Between Two Worlds: Charles Eastman


The life of Charles Eastman is, in many respects, no different than that of any other great American. Men like Andrew Carnegie and Benjamin Franklin, like Eastman, brought themselves up from modest means through education and hard work. Eastman’s story in particular is similar to that of Olaudah Equiano or Frederick Douglass in that despite their status as minorities (and even as sub-human) they were able to achieve greatness.  Charles Eastman was born a Sioux Indian living in Canada in opposition to the white government of the United States. By the end of his life, Eastman was a well respected man among both Indians and whites while always teetering between two very different worlds and belonging barely to either.

At many points in his narrative Charles Eastman references times when he turned his back to his Indian ways and turned toward the ways of the white man. He credits his father for allowing that change to happen when he suddenly reemerged after a number of years to take his son back to his homestead across the American-Canadian border.  Eastman’s father was much changed from the man he remembered in his youth.  In particular Eastman references his father’s acceptance of Christianity as the largest change in his father.  Eastman said of his father’s religion, “It was his Christian faith and devotion which was perhaps the strongest influence toward my change of heart and complete change of my purpose in life.”[1] But throughout his life Eastman would see both the good and the bad of the white man’s religion.  Eastman’s father had incredible influence over his son, and one may say that as a proper Indian Eastman had no choice but to follow the will of his father. In many ways it was a result of his father that Eastman would continuously straddle the fence between Indian and white man without ever clearly stepping fully into either world. Through is father’s insistence and his grandmother’s disapproval Eastman attends his first school near his father’s homestead in Minnesota.  As Eastman described his first day in school one cannot help but think that his first day might seem similar to anyone’s first day of school. His resistance to the ways of the white man is quickly changed and upon returning to school he has cut his hair and devoted himself to following the path his father has laid out for him.  However, in his first day of school Eastman recounts the story years later and seems distant to the events.  By the time he wrote his story he was no longer the Indian boy who walked into the small prairie school house and the events seem like a distant event that he was only a spectator to. In particular Eastman wrote, “He rose silently…did not dare to do or say anything….”[2] his retelling is entirely in the third person as though a piece of fiction rather than a historical event.  The first time in which Eastman tells his reader that his heart was moved toward “civilization” was with his father and in those first days of school. But the first acceptance of this new life came not from the heart, but “were logical enough on the whole, although almost entirely from the outside….”[3]

The second instance in which Eastman tells of his decision to abandon his early ways for the ways of the white man come when he his travelling to his first boarding school. The Santee Agency in Nebraska was where Eastman first began to live up to his potential intellectually. While on the way to Santee he and a travel companion stopped to hunt and trap for food. The companion decided that he will stay there and continue living as their ancestors had once before. Eastman decided to obey his father’s wishes, still to this point they decision was not wholly his own but rather what his father willed, and continue on for the Santee Agency.  He was sixteen at the time and left to travel from his father’s home to Nebraska on his own. It is in the recounting of a story of his first experience in dealing with white men that Eastman tells of a second conversion to accept the ways of the white man. Tired and hungry from the road the young Eastman approached a farm house and begged to be fed. The farmer and his family accepted his plea and offered him food and a place to stay. In return Eastman, unfamiliar with money, offered the farmer money his father had given him. The farmer rejected the offer and it is with this gesture that Eastman wrote, “Then and there I loved civilization and renounced my wild life.”[4] The school at the agency was a struggle for Eastman.  At one point while in class a professor pulled out a globe and showed the Indian boys the world and Eastman remarked years later, “I felt that my foot hold was deserting me. All my savage training and philosophy was in the air, if these things were true.”[5] While at Santee Eastman continued his transformation into the world of the white man, but still held on to the world of the Indian.

At the same time period while he was at Santee his Sioux brethren were waging a war against the United States Government.  He indicates that it was during his time at Santee that the Battle of Little Big Horn took place. [6] The struggle Eastman had in living as an Indian in the world of the white man was made harder by the actions of his tribesmen. As Eastman wrote, he saw his own blood as “hostile” but Custer and his men as “gallant”. Yet at the same time, while at Beloit College he “was followed on the streets by gangs of little white savages…”[7] His struggle for self identity was not something unfamiliar in a time of such great change in America.

And it was while at Beloit College, during summer vacation that Eastman enjoyed yet another conversion experience to the ways of the white man, and his religion. While working for a farmer he had his eyes, “opened intelligently to the greatness of Christian civilization…” but he was still not converted in his heart to the ways of the white man.  While still working for the farmer Eastman “renounced finally [his] bow and arrows for the spade and the pen….” This was yet another time that he was able to have a conversion to the ways of the white man. He recommitted himself to the trail his father had laid out for him years before in Minnesota. And it was also here that Eastman, “gained [his] first conception of the home life and domestic ideals of the white man” through interactions with American college girls. Years later he would once again make a step toward transforming into a white man by marrying a white woman. But as was a common theme in Eastman’s life, he did not stay at Beloit very long. Instead he moved on to Dartmouth College. Dartmouth was originally established for the education of Indians, a fact for which Eastman was proud.  It was at Dartmouth that the final conversion seems to have taken place, for he believed, “it was here that I had the most of my savage gentleness and native refinement knocked out of me.”[8] From this point forward Eastman had the knowledge of two worlds to judge both according to their merits. His experiences with the white man through his days of education were generally good, but while a doctor at the Pine Ridge Reservation and thereafter he began to see the bad nature of the white man.

While Eastman was the doctor at the Pine Ridge Reservation he had the opportunity to engage in a number of aspects of the management of the reservation. He was a well respected man among both the whites and Indians and that gave him great influence over both at various points. His view on the Ghost Dance can be summed up as “watch and wait”, which the white leaders of the Reservation did not agree with.  The massacre at Wounded Knee served as an example of the white man’s malice for Eastman, who had not seen it up close as he had avoided such circumstances in the past.  All the while at the reservation Eastman defended the white man to his Indian brethren. That is, until he was asked to witness the issuing of allowances to Indians on the reservation. When it became clear that government officials were short changing those Indians too naïve to know any better, Eastman was steadfast in his refusal to remain silent on the issue. He was ultimately forced out of his job as a doctor to the Indians on behalf of the United States government. While he returned to his father’s homeland in Minnesota he opened a shop and realized that the white man was all too willing to cut corners and skirt the law. An opportunity with the Y.M.C.A presented itself to Eastman who agreed to go to the Indians and establish Y.M.C.A chapters. He successfully was able to preach the Protestant Christian belief system to the Indians he encountered and established numerous chapters of the Y.M.C.A. From this he began speaking to groups of white men about the place of Native Americans in American History.

Charles Eastman’s legacy deserves to be given two places, one with the world of the white man as a great ambassador to his own people on the white man’s behalf. The other is with the Indian world as their great ambassador of the Indian to the white man. But ultimately this only goes to demonstrate that Charles Eastman was continuously caught between two worlds while never really in either. He routinely underwent conversions to the ways of the white man, only to be disillusioned by the actions of the white man years later. He rejected the ways of the Indian numerous times, only to be an ambassador for the importance of the Indian in American History.

 


[1] Eastman, Charles A. From the Deep Woods to Civilization. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977. pg. 10

 

[2] Ibid. 23

[3] Ibid. 29

[4] Ibid. 39

[5] Ibid. 47

[6] “It must be remembered that this was September, 1876, less than three month’s after Custer’s gallant command was annihilated by the hostile Sioux.” Ibid 53.

[7]Ibid 53

[8] Ibid. 67

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