Native Currents

Native Currents

The portrayal of Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman

Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa), an Eastern or Santee Sioux, was the most well-known educated Native American living in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Eastman lived a long life (1858 – 1939) and achieved status as a successful author and Indian reform advocate. He became the ”poster child” of Eastern, white Indian reformers who believed that Indians should abandon their ways and become white Christian farmers. What these reformers failed to realize was that Eastman was an acculturated, rather than an assimilated, Indian. He did not abandon his Indian heritage; instead, Eastman selected aspects of the dominant culture that enabled him to function in white society. For example, he adopted Christianity, but retained many of his Indian religious beliefs, observing that the true teachings of both religions were essentially the same. This religious syncretism worked for him. In addition, Eastman believed that by obtaining an education and U.S. citizenship, Indians would be better able to compete in mainstream America.

The HBO movie of Dee Brown’s classic book, ”Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” has Eastman playing a major role in the film, although he is not mentioned in the book. Several articles appeared on the movie before its HBO premiere May 27, including ones in Cowboys & Indians, The New York Times and Indian Country Today. With the exception of the article in The New York Times, which criticized the extreme manner in which the movie applied poetic license and fabricated history, the articles contained praiseworthy and positive comments on the HBO production. The overall message of these pro-HBO movie articles was that the movie would provide the general public with a depiction of how the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act broke up reservation lands, forced Indians to accept land allotments and resulted in Indians losing tens of millions of acres of land and would, moreover, generally educate non-Indians about major Indian issues in late 19th century America.

Having Eastman as a main character in the film is not a major issue; having him working with Henry Dawes in formulating the Dawes Act is unconscionable. In fact, the repeated appearances in many scenes of Eastman and Dawes, and even Elaine Goodale on several occasions, who would become Eastman’s wife, takes poetic license too far and distorts history too much. The film version of Dawes arranging the meeting of Charles and Elaine, with her approving mother present, never happened. In fact, Elaine’s mother was a racist who did not want her daughter to marry him and even threatened not to attend their wedding. Yes, Eastman did initially support aspects of the Dawes Act, particularly the granting of citizenship to Indians, but he later denounced the legislation. Additionally, Dawes never was the mentor of Eastman and did not help him secure the position of renaming the Indians after Eastman resigned as a government physician.

Other major distortions include having Eastman at the Little Bighorn and killing an Indian scout in 1876; he was finishing his studies at the Santee Normal School in Nebraska and preparing to go to Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1876. Eastman did go to Canada as a child, but it was during the early 1860s and concerned the Santee Sioux uprising in Minnesota. Finally, Eastman’s father, Many Lightnings, who was involved in the 1860s uprising, did become a Christian and did convince his son to return with him to the United States. However, depicting him as a ”Jesus freak” is again a major distortion.

Eastman’s attempts to help provide better medical care to the Indians at Pine Ridge and to treat the Indian victims of the Wounded Knee massacre are accurately portrayed as is his torment as an Indian operating in two worlds in the film. However, Sioux leader Red Cloud and Elaine Goodale did not accompany Eastman to the battle site in an attempt to find any survivors.

Finally, Adam Beach did a superb job as Charles Eastman (as did Anna Paquin as Elaine Goodale). It is too bad that Beach did not or perhaps could not demand a more accurate portrayal of this fascinating, controversial and significant man. Several of my colleagues who teach Indian history have expressed similar views about the inaccuracies of Eastman’s life in the film as well as many other historical fabrications. If the main purpose of the film is to educate non-Indians about Indian history, why include so many historical inaccuracies that were not needed? Does this not weaken the main objective? This writer realizes that Hollywood needs to apply poetic license to its films to make them more ”attractive” and entertaining. I would argue, however, that a more accurate portrayal of the life of Charles Eastman would have made the film better and would still have the entertainment qualities required.

Raymond Wilson is professor of history at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan., and has researched and written about Eastman for over three decades.

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