Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The "Squaw's" Tale Sympathy and Storytelling in Mary Eastman's Dahcotah

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The "Squaw's" Tale Sympathy and Storytelling in Mary Eastman's Dahcotah

Article excerpt

Mary Eastman is remembered today mainly for Aunt Phillis's Cabin (1852), one of the most popular and venomous of the many southern attacks on Uncle Tom's Cabin. Several years before Aunt Phillis, however, Eastman had earned her literary reputation writing polemical works not on the southern home but on the western frontier. A Virginian temporarily transplanted to Fort Snelling in Minnesota with her husband, artist and army officer Seth Eastman, she published upon her return east Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux (1849), the first of several collections concerning the bands of Santee or eastern Sioux (Dakota) Indians who lived in the vicinity of the fort. [1] Based, Eastman writes, on tales told her by the Sioux medicine woman Checkered Cloud, Dahcotah has roots in both the imaginative works on Indian life produced by Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Lydia Sigourney, and others, and the western adventure writings of Washington Irving and Francis Parkman. Allied to frontier literature by its emphasis on firs thand experience and political commentary, Eastman's work applies its descriptive and prescriptive powers not to the domains of hunting and warfare that most authors had taken as the salient features of Indian existence, but to the domestic duties, romantic trials, and private worlds of Sioux women. Even at a cursory glance, Dahcotah announces its compound nature: its frontispiece, one of several engravings contributed by Eastman's husband, shows a group of women seated on a broad expanse of prairie before a cluster of lodges; the titles of the sketches, such as "Checkered Cloud, the Medicine Woman," "Wenona; or, the Virgin's Feast," and "The Dahcotah Bride," fuse the alien names of the "savage" wilderness with the familiar titles of the domestic community. Dahcotah is significant, on the one hand, for its portrayal of Sioux-United States relations during a critical phase in their mutual history: two years after its publication, the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota initiated the reservation period f or the Santee. [2] Yet at the same time, Eastman's text is noteworthy for its insistence that the lives of Indian women, lives that in her time (and ours) have been relegated to romantic fancy while being excluded from the official chronicle of treaties, wars, and removals, are vital to the history of Indian-white encounter.

Indeed, it may be Eastman's placing of women at the center of this encounter that has led Dahcotah itself to be either ignored outright by literary critics, or belittled, as by Roy Harvey Pearce in the standard survey of Indians in American literature, as "terribly sentimental" (117). Recent reevaluations of antebellum women's writings have made it difficult to treat "sentimental" and "terrible" as synonyms; "sentimental" literature has been recognized as a "complex imaginative phenomenon" irreducible to any two-word precis (Dobson 170). Pearce's caricature of Eastman, however, has remained largely unchallenged. In part, this may reflect a broader neglect of antebellum southern women writers. [3] In part, it may reflect a bias among literary scholars, only recently changing to any degree, toward just the sexual division Eastman's century claimed (eastern female sentimentalists, western male explorers). [4] At the same time, the negative assessment of frontier sentimentalists such as Eastman reflects an emerg ing critical consensus that white women's writings on Indians, no matter how "sympathetic" (indeed, even or especially when sympathetic) hinge on a naive fantasy of domestic harmony that both abets the violence of expansion and disguises the ways in which women were "implicated in expansionist processes" (Georgi-Findlay xi) [5] For it is plain in the case of Indian-white relations that the gender ideologies often associated with sentimental literature sustained and perpetuated practices of racial injustice. Invoking the "deleterious effect of barbarism of manners upon the social position of Woman" ("Social Condition" 491), and insisting that civilization alone could guarantee "the ennobling influence which renders [woman], in her proper sphere, the friend and adviser of man" (McKenney and Hall 249), Euro-American writers could at once deny the sexual imbalances in their society and portray geographic expansion as a necessary evolution toward enlightened gender mutuality. …

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