How Native People Reimagined Indianness in the 20th Century


By Daniel Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Native American lives changed dramatically during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Let’s consider the life of Charles Eastman, who was born in a Dakota village in northern Minnesota in 1858—an extraordinarily difficult time in which his people were forced to sell millions of acres of land simply to keep from starving. Yet, he was among the many Native people who confounded predictions about their inevitable disappearance by reimagining Indianness.

Face of a Native American man
Native Americans had to change their way of life to carve out some room for themselves in this world. (Image: CHOTE BKK/Shutterstock)

Charles Eastman

Eastman’s mother, who was of mixed Indian and white ancestry, died shortly after his birth, and four years later, he was separated from his father during the Dakota Conflict of 1862. Raised by his grandmother, he came of age in Canada as a refugee of war.  

Known initially in the Dakota language as ‘the pitiful last’—and then as Ohiyesa, or ‘the winner’—Eastman was eventually reunited with his father, who encouraged him to accept Christianity and sent him off to study in mission schools, where he took the name Charles. He went on to graduate from Dartmouth College in 1887, and three years later, he earned a medical degree from Boston University.

Just try to get your mind around that life trajectory. But there’s more. Eastman wanted to serve the Indian people. And so, he went to work as a physician for the Indian Office, the federal agency that oversaw the government’s relations with tribal nations.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Ghost Dance Massacre

Eastman’s first post was among the Lakota at the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, and he arrived there just as tensions around the Ghost Dance were nearing a crescendo in the fall of 1890. Although the Ghost Dance was a peaceful movement meant to provide healing and reconciliation, non-Indians were threatened by it. And the local federal agents at Pine Ridge and other reservations not only outlawed the Ghost Dance, but also called in troops to intimidate the Lakotas who resisted. 

A black-and-white photo of Charles Eastman wearing a suit.
Charles Eastman joined the Indian Office in order to serve his people. (Image: Sweet kate/Public domain)

The conflict ended in a grisly massacre along Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on December 29, 1890. There the U.S. Seventh Cavalry surrounded and killed more than 200 Lakota men, women, and children.

Charles Eastman witnessed the aftermath of the carnage, and he cared for the wounded. Despite his best efforts, Eastman later recalled, he “lost the greater part of them. It took all of my nerve to keep my composure in the face of this spectacle.” Think about how Charles Eastman must have felt. What he must have thought and what this meant for the present and future of American Indian people. And yet, Eastman didn’t give up.

Learn more about Native America in the Early 1900s.

Charles Eastman: A physician, an Author

Eastman spent the rest of his life speaking and writing about the enduring value of tribal cultures, as well as the contradictions and shortcomings of Western civilization. Moreover, he didn’t see himself as having to choose between two irreconcilable worlds—one Indian, the other white. 

Rather, Charles Eastman’s life was emblematic of a generation of American Indians who, in myriad ways, carved out spaces for themselves on their terms. The Dakota physician also defied expectations with his writing. He wrote many books, including his 1916 memoir, From the Deep Woods to Civilization. Don’t let the title fool you. This was no celebration of assimilation. 

Eastman’s Problem with Christianity

In his memoir, Eastman presented a vexing narrative, one filled with dark ruminations on the arrogance and excess of industrial America, free-market capitalism, materialism and acquisitiveness, and—to the extent that it was used to legitimate these things—Christianity, which he likened to a machine-made religion.

Despite having been educated in mission schools, Eastman wrote of Christianity’s missionaries and practitioners alike that, “It appears that they are anxious to pass on their religion to all races of men, but they keep very little of it themselves. I have not yet seen the meek inherit the earth, or the peacemakers receive high honor.”

Striking a chord, Eastman continued: “The pages of history are full of licensed murder and the plundering of weaker and less developed peoples.”

Learn more about American Indians and World War I.

American Indians Participate in Market Economy

An image of cattle in a field.
Manye Native Americans expanded their engagement with society through the economy, including cattle ranching. (Image: Konoplytska/Shutterstock)

Native people were also expanding their engagement in the market economy. This included cattle ranching among the Lakota, Ute, and Apache, and craft production in the Southwest, as well as migratory labor in California, maple sugar-making among the Anishinabek, and lumbering among the Menominee and Klamath. 

Elsewhere, the Makah engaged in commercial fishing, while members of the Mohawk Nation earned a reputation as fearless workers in high steel, contributing mightily to the construction of the New York City skyline in the process.

Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then, American Indians were everywhere. And everywhere, American Indians were defying the majority of society’s expectations and binaries of authenticity. As political actors, writers, and participants in the market economy, Native people reimagined Indianness by remaking a sense of self and community that should be seen as anything but anomalous.

Common Questions about How Native People Reimagined Indianness in the 20th Century

Q: How did Charles Eastman try to help his people at first?

After receiving his medical degree, Charles Eastman wanted to help save Native American lives, so he joined the Indian office as a physician.

Q: What was Charles Eastman’s opinion of Christianity?

Charles Eastman likened Christianity to a machine-made religion and also thought of Christianity as not helping any Native American lives or any people in a weak position for that matter. 

Q: How did Native Americans reshape expectations around them?

Native Americans defied expectations and stereotypes in multiple fields. Charles Eastman, for example, wrote about Native American lives, and some of them used the economy to their advantage by partaking in cattle ranching, craft production, migratory labor, maple sugar-making, lumbering, and commercial fishing.

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