Charles Alexander Eastman, aka: Ohiyesa (1858-1939) – A Santee Dakota Indian, Eastman was known as Ohiyesa, meaning “the winner” to his people. He was born in 1858 near Redwood Falls, Minnesota of full-blood Sioux, Many Lightnings, and the half-blood daughter of a well-known army officer. His mother died soon after his birth and he was raised by his paternal grandmother and an uncle.
After the Minnesota massacre in 1862, the family fled to Canada where he lived until the age of 15. At that time, his father, who had accepted Christianity and had become “civilized,” came for him and brought the teenage boy to his home in Flandreau, South Dakota. There, several Sioux families had established themselves as farmers and homesteaders. Ohiyesa was then placed in the mission school at Santee, Nebraska, where he made so much progress in a two year period that he was selected for a more advanced course and sent to Beloit College, in Beloit, Wisconsin.
He would later attend Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and Kimball Academy and Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1887 and immediately entered the Boston University School of Medicine, where he received an M.D. degree in 1890.
Dr. Eastman was then appointed as the government physician to the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota, a position he held for almost three years. When he returned to the reservation, 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 a Paiute Indian named Wovoka, the spiritual movement gave hope to Native Americans when conditions were bad on Indian reservations. Wovoka’s vision prophesized that if the Ghost Dance was performed, whites would vanish, the buffalo would return, and Indian land, life, and culture would be restored. When the dance spread to the Lakota, the Indian Agents became alarmed. Attempting to quell the movement, the army massacred approximately 200 men, women, and children at Wounded Knee. Eastman was the only physician to care for those who survived.
In 1891, Charles married Elaine Goodale of Massachusetts, a poet and Indian welfare activist. The couple would eventually have six children. In 1893 he moved his family to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he started a private practice. Unfortunately, the practice was not successful and financially struggling, his wife encouraged him to write some of the stories of his childhood. He published his first two articles in 1893 and 1894 in St. Nicholas Magazine.
In the next four years, Eastman was involved in establishing 32 Indian groups of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and in 1899, helped recruit students for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Continuing to write, Eastman published a memoir entitled Indian Boyhood in 1902, which recounted his first fifteen years of life among the Sioux. During the next 20 years, he would write ten more books, most concerned with his Native American culture.
His writings and work with the YMCA, prompted the founders of the Boy Scouts of America to request his assistance. With his fame as an author and lecturer, Eastman was instrumental in promoting that group, as well as the Camp Fire Girls. Providing advice to both groups on how to organize their summer camps, he directly managed one of the first Boy Scout camps along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. In 1915, the family organized its own summer camp at Granite Lake, New Hampshire, where the entire family worked for a number of years.
During these years, Eastman was also active in national politics, particularly in matters dealing with Indian rights and often acted as an attorney for the Sioux at Washington. He also was one of the co-founders of the Society of American Indian (SAI), which pushed for freedom and self-determination for the Indian. In 1921, he and his wife, Elaine, separated; but, were never legally divorced nor publicly acknowledged the separation.
From 1923-25, Eastman served as an appointed US Indian inspector under President Calvin Coolidge. His recommendations would later serve as the basis of the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal for the Indian, which sought freedom and self-determination for them.
In later years, Eastman built a cabin on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, where he spent his summers, and wintered in Detroit with his only son Charles, Jr., also called Ohiseya. On January 8, 1939 Charles Eastman, Sr. died in Detroit of a heart attack at the age of 80.
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April, 2017.
Writings by Charles Alexander Eastman
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