Charles Alexander Eastman was born in a buffalo hide tipi near Redwood Falls, Minnesota in the winter of 1858. At birth, he was named Hakadah – the pitiful last – because he was the last of his three brothers and one sister, and his mother died shortly after his birth. She was the granddaughter of the Sioux chief Cloud Man and the daughter of Stands Sacred and a well-known army officer, Seth Eastman.
In his early youth, he received the name Ohiyesa (Oh ee suh) – the Winner.
Hakadah’s father was named Many Lightnings – Tawakanhdeota. He was a full-blood Sioux and later took the name Jacob Eastman.
Since Hakadah’s mother had died, he was raised in the tribe’s homeland of Minnesota by his grandmother. When he was 4, the “Sioux Uprising of 1862” occurred, and he became separated from his father, elder brothers and sister – whom the tribe thought had been killed by the whites. Hakadah was taken into exile into Manitoba with the remaining members of his band of Santee Sioux.
For the next 11 years, he lived the original nomadic life of his people with his uncle and grandmother. His uncle was a well-known hunter and warrior and gave Ohiyesa the traditional training of a young hunter, warrior and member of the tribe. Ohiyesa’s knowledge of these skills and spiritual values would later be reflected in his activities and his writings.
At 15, Ohiyesa had just entered Indian manhood and was preparing to embark on his first war-path to avenge the reputed death of his father, when his father reappeared. Jacob Eastman had adopted the religion and customs of the whites and had come to take his son back with him.
Ohiyesa was taken to a homestead in Flandreau, Dakota Territory where his father and other progressive Indians had moved. The young man was sent to a mission day school, where his first impulse was to run away and return to the natural ways of his people. However, his father prevailed, and Ohiyesa cut his long hair and began to adopt the clothing and ways of white civilization.
Despite his unhappiness, Ohiyesa applied himself to his studies in school. Two years later, he walked 150 miles to attend a better school at Santee, Nebraska, where he excelled. He was soon accepted to the preparatory department of Beloit College in Wisconsin. He was now known primarily as Charles Eastman.
Charles Eastman spent two years at Beloit before moving on to two other colleges and then to Dartmouth College. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1887.
Charles Eastman then enrolled as a medical student at Boston University. He graduated in 1890 with his medical degree and the honor of being the orator of his class. He had spent a total of 17 years in primary, secondary, college and professional education, much less time than is usually required for most students.
During his studies in the east, he became acquainted with many prominent people who would later help him further his career. With such help, his first position was as Government Physician for the Sioux at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was there before, during and after the Ghost Dance rebellion of 1890-1891, and he cared for the wounded Indians after the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
Charles Eastman’s wife was a white woman who was also working at the Pine Ridge Reservation, Miss Elaine Goodale of Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Shortly after returning from his wedding in the east, Eastman was forced by the corrupt Indian agent to quit his job at the agency in retaliation for his attempt to help the Sioux prove crimes against the agent and his white friends. In 1893, Charles, his wife and their new baby moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he started a medical practice.
Soon, however, Charles Eastman accepted a position as field secretary for the International Committee of the YMCA, where he spent the next 3 years traveling throughout the US and Canada visiting many Indian tribes in an attempt to start new YMCAs in those areas.
In 1897, Dr. Eastman went to Washington as the legal representative and lobbyist for the Sioux tribe. From 1899 to 1902, he again served as a government physician to the Sioux, this time at Crow Creek Agency in South Dakota.
Eastman wrote a total of 11 books during his lifetime, all were successful; some were used in school editions, and many were translated into French, German, Danish and Czech languages and have been read all over the world for generations.
In 1910, Charles Eastman also became involved with many progressive organizations, attempting to improve the circumstances of various Indian tribes. At one time, he was president of the Society of American Indians, one prominent organization of that type.
From 1915 to 1920, the Eastman family created and operated a summer camp for girls, Camp Oahe, at Granite Lake, New Hampshire in attempt to teach Indian ways of life to young girls.
Charles Eastman and his wife separated in August 1921, possibly because of opposing views regarding the best future for American Indians. Elaine Goodale Eastman stressed total assimilation of Native Americans into white society, while Eastman favored a type of cultural pluralism in which Indians would interact with white society while retaining their Indian identity, beliefs and customs.
Eastman believed that the teachings and spirit of his adopted religion of Christianity and traditional Indian spiritual beliefs were essentially the same, a belief that was controversial to many Christians.
In 1928, Eastman purchased land on the north shore of Lake Huron, near Desbarats, Ontario. For the remainder of his life, when he was not traveling and lecturing, he lived there in his primitive cabin in the nature that he loved so dearly.
In his last years, he spent only the coldest winter months with his son in Detroit, where he died on January 8, 1939 at the age of eighty.
This biography of Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa) was excerpted from the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center who based their piece from the biographical notes at the end of The Essential Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), (World Wisdom, 2007).