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Dr. Charles Eastman: A Dakota’s Conflicted Take on Christianity

Dr. Charles Eastman was truly remarkable. Born in 1858, into a traditional Dakota way of life, in what is now commonly called Minnesota, as a teenager he later entered the white man’s world where he converted to Christianity, just as his father had. Eastman excelled in the white man’s school system, attended Boston University and eventually became a medical doctor. He was, by a cruel twist of fate, the attending physician of the wounded and dying victims of the Wounded Knee massacre who were transported to Pine Ridge on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

In his book From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916), Eastman recounts a time when he joined the International Committee of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). “I traveled over a large part of the western states and in Canada,” he wrote, “visiting the mission stations among Indians of all tribes and organizing young men’s associations wherever conditions permitted. I think I organized some forty-three associations.”

During that time, as an avowed Christian, Eastman nevertheless seemed to maintain a reflective stance toward that religion because of his early traditional Dakota upbringing. He studied what he called “the Protestant missionary effort among Indians” and “almost unconsciously reopened the book of my early religious training.” He wondered how it was “that our simple lives [before Christianity] were so imbued with the spirit of worship, while much churchgoing among white and Christian Indians led often to such very small results.” He tells of a moment of revelatory insight:

A new point of view came to me then and there. This latter was a machine-made religion. It was supported by money, and more money could only be asked for on the showing made; therefore, too many of the workers were after quantity rather than quality of religious experience.

He traveled continuously among “the Sioux, Cheyennes, Crees, Ojibways, and others,” and worked to recount the story of the life and character of “the Man Jesus.” He was well received wherever he went, and listened to intently. At times, in return for his words, he received deep commentary from traditional Indian people:

I remember one old battle-scarred warrior who sat among the young men and got up and said, in substance: “Why, we have followed this law you speak of for untold ages! We owned nothing, because everything is from Him. Food was free, land free as sunshine and rain. Who has changed all this? The white man; and yet he says he is the believer in God! He does not seem to inherit any of the traits of his Father, nor does he follow the example set by his brother Christ.

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Eastman also recounts what he called “one of the strongest rebukes I ever received from an Indian for my acceptance” of the Christian “ideals and philosophy.” That rebuke was delivered by “an old chief of the Sac and Fox tribe” in Iowa. Mr. Eastman had been invited by the churches of Toledo and Tama City to visit the Sac and Fox because of their hardened refusal “to accept civilization and Christianity.”

Eastman was politely received by the Sac and Fox at their village, and he made what he described as “a pretty good speech, emphasizing the necessity of educating their children and urging their acceptance of the Christian religion.” After he had finished speaking, the elder leader of the village rose to respond. He was glad that Eastman had come to pay them a visit, and he was also glad that Eastman was “apparently satisfied with the white man’s religion and civilization.” As for them, however, those things did not seem good. Eastman describes the Elder’s further comments.

The white man had showed neither respect for nature nor reverence toward God but, he thought, tried to buy God with the by-products of nature. He tried to buy his way into heaven, but he did not even know where heaven is. “As for us,” he concluded, “we shall still follow the old trail. If you should live long, and some day the Great Spirit shall permit you to visit us again, you will find us still Indians, eating with wooden spoons out of bowls of wood.”

Dr. Eastman summed up this story with an anecdote that seems to well-illustrate his conflicted feelings about his adopted religion of Christianity. Here’s what happened not long after the elder had finished speaking:

I was even more impressed a few minutes later, when one of his [the Elder’s] people handed me my pocketbook containing my railway tickets and a considerable sum of money. I had not known I lost it and had not even missed it! I said to the state missionary who was at my side, “Better let these Indians alone! If I had lost my money in the streets of your Christian city, I should probably have never seen it again.”

How interesting for an unconverted ‘heathen’ Indian to not think twice about such honesty by returning the Dr.’s pocketbook and “a considerable sum of money.” By contrast, in Dr. Eastman’s estimation, civilized and Christian behavior would have undoubtedly resulted in the pocketbook and its contents being ‘pocketed.’

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of the book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008).