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Only A Teacher
Schoolhouse Pioneers
Henry Adams
Catharine Beecher
John Dewey
Elaine Goodale Eastman
Charlotte Forten
Margeret Haley
Horace Mann
Julia Richman
Laura Towne

Elaine Goodale Eastman (1863-1953)

In the course of her life, Elaine Goodale Eastman was a novelist, poet, journalist, editor and activist, and a schoolteacher only very briefly. But her influence on 19th century Native American education was considerable. At a time when few women lived so independently or spoke so publicly, she emerged as a voice for Native American rights by virtue of her inborn idealism and close association with the Sioux of South Dakota.

Elaine Goodale was born into a cultivated and literary New England farm family: she and her sister published their first book of poetry as children. The family counted many social reformers among their friends, and their own views were progressive, not to say idealistic. When the family farm was sold and Elaine needed a job, she turned to an old friend who recommended that she go teach at a school for freedmen.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the movement to educate former slaves extended to Native Americans, in an attempt to "civilize" non-white peoples. Indian children were sent to off-reservation boarding schools to teach them the ways of white society. Eastman began her career in the Indian Department at Hampton Institute in Virginia but soon moved to the Dakota Territories, to see where her students came from. There she opened a day school on a Sioux reservation, which she hoped would serve as a model for educating Indian children. Within six years she had become Supervisor of Indian Education for the Two Dakotas. In that role, she fought against the practice of removing Native American children from their families and sending them to distant boarding schools. She put her faith in reservation schools to "lift up" whole communities through assimilation. She was convinced that if Native people failed to assimilate, they would be annihilated.

She spoke with real authority about Indian life. In her memoir Sister to the Sioux, she describes one summer she spent travelling hundreds miles and living off the land, as part of what the Sioux called the Long Hunt and she referred to as "A Pagan Interlude." Later she met Ohiyesa Charles Eastman, a Santee Sioux who had been educated at Dartmouth and received a medical degree from Boston University. In him she saw the man she hoped would be her soulmate and the bridge to span her two worlds. The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 -- which she witnessed from the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation -- marred forever her optimism about the future of Indian/White relations. The horror of the Massacre was salved only by her marriage to Eastman. It was, ultimately, not a happy marriage, but, as historian Ruth Ann Alexander has said, one that proved an apt metaphor for the increasingly uneasy alliance between whites and Native Americans.

Eastman's experiences and character embraced a range of contradictions. She prided herself on her spirit of adventure and daring, but she was deeply conventional in many of her attitudes. She urged Native American women to follow a pattern of middle-class New England domesticity that she herself found constricting. Most strikingly, she loved the Sioux and their culture, but always believed in the superiority of her own Anglo culture. She must have known what would be lost if the Indians entirely adopted the ways of white people: their culture, their identity and the very qualities in them she most loved and admired.

Yet the contradictions that colored her life and her work on behalf of Native Americans also made her an acceptable go-between for the government and native peoples. Ultimately, her humane approach to Native American education made her stand out among reformers of her era.

In Her Own Words

"Certain phrases were constantly on my mother's lips: 'the beauty of service,' 'plain living and high thinking,' 'our own duties and other's rights.' I am sure her idealistic maxims have influenced me deeply. It seems I was educated in line with certain ultra-modern theories, which stress individual self-expression at a considerable risk of faulty adjustment to society."

"A gifted, lovable, self-reliant people stood at the crisis of their fate. The old way of life was hopelessly destroyed and their more far-seeing leaders ready and eager to advance into a new world. The hour had struck for a swift transition to another pattern of life altogether, before their self-respect had been undermined and their courage exhausted. Education was the master-key."

"Most people then believed that it was necessary to separate the children entirely from their home surrounding in order to accomplish results. One can hardly wonder that I found the boarding school routine in general drab and lifeless and the military discipline needlessly harsh."

Scholars on Elaine Goodale Eastman

Ruth Ann Alexander
Professor Emerita of English


Elaine really loved the work and she liked the country, liked the people very much. But she never lost the notion that they should be changed to white, that they should be reformed, even though there was this contradiction in her own enthusiasm for it.

The whole Indian Reform Movement advocated taking youngsters and immersing them, absolutely immersing them, in white culture. And this was done at boarding schools in the east like Hampton and Carlisle. Speaking their native language was forbidden; they had to cut their hair; they had to wear western dress. They had to adopt the traditional western customs, so they were all Christianized. That was the notion: you immerse them in this sort of life and then they become white, they become American. Elaine didn't believe in that. She believed in the day school, which was in the community, and she felt that the day school could lift up, gradually, the whole community.

Further Reading

Eastman, Elaine Goodale.
Pratt, The Red Man's Moses, 1935
Sister to the Sioux, 1978





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