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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Regional Realism Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa) (1858-1939)

[1089] John S. (Jack) Coldwell, Jr., U.S. allotting surveyor and his interpreter making an American citizen of Chief American Horse, Oglala Sioux (c. 1907), courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Department.

A Santee Sioux, physician, government agent, and spokesperson for Indian rights, Charles Alexander Eastman was also the first well-known, widely read Native American author. A fully acculturated Indian, Eastman worked to create understanding between Native Americans and Euro-Americans and sometimes found himself in the conflicted position of being caught between the two cultures. His writing resonates with his efforts both to make Indian traditions accessible to a white audience and to define his own identity as an Indian and as an American.

Eastman was separated from his parents at an early age when their tribe fled to Canada after the ill-fated Minnesota Dakota conflict. His father, Many Lightnings, was presumed dead so Eastman was given a traditional Sioux upbringing by his uncle and his grandmother. In 1869, however, Eastman found out that his father was not dead but had, in fact, changed his name to Jacob Eastman, adopted Euro-American customs, and converted to Christianity. Changing his son’s name from Ohiyesa to Charles Alexander, Jacob Eastman took the boy from the Sioux community in Canada and raised him on a farm in South Dakota. With his father’s encouragement, Eastman received a Euro-American education and eventually earned a degree from Dartmouth and an M.D. from Boston University.

In 1890 Eastman accepted what would be the first of many positions with the U.S. government, becoming an agency physician at the Sioux reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. There he witnessed the aftermath of the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee, in which many Sioux who had participated in the Ghost Dance religion were killed or injured in a raid by the U.S. Army. While at Pine Ridge, Eastman met and married Elaine Goodale, a reservation teacher and social worker. The couple soon relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Eastman practiced medicine and eventually held other government jobs, at one point heading a federal project to give Anglicized surnames to Sioux Indians. In the early twentieth century, Eastman also helped establish the “scouting movement” in the United States, infusing the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts with his interpretations of Native American culture.

With his wife’s substantial editorial assistance, Eastman embarked on a successful literary career in 1900. His account of his traditional Sioux childhood, Indian Boyhood, was an enormous success and was reprinted at least ten times within his lifetime. He also published several collections of traditional Sioux lore and history, making traditional Native American animal tales accessible to a white audience. He advanced his interpretations of Indian spirituality and culture in The Soul of the Indian and The Indian Today. His moving autobiography, From the Deep Woods to Civilization, chronicles his experiences in the “white world” and among the Sioux at Pine Ridge. In 1921 Eastman separated from his wife, who, according to many scholars, had a significant role in the writing and editing of his work. He did not publish again in his lifetime. Although he continued to lecture and occasionally became involved in various Indian causes, Eastman spent most of the end of his life in seclusion in a remote cabin in Ontario.

Teaching Tips

  • In Chapters VI and VII of From the Deep Woods to Civilization, Eastman narrates the development of the Ghost Dance religion among the Sioux. Explain to your students that the Ghost Dance was a Native American response to Euro-American encroachments on their land and way of life. A powerful apocalyptic vision of the overthrow of white domination and a return to traditional Native American ways, the Ghost Dance sparked a pan-Indian, intertribal movement that frightened white authorities with its intensity. Started by the Paiute prophet Wovoka, who believed himself to be a Messianic figure, the Ghost Dance involved adopting traditional clothing and customs, singing and chanting traditional songs, and participating in a trance-inducing round dance designed to inspire dead Indian ancestors to return and reclaim their land. The movement ended tragically when white authorities killed 150 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee for their involvement in the Ghost Dance religion. After you give students this background information, ask them to evaluate Eastman’s account of the Ghost Dance and the massacre at Wounded Knee. With whom are his sympathies? How does he portray the development of the Ghost Dance? How does he portray the massacre at Wounded Knee? What is his own relationship to the movement?
  • In the opening sentences of Chapter VI, Eastman explains his own, somewhat liminal position on the Pine Ridge Agency: “In 1890 a ‘white doctor’ who was also an Indian was something of a novelty.” Ask students to analyze Eastman’s characterization of his own identity. Why does he describe himself as a “white” doctor? Why does he put quotation marks around the word “white”? What problems are inherent in perceiving himself as simultaneously “white” and “also an Indian”?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is Eastman’s relationship to the other Sioux Indians at the Pine Ridge Agency? What kinds of distinctions does he perceive among the various Indians he encounters there? How do his education and upbringing set him apart? What kind of relationship does he have with non-Indian authorities at the Agency?
  2. Comprehension: What was the Ghost Dance religion? How does Eastman represent it in his autobiography?
  3. Context: Read Eastman’s representation of the traditional Sioux tale “Turtle Story,” featured in the archive. How does Smoky Day, the wise Indian narrator of the story, compare to Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus? How does the tale itself compare to Uncle Remus’s stories? What kinds of skills does the turtle rely on? How does he compare to the animal figures in the Remus stories?
  4. Exploration: Eastman helped establish the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, establishing summer camps that he advertised as directed by a “real Indian” and publishing “Scout Books” on such topics as how to make tepees and canoes. He seemed invested in providing white children with “Indian” experiences in the outdoors. Why might Eastman have been interested in transmitting his interpretation of Native American culture in this way? How effective do you think the scouting movement has been in educating Euro-American children about Native American customs? Where do you see similar kinds of interest in (and commodification of) Indian culture at work in American society today?

Selected Archive Items

[1061] Anonymous, Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses (Tashun-Kakokipa), Oglala Sioux; standing in front of his lodge, Pine Ridge, South Dakota (1891),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Still Picture Branch.
Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses initially resisted white encroachment into Lakota lands. In the late 1870s, realizing that the survival of his people was at stake, he became a friend to the whites and the president of the Pine Ridge Indian Council.

[1089] John S. (Jack) Coldwell, Jr., U.S. allotting surveyor and his interpreter making an American citizen of Chief American Horse, Oglala Sioux (c. 1907),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Department.
According to the U.S. government and the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, assimilation, or cultural conversion to European American ways of life, was the “ideal” goal for Native Americans. For some, compliance with U.S. policies meant the privileges of citizenship. But it was not until 1924 that the United States officially granted all Native Americans U.S. citizenship.

[1843] J. N. Choate, Sioux boys as they were dressed on arrival at the Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 10/5/1879 (1879),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Still Pictures Branch.
The mission of the Carlisle Indian School was to rid Indian children of their traditional ways and to “civilize” them for assimilation into white culture.

[4219] Western Photograph Company, Gathering up the dead at the battlefield of Wounded Knee, South Dakota (1891),
courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
U.S. soldiers standing in front of a wagon full of dead Sioux. A blizzard delayed the burial of the dead. Eventually the Sioux were buried in a mass grave, with little effort made to identify the bodies.

[7418] Anonymous, Boy’s moccasins, Lakotah (n.d.),
courtesy of the New York State Historical Association, Thaw Collection.
Reservation period (post-1880) beadwork on these dress moccasins shows how the American flag motif was incorporated into Native American design.

[8507] Charles Eastman, “Turtle Story” (1909),
courtesy of Wigwam Evenings, Sioux Folk Tales.
This collection of Sioux tales by Eastman and his wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman, contains twenty-seven Sioux narratives, including creation stories and animal legends.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6