► “The Indian Today,” by Charles Eastman

Reviewed by Karyn Denny

Charles A. Eastman’s book, The Indian To-day,” published back in 1915, and is about the colonization of North American tribes during the mid-19th century.  Eastman was a Santee Sioux North American Indian and European who worked as a physician on the Sioux Indian reservations in South Dakota.  He also worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs under various health related projects.  Eastman provided detailed accounts about Indian warfare, land recessions, and the problems of the Indian reservation system that was created for North American Indians.  In exploring the issues regarding Eastman’s unique perspective on Indian education as the new Indian policy, in which I will examine through discussing deplorable conditions of the Indian reservation system during that time, and show the negative impact on the shift from Indian removal toward the colonization of the North American Indians. Then I will end on the importance of citizenship for North American Indians.

To start, Eastman does not shy away from describing the conditions of the North American Indians while they were forced to live on Indian reservations.  In the beginning of his book, Eastman stated, “In one sense his is a vanishing race,” but Eastman also stated that they are not dying off, but “increasing in numbers and vitality” (3).  Here, Eastman opens with two beliefs, which was that the Indian race was coming to an end, but in another view, was that Indians were not dying off, but growing and enduring.

Eastman reported various epidemics such at the 1840 cholera outbreak that killed many Native peoples that lived along rivers and lakes (11-12).  Due to no previous contact with the white colonizers, Native peoples during that time were not immune to the white people’s diseases. Eastman recounted many other diseases (such bronchitis, pneumonia, venereal) that nearly destroyed many American Indian tribes.  Eastman provided that, “Many tribes were decimated and others wiped out entirely by the ravages of strong drink and disease, especially smallpox and cholera” (11).

There was a growing demand for fur during the early 1900’s and European traders would exchange whiskey and gun powder for fur with the Indians, which Eastman called the “two great civilizers” and that “from the hour the red man accepted these he had in reality sold his birthright, and all unconsciously consented to his ruin” (15).  By adding alcoholism and violence to the already disease ridden Indian reservations, you get a dangerous concoction that could exterminate an entire race.  Thus, granting the earlier notion that Indians were vanishing, but Eastman provided a latter that there was also North American Indians that were alive and thriving in the white man’s ways.

In Eastman’s chapter called the, “The New Indian Policy,” he expressed “the birth of a new era” for North American Indians and claimed that 40 Santee Dakota Sioux Indians were hung instead of three hundred and Eastman came to the defense of President Abraham Lincoln who reduced those charges (49-50).  Eastman concluded that many of those (Santee Sioux prisoners) who were spared (including his own father) became leaders to their people “walking in the white man’s road” (49-50).

Around the 1870’s, U.S. President Ulysses Grant and his administration created the Indian Peace Policy to end the political corruption against Indian land theft (57).  Grant created 10 U.S. Indian Commissioners and placed 72 Indian agencies under the control of churches, which moved the white man’s “Indian problem” from militant operations of Indian removal to religious control in hopes to civilize the North American Indian through God.  And for what?  Eastman stated that for every Indian warrior killed in battle was equivalent to 23 lives of Calvary soldiers (51).  Eastman stated that the government realized that they could not exterminate the North American Indians as it deemed impossible, but found that Christianizing them was cheaper. Eastman stated that, “the Indian, when making his last stand against injustice, is a desperate and a dangerous enemy” (51).  This implies that the North American Indians were not going to give up their lands easily and have proven to be strong warriors and would go to extremes to fight for their people.

For ten years or up until 1883, Grant’s mission to Christianize the North American Indians was working, but was dismantled and taken over by what Eastman called “by a clamor of politicians” and “sectarian disputes” and “bitter and hostile rivals” (54).  Nevertheless, the outcome of this prodigious mission to save the Indians was that not all North American Indians converted to Christianity, but the need to educate and give them citizenship became the next goal.

Many volunteer organizations were formed like the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee (formed in 1879), which this committee helped North American Indians claim citizenship through taxation (57).  Eastman also mentioned the Indian Rights Association (organized in 1882) who were a well advised group that stayed up to date on all legislations that affected North American Indians and exposed Indian agencies of any mismanagement and abuse (58).  With the surge of Indian organizations, Grant’s administration contracted missions to develop a school system for the North American Indians.

By 1886, Eastman stated that Indian education had more than one million dollars and thirty one thousand dollars in contracts (67).  Unfortunately, by 1900, funding churches for Indian education became illegal because it was a “violation of the American principle of separation of Church and State (78).  Soon after boarding schools were installed and ran under General R. H. Pratt, which one well known boarding school opened (at an abandoned army barracks) called Carlisle.  Eastman stated that the Carlisle School was the first Indian boarding school (off the Indian reservation) that first began with 147 Indian children (70).  Over the years, the Carlisle grew to over 1,200 Indian students.  Another school or more accurately an “Indian Department” that Eastman mentioned was called the Hampton Institute where General Pratt kept 17 prisoners of war and also over one hundred Indian students every academic year (72).

The Carlisle Boarding School and the Hampton Institute became the vehicle in educating Indian students and the Hampton Institute even received funding support of over twenty thousand dollars a year from the U.S. government.  The success rates of these schools are controversial and Eastman stated that only a few Indian graduates “ever do reassume Indian dress or ways (73).  Eastman also reported that Carlisle reported that they had “565 living graduates” where 69 of them became prosperous and 110 worked in government (73).  By 1913, Eastman stated that there were 223 Indian day schools and 76 Indian reservation boarding schools that went up to the eighth grade and a few others had a few courses in business (76).

By 1915, the U.S. government had spent 4.5 million dollars toward Indian education, which broken down to specifics, the Indian Bureau reported 77,000 Indian children were accounted for (76).  Of that, 27,000 were in government schools, 25,000 in public schools, and 4,000 were in mission schools.  The remaining 20,000 were cited as “neglected” and 7,000 were sick and children unable to attend school due to health problems and such (76).  It looks like 1/3 of Indian children were placed in days schools near home, another 1/3 placed in faraway militant type boarding schools, and the other 1/3 were largely ignored (Eastman mentions the Navajo people having hardly any Indian schools).  Of all the monies spent placing Indian children in boarding schools and in day schools, Eastman admits that there were problems, which included Indian children dying from tuberculosis and the people who were in charge at these boarding schools (mainly Indian Commissioners) had little experience working with Indians and soon corruption ensued.  All this led to the government needing to re-examine these school systems and possible shutting them down.

Surprisingly, Eastman was a strong advocate for Indian education and Eastman believed that educating the Indian children was the best thing for them at that time.  He stated that “the Indian will soon adjust himself fully” and “be able to appreciate its magnificent achievements” and “contribute to the modern development of the land of his ancestors” (80).

Eastman is a good example of the educated Indian and he proclaimed that he was once a young wild Santee Sioux Indian child from Canada who became civilized through Christianization and made education an important part of his life.  I think he can relate to the situation of these Indian children at that time because they had no other choices that would free them from the desolate Indian reservation system.  Eastman is the spitting image of the model Indian that white people appreciated.  As a successful Indian Sioux man himself, Eastman obviously touted this as the best option for Indian children during that time.

In Eastman’s chapter called, “The Indian As A Citizen,” he illustrates the success of North American Indian tribes such as his people, the Santee Sioux (including his father), who became homesteaders (within 15 years) and built a thriving community (after the outbreak of 1862) called Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  Eastman provided that with the success of many North American Indian tribes, they are not recognized as U.S. citizens, but as wards of the government (101).

At the end of his book Eastman stated that the American Indian’s “greatest worth is spiritual and philosophical,” and that he will live in “his faithful adherence to the new ideals of American citizenship, but in living thought of the nation (178).  Here, Eastman is advocating for American Indian citizenship by stating that American Indians can thrive in the white society and can become great citizens to the white man’s nation.  I imagine this is a sad reality for North American Indians at that time, but for Eastman it was the fundamental truth in going forward and becoming American Indian citizens in order to enjoy new freedoms that they desperately needed.  Free from the reservation system and free from the bondages of the white man’s belief that Indians were no good savages.  I don’t think Eastman believed that North American Indians could become completely white washed and leave behind their native culture and beliefs, but that they could take the good from both cultures and infuse them to something more greater that they could imagine.  Getting U.S. citizenship was Eastman’s next goal for his people and for North American Indians because it was a sign of recovery and moving towards a better reality.


Eastman, Charles A. The Indian To-day: The past and Future of the First American. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1915. Print.