DeMallie – Eastman’s Writings

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Charles Alexander Eastman was born in 1858 and died in 1939. So his life embraced a very long period of Dakota history. He is for anthropologists, I think, a very important figure because we can learn a great deal from his life and from his writings. Eastman’s mother was the daughter of Seth Eastman. Seth Eastman was a painter who was well-known for the images that he left of the Dakota and Ojibwa people in Minnesota. But his legacy to us here runs through his daughter by his Indian wife. Eastman’s mother married a man named Many Lightnings, and in 1858, after Charles Eastman was born, his mother died of complications from the labor. As a result, he was given the name Hakéda, which means “The Last Born Son,” or as he liked to call it, “The Pitiful Last.”

In 1862, during the Dakota Conflict, his father, Many Lightnings, was taken prisoner by the government and was condemned to be hanged. Eastman’s uncle fled with him to Canada to keep the family safe. And there the young Eastman grew up living with his grandfather and living a traditional life, hunting, fishing, and being raised as a Dakota. So Many Lightnings spent three years in prison in Davenport, Iowa. When he was finally released from prison, Jacob [Many Lightnings] decided that he would try to find his son and he made the trip to Canada, located the boy, and told him he wanted him to come back with him to Minnesota. The boy, whose name now was Ohíyes’a, meaning “The Winner,” was at first reluctant, as he tells us in his autobiography, but he finally returned with his father.

Over the course of the next years, he was educated, first at Flandreau, and then at the Santee Normal School in Santee, Nebraska. And so he was sent off to preparatory school and eventually ended up at Dartmouth. He applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was ultimately sent to Pine Ridge Agency where he would take over the work of government physician. Eastman arrived at Pine Ridge, not long before the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee, in which so many Lakota men, women, and children were killed by the Seventh Cavalry. It was a time of great trauma. He was balancing his choice between living in the White man’s world and what was happening to the Indian people on the reservation.

At the same time, however, that he was there, there was a young woman present whose name was Elaine Goodale. Elaine had been a famous writer. In fact, she published a book of poetry while she was still in high school. And she was devoted to the cause of education of Blacks and Indians. And she was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to serve as the supervisor of education on the Sioux reservations. So she was at Pine Ridge going about her duty with the schools there. She and Eastman met one another in this charged atmosphere before and after Wounded Knee. They fell in love, and the next year they married. It was national news, this White woman from high society marrying an American Indian doctor. The rest of their lives were full of ups and downs and various government contracts, moves to Minnesota and to New England. But the important thing, I think, and this is why Eastman is so valued by anthropologists, is that his wife encouraged him to write.

He began writing the autobiography that became his book published in 1902 called My Indian Boyhood. It’s clear that his writings reflect a perspective on the Dakotas that only an insider could have. The one book that for me that is most important is called The Soul of the Indian, which was published in 1911. It is a very brief book, and it is a very poetic book, but it presents in a nutshell what are the most important aspects of Dakota culture, from kinship to religion to philosophy to perspectives on the world at large, and without being in any sense confrontational he manages to compare American culture as he experiences it with the traditional Dakota culture in which he was raised. But the way that I like to read the book is perhaps through a very close dissection of his prose to see how it relates to the whole ethnographic record that we have recorded by anthropologists over the twentieth century. We have here material that helps us to understand the ethnography simply because it is stated from a consistent point of view that is distinctly Dakota.

Eastman published quite a number of books during his lifetime.  They tell us about traditional stories.  They tell us about history.  I think that none of his books is more important than The Soul of the Indian because in it he is able to articulate what it was that was so special, so meaningful, and so valuable about the traditional Dakota way of life that he lived as a child.

My name is Raymond DeMallie. I’m a Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. I’ve been interested in the Dakota and Lakota peoples for my entire life and I have done anthropological and ethnohistorical studies with them for many years. My primary interests are in language and using language in order to understand culture and to understand the past through the writings of Lakota people themselves. I’ve also been involved in language projects on Lakota reservations, attempting to help develop curriculum materials that can be used to teach the language in schools. The language that is spoken by the Dakotas and the Lakotas is rapidly vanishing and unless it is preserved through formal education, there’s a very strong likelihood that it will be lost forever. My work as an anthropologist attempts to reintegrate some of these old materials into the present and to show the value of the historical record and the anthropological record for Lakota people today.
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Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler

Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar

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Photo credits:

Charles Eastman – Photo by Wells Moses Sawyer, 1897, courtesy of National Anthropological Archives (NAA INV 02908602)
Eastman’s mother – Newberry Library (Frank B. Mayer sketchbook, oversize Ayer
Art Sketchbook #41, p. 102, 1851)
Seth Eastman, ca. 1860 – Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Dakota prisoner camp, 1863 – Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Dakota prisoners – Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
“Plays & Playmates” – Newberry Library (Charles Eastman, Indian Boyhood, Ayer 251. D1571 E2 1902)
“Evening in the Lodge” – Newberry Library (Charles Eastman, Indian Boyhood, Ayer 251. D1571 E2 1902)
Flandreau School, 1913 – Courtesy of State Archives of the South Dakota State Historical Society
Santee School, 1910 – Courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society
Dartmouth campus – Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons/Ragesoss
Pine Ridge Agency, 1891 – Courtesy of State Archives of the South Dakota State Historical Society
Elaine Eastman – Courtesy of State Archives of the South Dakota State Historical Society
Cover of Indian Boyhood – Newberry Library (Charles Eastman, Indian Boyhood, Ayer 251. D1571 E2 1902)
“Ohiyesu & Chatanna” – Newberry Library (Charles Eastman, Indian Boyhood, Ayer 251. D1571 E2 1902)
Title page of The Soul of an Indian – Newberry Library (Charles Eastman, The Soul of an Indian, Ayer 310 E2 1901)
Eastman, the visionary – Newberry Library (Charles Eastman, The Soul of an Indian, Ayer 310 E2 1901)

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