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Ohiyesa - Dr. Charles Eastman, Santee Dakota, (1858-1939)

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Charles Eastman
Charles Alexander Eastman
Smithsonian Institution

The following text is from a two-part article written by Bill Ellingson, a member of the Moody County Historical Society. The articles were first published in 2020 in the "Moody County Pioneer," the Moody County Historical Society's quarterly newsletter. The articles detail the founding and development of the Flandreau Indian School, one of the last remaining federally managed Indian boarding schools in the United States. Read more...

Perhaps the most notable alumnus of the first Indian mission school established at Flandreau, Dakota Territory, attended the school in 1873-74. He later became one or the highest-educated Indians of his time and through his social work, writings, and public speeches, he was among the best known and respected American Indians of the early twentieth century. 

Dr. Charles Eastman started his classroom education there as a teenager and alter wrote about his experience in his autobiographical books Indian Boyhood and From the Deep Woods to Civilization. This second volume starts out with his arrival in 1873 at the settlement where if father, Jacob Eastman, and other settlers ultimately made their new home following their displacement from Minnesota after the Sioux Uprising of 1862. In September, at the end of the 1862 Uprising, Jacob and his family fled southwestern Minnesota for Canada. Thereafter in 1864, Jacob and two of his other sons were captured, returned to Minnesota, and were held prisoner until released in 1866. After that he and many others and their families were placed at a temporary ‘reservation’ near present day Niobrara, Nebraska. Jacob was there a few years before he and his family, along with about twenty-four other families, set out for Bin-In-The-River near present day Flandreau in 1869. Their plans were to start a new, independent life by taking advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act and become farmers.

Charles, then five years of age, escape4d capture in 1863, stayed in Canada, and was raised there by an uncle and his grandmother. He lived there for ten more years before his father came to get him in 1873 to take him back to the Flandreau colony. Charles describes this relocation as having been plucked from an ‘uncivilized” wild boyhood where he practiced all of the traditional Indian hunting and survival skills and then unceremoniously thrust into “civilization” He went on in “From the Deep Woods…” to describe his journey with his father and concluded the first chapter saying, “It was a peaceful Indian summer day when we reached Flandreau, in Dakota Territory…”

Within a month of his arrival, his father insisted Charles attend school. He was then still known as Ohiyesa until soon thereafter when he was baptized and given his new Christian name of Charles Alexander Eastman:

‘O-hi-ye-sa!’ called my father… ‘It is time for you to go to school, my son…’
‘And what am I to do at the school?’
‘You will be taught the language of the white man. They call them A, B, C, and so forth.’
The matter having been explained, I was soon on my way to the little mission school two miles distant over the prairie.

His first day of school did not go well. He still had long hair and wore traditional Indian garb. By contrast, adults and children alike in the Flandreau colony cut their hair and wore “white man’s clothing.” Charles wrote about that first day saying that the children made whispered references to the “new boy’s” personal appears. “He rose silently and walked out. The boys watched him as he led his pony to the river to drink and then jumped upon his back and started for home at a good pace. They cheered as he started over the hills.” But, with the urging of his father, Charles went back to school the next day, studied hard, did well, and went on from there to eventually earn a B.S. degree from Dartmouth and an M.D. degree from Boston University. 

Note: Eastman was the first Native American physician licensed to practice medicine in the United States.