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Charles Alexander Eastman (1858-1939)

Native American M.D., Author

Eastman received his medical degree from the Boston University School of Medicine in 1890 and began medical service for the Office of Indian Affairs later that year. Eastman served at Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota, and was an eyewitness to both events leading up to and following the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890.

Pine Ridge was located only miles above the massacre site, and Eastman treated Native American victims of the United States Army's attack. Eastman continued work at various posts as reservation physician until 1903. He served as president of the Society of American Indians following World War I, then joining Carlos Montezuma in directing a Society campaign to abolish the Office of Indian Affairs. During the 1920s, Eastman served the government as an inspector of reservation conditions. He died on January 8, 1939.

Exhibit Case 8B

Dr. Charles A. Eastman seated left side pose, in traditional traditional Sioux war shirt with a feathered headdress holding a tomahawk.

Charles A. Eastman, 1897
BAE GN 3463,
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Seated frontal view of Charles A. Eastman, 1913 Photographic reproduction: From collections of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photo no. 3462-a.

Charles A. Eastman, 1913
BAE GN 03462A 06583800
Courtesy National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Graduation announcement of Charles A. Eastman from the Boston University School of Medicine, 1890 [not shown in online exhibition].

"Perhaps the most important principle underlying the practice of the Indian medicine-man is one which the "quacks" of civilization so largely utilize -- they prey upon the weaknesses and superstitions of the human mind. Many people, even in an age of science, seem willing to risk their lives on treatments unexplainable, mysterious and bordering on superstition. This is the ground upon which the cunning medicine-man based his profession, and more, he did not hesitate to proclaim it openly. However good his medicines might be -- and undoubtedly some of them were efficacious -- he never lost sight of the spiritual side of health and disease. Invariably he began his treatment with an elaborate acknowledgement of the superhuman power which gave him wisdom and the secrets of healing. His technique had much in common with Christian Science and was frequently hypnotic in character.

It is not surprising that the Indians should hold some peculiar and superstitious beliefs in connection with the human body, for they had very little knowledge of physiology and pathology. Their knowledge of anatomy was limited to such animals as they were accustomed to dress for food. They believed that most disease is mental -- that it is caused by an "evil spirit" -- (mental fatigue or depression?) This cannot be cured by drugs alone, therefore they call upon the "Great Mystery" through his creatures to drive away the evil spirit. This idea conveniently served two purposes -- first, its effect upon the mind of the patient, and second, in case the treatment fails, the savage doctor may claim that the spirits are offended and nothing will do."

Source: Charles A. Eastman, "The Medicine Man's Practice," Pharmaceutical Era, vol. 52, 1919, p. 281.