Native voice helped create the Boy Scouts, Charles Eastman ‘Ohiyesa’
When researching the history and origin of the Boy Scouts, the story that likely comes to the surface is regarding Ernest Thompson Seton, an author, and artist that taught young men the ways of Native Americans. Seton started the Woodcraft Indians, and would eventually go on to create the Boy Scouts with the assistance, input, and guidance from author Daniel Carter Beard and British military officer Robert Baden-Powell.
Seton, Beard, and Baden-Powell began to garner more support from New York YMCA executive Edgar Robinson. In turn, Robinson got the support of the well-known Dakota author and physician Charles Eastman or ‘Ohiyesa.’
The life of Ohiyesa
Eastman ‘Ohiyesa’ was born in 1858 As a child, Eastman was forced from Minnesota along with his community following the Dakota War of 1862.
Ohiyesa experienced a tumultuous and troubled life, he was separated from his father and siblings during the Dakota War of 1862 and he lived for many years not knowing they were alive. 15 years later, they were reunited. Ohiyesa’s father had converted to Christianity and believed in European style educations.
Following his father’s direction, and by choosing a Christian name at random from a list, Ohiyesa became known by his Christian name Charles Eastman and went to a Native residential school, then he went onto Beloit and Knox College and eventually Dartmouth. He attended Medical School at Boston University and became the second Native physician in the United States.
As a physician, Eastman worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Pine Ridge and Crow Creek Reservations. He treated victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
He met a European-American woman Elaine Goodale and married her. Goodale had been a teacher at the Hampton Institute a Black and Indian residential school in Virginia. Together, the two wrote Eastman's books on his life as a Native man. According to the family, Eastman handwrote his stories, and Goodale would type them.
In 1902, Eastman and his wife published his first book Indian Boyhood. A known classic based on Ohiyesa’s Indian life before the Dakota removals.
The Boy Scouts and the YMCA
About the time of the Boy Scouts coming into existence, Eastman was approximately 52 years of age. Prior to that time, from 1894-1898, Eastman had worked to create over 32 Native American factions of the Young Man's Christian Association, or YMCA as it is known today.
Ernest Thompson Seton, who had been impressed by Eastman’s writings, sought counsel from Eastman about the Woodcraft Indians, and eventually regarding the Boy Scouts. The New York chapter of the YMCA, headed by Edgar Robinson asked both Seton and Eastman for help in designing the YMCA’s Indian Scouts program. Eastman also consulted on the Camp Fire Girls.
Shortly after the formation of the Boy Scouts in 1910, Eastman was selected as the representative for Native Americans at the Universal Races Congress—an international effort to unite all races across the globe—in London England.
The recipient of historical criticism
In the documentary Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian, the family that descended from Charles Eastman addresses some of the inaccuracies and criticisms of Eastman for consulting with an organization such as the Boy Scouts, that has been criticized as taking the culture of Native Americans to a level of stereotype and cultural appropriation.
In the documentary, Native scholar, David Martinez, Ph.D. Akimel O'odham/Hia Ced O'odham/Mexican, says of Eastman who consulted with the Boy Scouts, “Eastman, however naively, saw this as an opportunity. Maybe through something like the Boy Scouts, working for an organization that deals with young children, young white American children ... if you can influence them, teaching them to how to think like Indians at a young age, maybe they will grow up with these values and ideas.”
Kate Beane, great-grandaughter of Eastman, said of him, “They have been called assimilationists. The decisions they made were very Indigenous and based on traditional Dakota worldviews and a thought process. They were human beings making decisions based on survival, to feed their families. They did not say, ‘How can I be a white person?’”
Syd Beane, a direct relative to Eastman told Indian Country Today that his ancestor didn’t want people to dress up like an Indian, he wanted them to “think like an Indian.”
“Ohiyesa wanted the young people to bring back the values of the environment, to look at things from a world view. To be like an Indian and help change things from being exploited.”
Check out the documentary Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian.
Stories in the Boy Scout article series by Indian Country Today associate editor Vincent Schilling