Mahpiyawakankidan/John Eastman

“I have a young man, a Dakota, I wish to send to Beloit this fall to spend a year. His name is John Eastman. He is very studious, quiet, and orderly...He knows a good deal of English and is now ready to profit by a year among white people.” - Alfred Riggs

Rev. Mahpiyawakankidan/John Eastman (1849-1921)

Credit: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institute 

John Eastman was Beloit College’s first Native American student. A Santee Sioux from Redwood Falls, Minnesota, he was thirteen when he and his father Tawakanhdiota fled to Canada to escape what would later be known as the Dakota War of 1862. However, they were captured by military forces two years later and sent to a prison in Davenport, Iowa without trial or conviction. 

It was at the prison where Eastman would meet Rev. Stephen Riggs, who would later baptize him and Tawakanhdiota. With the persuasion of Riggs, President Lincoln pardoned the Eastmans, who then moved to the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation in South Dakota in 1866.

Camp Kearney in Davenport, Iowa, where John and his brother were kept for two years. The prison can be seen at the top left.

Credit: Minnesota Historical Society 

A letter to President Chapin from Alfred Riggs about wishing to send John Eastman to Beloit. 

Credit: Beloit College Archives

In 1870, Eastman walked 175 miles from Flandreau to the Santee Normal Training School to become one of the first to study under Alfred Riggs. 

 

Seeking to further assimilate his newest pupil, Riggs wrote to Aaron Chapin, then president of Beloit College, where Riggs’s younger brother Thomas had recently graduated from. The reverend, having already discussed the matter with Professors William Porter and Jackson Bushnell, asked Chapin to enroll Eastman in the college’s preparatory school. 

Riggs felt that at Beloit, Eastman could improve upon his English and “get an idea of Christian civilization” so the young boy could sooner become “a leader among [the Dakota] in things spiritual.” 

 

Chapin agreed to host Eastman, and under the sponsorship of Alfred’s father Stephen, Eastman attended Beloit’s preparatory school from 1871-1872.

Eastman as a student at Beloit.

Credit: Beloit College Archives

Eastman—along with fellow Beloit alumni Eli Abraham and James Garvie—wrote to President Grover Cleveland to express their displeasure with the 1887 ruling banning Native American languages from being taught in boarding school classrooms.

Credit: Beloit College Archives

After Beloit, Eastman returned to the Santee Normal Training School as an assistant teacher under Riggs. There, he would teach his brother Charles before returning home to Flandreau to teach at the River Bend Indian Day School. 

 

Shortly thereafter, Eastman became the pastor for Flandreau’s Presbyterian church, a position he held for 30 years. Known as an intelligent and gifted speaker, Eastman also served as the Reservation’s Indian agent. In this position, he represented the interests of Flandreau for the Office of Indian Affairs.

As an agent, he joined his brother Charles and fellow Beloit alum James Garvie in 1896 to represent the Flandreau and Santee Sioux in federal court. The three fought for money owed to their tribes, money Congress failed to give as punishment for the Dakota War of 1862—the same conflict Eastman fled from as a child. 

 

As his case in front of Congress lingered on, Eastman served as a Dakota missionary for four different states. He died in 1921 at the age of seventy-two at the Sisseton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, three years before Congress conceded the money to his tribe.

Eastman as a Flandreau agent in 1879.

Credit: University of Minnesota Libraries

Background Image:  John Eastman (middle) with Yankton tribesman Isaac Omaha (left) and Owohenupa tribesman David Zephier in 1896.

Credit: Public Domain