Ernest Thompson Seton to help found the Boy Scouts of America. Charles worked for President Roosevelt on fairly dividing tribal lands and President Coolidge as a Native American inspector. He was the author of 11 books, seven of which are in Coffin Library at KUA. His first, Indian Boyhood, recounts his first 15 years among the Sioux.
Eastman married his assistant at Pine Ridge Reservation, Elaine Goodale, a teacher and supervisor of Native American schools in Nebraska and the Dakotas. They had two children, a son Ohiyesa, and a daughter Eleanor, who both attended, but did not graduate, from Kimball Union. In 1980, Eleanor and her nephew were interviewed by a Dartmouth student who was majoring in anthropology. His extensive article about Charles Eastman was featured in the Jan./Feb. 1981 Dartmouth Alumni Magazine where Charles was introduced as “…one of Dartmouth’s most famous graduates of the 19th century.”
Charles Eastman spent his last years living quietly in a cabin by a lake in Wisconsin where he would sometimes disappear for 30 days alone in the woods. His nephew felt he “…was out there with his religion.” He died on January 8, 1939.
Next time: May Belle Chellis, class of 1879