In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Charles Eastman

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Correspondence

American Literature Charles Eastman
Kathleen Washburn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0140


Charles Eastman (b. 1858–d. 1939)was a member of Wahpeton band of the Santee Sioux (Dakotas). When his mother Wakantakawin or Mary Nancy Eastman died soon after childbirth, her son was named Hakadah or “the pitiful last”; he later earned the name Ohiyesa or “winner.” After his father was captured and presumed dead in the US –Dakota War of 1862, Ohiyesa traveled with family members to Canada. At fifteen, he learned that his father Jacob Eastman (formerly Many Lightnings) had survived and converted to Christianity. Ohiyesa moved to Flandreau, South Dakota, with his father and took the name Charles Alexander Eastman. He attended Santee Normal School, Beloit College, and Knox College before graduating from Dartmouth College in 1887. Eastman went on to study medicine at Boston University and accepted a position as agency physician at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1890, shortly before military troops killed more than 300 Native people at nearby Wounded Knee Creek. Eastman includes an account of the aftermath of the massacre in From the Deep Woods to Civilization. In 1891 he married Elaine Goodale, a white supervisor of Indian schools; she later collaborated with her husband on several of his published works. Although Eastman sought to establish a career in medicine, he garnered more success as a lecturer on Indian reform and a popular writer. He eventually published fourteen books, including autobiographical texts, philosophical studies, and several collections of “Sioux tales” for children. He was a founding member of the Society of American Indians, later serving as the organization’s president, and represented American Indians at the Universal Races Congress in London in 1911. In addition to his public role in debates about Indian boarding schools and allotment policy during a long and varied career, Eastman also was active in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Boy Scout movement and operated a summer camp for girls. Scholars in history, literature, and indigenous studies address Eastman’s life and leadership during a period of tremendous change for Native communities. His high-profile career is significant in relation to debates about American Indians in popular culture, indigenous sovereignty and federal Indian law, and the increased role of print culture in Native communities, including Indian boarding school narratives and the connections between English-language texts and Dakota contexts.

General Overviews

Dismissed by many early scholars as a product of cultural assimilation and mouthpiece for white reformers, Eastman now serves as a key figure in recent critical reconsiderations of indigenous literature and performance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Martínez 2009, the first book-length critical study of Eastman, offers the most comprehensive and significant examination of his writing and varied career. Holm 2005 is a general introduction to key figures and moments in Progressive Era debates about Indian reform, useful for students at all levels. Warrior 1994, a landmark study in reclaiming indigenous historical voices and traditions, is more skeptical about the political and intellectual legacy of the “Red Progressives”; in a similar vein, Hoxie 2001 emphasizes the recovery of Native history but traces Eastman’s eventual disillusionment with American ideals. In contrast, Vizenor 1998 champions Eastman as a lecturer, writer, and advocate for American Indian causes during a period dominated by discourses of Native loss and tragedy; his theory of “survivance” continues to impact scholarship across disciplines. Deloria 2004 uses an accessible writing style to survey new forms of indigenous modernity in the early 20th century in fields such as film, sports, and music, and Powell 2008 situates Eastman’s writing in a broader history of imperial archives.

  • Deloria, Philip J. Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

    Broad study of American Indians working individually and in cohorts in areas such as science, sports, and film in the early 20th century. Seeks to recover a sense of agency for such figures as cultural producers often working against popular expectations about Native people as out of place in the modern world.

  • Holm, Tom. The Great Confusion in Indian Affairs: Native Americans and Whites in the Progressive Era. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

    Overview of the “transitional” period for Native Americans in Progressive Era Reform Movements with attention to Eastman as public leader committed to indigenous peoplehood; emphasizes Eastman’s interest in “outdoor living” as healthy relationship to land. Useful general introduction.

  • Hoxie, Frederick. “‘Thinking Like an Indian’: Exploring American Indian Views of American History.” Reviews in American History 29.1 (2001): 1–14.

    DOI: 10.1353/rah.2001.0011

    As part of disciplinary shift in history to include American Indian voices, links Eastman to William Apess and D’Arcy McNickle as key figures in indigenous advocacy; tracks Eastman’s “moralistic” critique of American culture as the movement “from faith to disillusionment” (p. 8).

  • Martínez, David. Dakota Philosopher: Charles Eastman and American Indian Thought. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009.

    Invaluable book-length study of Eastman’s family history, public advocacy, and writing career in terms of indigenous and Dakota Contexts. Claims that Eastman wrote to diverse audiences for the purpose of “promoting and preserving an understanding of the Dakota worldview” (p. 28). Addresses Eastman’s attention to Dakota–Ojibwe relations and the 1862 US–Dakota War.

  • Powell, Malea. “Dreaming Charles Eastman: Cultural Memory, Autobiography, and Geography in Indigenous Rhetorical Histories.” In Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Edited by Gesa Kirsch and Liz Rohan, 115–127. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 2008.

    In a collection on research and cultural memory, Powell reflects on the archive as imperial project and its relationship to indigenous forms of knowledge and lived experience, drawing on Eastman’s letters in the Newberry Library as an example for indigenous people to “write back” through connection as well as protest.

  • Vizenor, Gerald. Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

    Major theoretical text that refutes a tragic critical narrative of Eastman in favor of a sense of indigenous “active presence,” even after the Wounded Knee massacre. Commends Eastman’s autobiographical works for enacting “survivance” as the “active repudiation of dominance, tragedy, and victimry” (p. 15) in the context of Progressive Era Reform Movements.

  • Warrior, Robert. Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

    Influential critical text for indigenous studies as interdisciplinary field. Links Eastman as “secular assimilationist” (4) to the “blinding progressivistic optimism” (7) of the Society of American Indians, but also calls for serious and sustained critical engagement with Early-20th-Century Native American Writing and the intellectual legacy of such political projects.

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