HBO Productions has once again visited the tumultuous history of the Black Hills in the late 1800s with the film “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” The film’s basis was the award-winning book of the same name by Dee Brown. While not completely accurate in an historical sense, the film’s story revolves around the life of Dr. Charles A. Eastman. In this film, the character of Eastman is portrayed by actor Adam Beach.
The real-life Eastman was born in a buffalo hide tipi near Redwood Falls (Minnesota), in the winter of 1858. His father, “Many Lightnings” (Tawakanhdeota), was a full-blood Sioux. His mother was the granddaughter of the Sioux Chief “Cloud Man” and the daughter of Stands Sacred (Wakan inajin win) and a well-known army officer, Seth Eastman. His name at birth was “Hakadah,” the pitiful last, because he became the last of his three brothers and one sister when his mother died shortly after his birth. In his early youth, he received the name Ohiyesa (The Winner). The baby was initially raised by his grandmother.
At the age of four, the so-called “Sioux Uprising of 1862” occurred and he became separated from his father, elder brothers and only sister, whom the tribe thought had been killed by the whites. Hakadah fled into exile in Manitoba with the remaining members of his band of Santee Sioux. For the next eleven years he lived the original nomadic life of his people in the care of his uncle and his grandmother. His uncle was a prominent hunter and warrior and gave the youth the complete training necessary to carry on the nomadic tribal heritage. Both his uncle and grandmother instilled in him the spiritual philosophy of the Indian. Ohiyesa always regarded this period of his life as his most important education.
At fifteen, Ohiyesa had just entered Indian manhood and was preparing to embark on his first warpath to avenge the reputed death of his father, when he was astonished by the reappearance of his father. The young man learned that his father had adopted the religion and customs of the white people, and had come to take home his youngest son. His father was part of a small group of progressive Indians who earned a living with a combination of farming and ranching on homesteads in Flandreau, Dakota Territory.
After Ohiyesa’s first experience with a mission day school, he contemplated rebelling and leaving his new log home to return to the wild and his native ways. However, after a long discussion with his father, he cut his long hair, began to wear white man’s clothing and applied himself to his new school life. He soon overcame his reluctance, although not his unhappiness with his new world, and two years later walked 150 miles to attend a better school at Santee, Nebraska. In this larger school he made rapid progress and upon the recommendation of his teacher, the renowned missionary educator, Dr. Alfred L. Riggs, Ohiyesa was accepted at to the preparatory department of Beloit College, Wisconsin. His father had adopted the English name of his wife’s father, Eastman, so the boy named himself Charles Alexander Eastman.
Ohiyesa, now primarily known as Charles Eastman, spent two years at Beloit College before successively going to Knox College, Il; then Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire, and finally to Dartmouth College. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1887, and then studied medicine at Boston University, where he graduated in 1890 as orator of his class. He spent a total of seventeen years in primary, preparatory, undergraduate college, and professional education, which is significantly less time than is required by a typical student.
During his studies in the East, he made the acquaintance of many prominent people who would later help him further his career. With their help, his first position was as Government Physician for the Sioux at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. He was at Pine Ridge before, during and after the “Ghost dance” rebellion of 1890-91, and he cared for the wounded Indians after the massacre at Wounded Knee. In 1891, he married a white woman who was also working at the Pine Ridge reservation, Miss Elaine Goodale of Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Shortly after returning from his wedding in the East, a corrupt Indian agent forced Eastman to resign his job at the agency in retaliation for Eastman’s attempt to help the Sioux prove crimes against the agent and the agent’s white friends.