Writers series: This is the third installment in a series of stories profiling celebrated -- and not so well-known -- nature writers in Minnesota. Today: Charles Eastman.
The life of Charles Eastman is enjoying a Renaissance, 81 years after his death.
The Native American author, physician and lecturer is the subject of a 2018 documentary broadcast on public television and multiple academic appraisals of his philosophy and activism. But a missing piece in the story of Eastman (Ohiyesa in Dakota) is his place in the canon of nature writers with roots in Minnesota. He wrote 11 books, each a mix of folklore, autobiography and adventure, and two more in tandem with his wife.
Nature is “the greatest schoolmistress of all,” Eastman wrote, as he became one of the first Native voices to be published globally. His childhood experiences in Minnesota, the Dakota Territory and the Canadian prairie, along with his medical training, all informed his work.
“One of his main inspirations,” said a descendant, Kate Beane of Minneapolis, “was that personal health is related to nature, and that is why it is so important.”
Eastman, a grandson of U.S. Army officer and painter Seth Eastman, did not publish his first book until he was 44 and living in St. Paul. “While I had plenty of leisure, I began to put on paper some of my earliest recollections, with the thought that someday our [six] children might like to read of that wilderness life,” he wrote.
Life’s circumstances tossed him around like a leaf on the water. He was born near Redwood Falls in the new state of Minnesota in 1858; his mother died shortly after his birth. Four years later, the U.S.-Dakota War erupted, and his family was caught in its midst. His father, Many Lightnings, was arrested and marched to prison camp in Iowa. Many family members escaped to Canada, including Ohiyesa, who was in the care of grandparents and other relatives.
Hundreds died in the prison, but Many Lightnings survived and was released. He converted to Christianity and took the name Jacob Eastman. Nine years passed and he made his way to Canada, where his relatives were shocked to see him alive. “We supposed, and, in fact, we were informed that all were hanged,” Charles Eastman wrote. Jacob moved the family to the Dakota Territory and urged education on his children. Charles graduated from Dartmouth College in 1887 and Boston University’s medical school in 1890.
But fate was not finished with him. He returned to doctor his people in South Dakota. After the Wounded Knee massacre erupted later that year, Eastman led a team to the fields of slaughter. He tended the wounded and comforted the survivors.
“The white men [on the team] became very nervous, but I set to examining and uncovering every body to see if any were living. Although they had been lying untended in the snow and cold for two days and nights, a number had survived,” he wrote.
Three years later, after marrying teacher Elaine Goodale, he moved to St. Paul to set up a medical practice. But patients were hard to come by for a Dakota doctor, and he took up writing to fill his time. Elaine, who had publishing experience, served as his editor. “She encouraged him to write down his stories,” said Beane, who is director of Native American initiatives for the Minnesota Historical Society. “She edited them in a way to make them sellable, and she was the main contact to the publishing houses.”
As his fame spread, Eastman and his family moved to be near Elaine’s family on the East Coast; he became a popular figure on the lecture circuit and met Mark Twain, British Prime Minister Lloyd George and four American presidents. His organizational accomplishments included helping found the Boy Scouts of America. He established 32 branches of the YMCA in Native communities and owned a summer camp in New Hampshire.
His stories combined his experiences with Dakota oral traditions. In his retelling of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, he wrote, “The dog that howled pitifully over the dead was often the only survivor of the farmer’s household.” He was a sharp-eyed witness of nature, including its weather. “The bellowing of the (buffalo) bulls became general, and there was a marked uneasiness on the part of the herd. This was the sign of an approaching storm,” he wrote in his book “Indian Boyhood.” Later, “(as) after every storm, it was wonderfully still; so still that one could hear distinctly the pounding feet of the jack-rabbits coming down over the slopes to the willows for food.”
Although a city resident for a good deal of his adult life, Eastman preferred the outdoors. “In civilization there are many deaf ears and blind eyes,” he wrote. “In the great laboratory of nature there are endless secrets yet to be discovered.”
He sometimes seemed surprised at his success. “None of my earlier friends who knew me well would have ever believed that I was destined to appear in the role of a public speaker,” he wrote. “It may be that I shared the native gift of oratory to some degree, but I also had the Indian reticence with strangers.”
Eastman stopped writing after 1921 at the time of his separation from his wife. He died at age 80 in 1939 in Detroit while visiting one of his sons, after a fire in his tepee triggered a heart condition. Much of his soul remained in his boyhood home. “(His) story begins at and ultimately — at least in spirit — returns to the heart of the Dakota homeland in southern Minnesota,” wrote University of Arizona Prof. David Martinez in an analysis of Eastman’s work.
The Northern Star Council of the Boy Scouts of America at Fort Snelling displays a bronze sculpture of a young Ohiyesa playing lacrosse. Dartmouth College awards a scholarship for Native American graduate students in memory of Eastman — the refugee, physician, community organizer, public speaker and nature writer.
Mark Neuzil is chair of the journalism program at the University of St. Thomas and the co-author of “Canoes: A Natural History in North America.”