"[Ohiyesa/Charles Eastman] had not been in school as long as the white boys, but none of us could equal him in mathematics...He was in my algebra class, and none of us could hold a candle to him in that study."
- Roger Leavitt, Class of 1882 in a 1903 issue of The Round Table
Ohiyesa/Charles Eastman (1858-1939)
Credit: Smithsonian Institute
Eighteen-year-old Charles Eastman was finishing his second year at the Santee Normal Training School in 1876 when Alfred Riggs approached him. The reverend was impressed by his student’s performance in the classroom and suggested that he continue his studies at Beloit College’s preparatory school.
Charles accepted the opportunity and left for Beloit that September. He later wrote about his arrival in one of his autobiographies:
When I reached Beloit on the second day of my pilgrimage, I found it beautifully located on the high, wooded banks of Black Hawk’s picturesque Rock River. The college grounds covered the site of an ancient village of mound-builders...I was taken to President Chapin’s house, and after a kindly greeting, shown to my room in South College.
A letter to President Aaron Chapin from Alfred Riggs about wishing to send Eastman to Beloit.
Credit: Beloit College Archives
Eastman as a student at Dartmouth.
Credit: Dartmouth College Library
Eastman found a great deal of academic success at Beloit, where he stayed until 1879 before transferring to Knox College. He later transferred to Dartmouth College, where he was a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and captain of the football team. He graduated from Dartmouth with honors in 1887 at the age of twenty-nine, and two years later, graduated from Boston University’s medical school to become among the first Native Americans to be certified in Western medicine.
The Office of Indian Affairs hired Eastman to serve as a physician at the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he cared for the injured during the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. After trying to help the Sioux prove crimes against the Office of Indian Affairs, Eastman was fired in 1893 and forced into private practice.
Eastman then became a field secretary for the YMCA. He spent the next three years establishing 32 chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada. During this time, he also served as a lobbyist for the Dakota people, joining his brother John and fellow Beloit alum James Garvie to represent the Santee Sioux in federal court in 1897.
His work as an activist continued in 1911 when he helped establish the Society of American Indians. The first Native American rights organization run for and by Natives, it helped pass the 1924 Indian Citizenship Law, which granted citizenship to Native Americans born in the U.S.
Eastman in 1897.
Credit: University of Minnesota Libraries
Eastman with members of the Boy Scouts of America.
Credit: Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian (2018 film)
Eastman was also heavily involved in outdoor education, believing he could recast Indian culture by instilling Dakota values and ideas about the environment into the country’s youth. In 1910, Eastman co-founded the Boy Scouts of America, later serving as one of its national councilmen for a number of years. He was also a main consultant for the Camp Fire Girls of America, and from 1915-1920, ran Camp Oahe, a summer camp for girls in Granite Lake, New Hampshire.
During his lifetime, Eastman wrote a total of eleven books. His career as an author was successful and brought him international recognition. Eastman is often considered the first Native American author to write American history from a Native perspective, and his books challenged his contemporaries' stereotypes. In honor of his contributions to literature, NASA named a crater on Mercury after Eastman in 2011.
Eastman also found fame as a lecturer, traveling across the country at conferences to speak on indigenous issues. He also worked with President Theodore Roosevelt to prevent Sioux tribal members from losing their land, and he later served as the US Indian Inspector from 1923-1925 under the Coolidge administration.
Eastman died in Detroit in 1939 at the age of eighty. While his work as a reformer, activist, and spokesman has been subject to historical criticism, he nevertheless remains one of the most influential American Indians of his time.
Eastman in 1927.
Credit: Minnesota Historical Society
Click the links below to read Eastman's most renowned works, as well as links to the award-winning 2007 film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—which portrays Eastman's time at Pine Ridge— and Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian, a 2018 documentary following one of Eastman's relatives as she examines his life.
Background Image: Charles Eastman teaching archery at Camp Oahe in 1916.
Credit: Jones Public Library, Amherst, Massachusetts