One of the most iconic and well-known Native American writers of the early 20th century was from Minnesota. Ohiyesa, aka Charles Alexander Eastman, wrote 11 books over his career, sharing his personal stories as well as details about Dakota culture and life.
“He’s not writing to impress anybody; it’s an effort to really get across the profound humanity of his people through telling his own story,” said Ojibwe author Heid E. Erdrich in the film Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian.
Born in Redwood Falls in 1858, Ohiyesa was first called Hakadah, which means “the pitiful last,” because his mother died soon after his birth. He was raised by his paternal grandmother in a traditional Dakota community, but at age 4, his life was upended.
Fleeing the war
The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 broke out, and in the aftermath, the government imprisoned, executed and ultimately exiled Dakota people from Minnesota.
Ohiyesa and his grandmother were among those who fled to Canada. There his uncle trained him as a Dakota warrior and hunter, and Hakadah was eventually given the name Ohiyesa, meaning “always the winner,” after he was part of a winning lacrosse game.
Jacob wanted Ohiyesa to come back to the U.S. with him, learn English and go to school. Ohiyesa was hesitant, but moved to his father’s homestead in Flandreau, Dakota Territory. After he was baptized, Ohiyesa took the name Charles Alexander Eastman.
He attended English-speaking schools in Flandreau and an Indian boarding school in Nebraska. Ohiyesa also went on to higher education, and in 1890, he received his medical degree from Boston Medical School, becoming the second Native American physician in the country.
Wanting to help his people, Ohiyesa moved to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to work as a doctor. But barely a month after his arrival, tragedy struck the community.
On Dec. 29, 1890, the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred with government troops killing several hundred Lakota people, including many women and children.
Ohiyesa was the only doctor caring for the wounded.
“It took all of my nerve to keep my composure in the face of this spectacle,” he wrote in his 1916 book From the Deep Woods to Civilization.
Kate Beane, Flandreau Santee Dakota and Muskogee Creek and a descendant of Ohiyesa, noted that Wounded Knee must have echoed Ohiyesa’s childhood experiences of the U.S.-Dakota War.
“To experience that again, to see that happen to people he considered relatives … must have been traumatic,” Beane said in Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian.
After a few years at Pine Ridge, Ohiyesa and his wife Elaine — an educated woman from a Boston literary family whom he married in 1891 — left after clashing with the local Indian agent.
Writing and activism
The couple moved to St. Paul, where Ohiyesa opened a private medical practice. But he struggled to earn a living as few people were interested in going to a Dakota doctor.
During his time in St. Paul, Ohiyesa started writing. His routine became writing during the day while Elaine typed his work at night and served as an editor. His first book Indian Boyhood, sharing stories of his childhood, was published in 1902.
As the family moved to the East Coast, Ohiyesa kept writing and began touring widely as a lecturer, speaking to white audiences about Native American issues. He would often speak dressed in traditional Dakota clothing.
“He was playing to that stereotypical view people had from the Westerns, from cowboys and Indians. And when he would go and speak to whites, they wanted to see that,” said Beane. “When he went up to the podium dressed that way, people were quiet. He actually was able to get them to listen to him.”
In addition to his writing, Ohiyesa had jobs with the YMCA, establishing chapters in native communities, and the Boy Scouts of America, where he served as a Native American adviser and national councilman. He also was involved in civil rights, helping found the Society for American Indians, which successfully lobbied for Native Americans to receive U.S. citizenship in 1924.
While Ohiyesa passed away at age 80 in 1939, his writing is still in print today, and his books have been translated into languages such as French, German and Czech.
Visitors to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul can learn more about Ohiyesa and Dakota history in the new ongoing exhibit Our Home: Native Minnesota. On March 31 from 7-9 p.m., visitors can view a free screening of Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian, a personal film following Kate Beane and her family as they trace Ohiyesa’s life and impact on history.
Lauren Peck is a public relations specialist for the Minnesota Historical Society.