Academic journal article MELUS

"Playing Indian" in Print: Charles A. Eastman's Autobiographical Writing for Children

Academic journal article MELUS

"Playing Indian" in Print: Charles A. Eastman's Autobiographical Writing for Children

Article excerpt

Charles Alexander Eastman holds a curious position in Native American literary studies, his work more often the object of an obligatory nod than the subject of sustained critical analysis. What critical attention Eastman has received has focused largely on the second of his two explicitly autobiographical works, From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of an Indian (1916), while scholars generally have little to say about the earlier memoir, Indian Boyhood (1902). This curious scholarly neglect of what is perhaps Eastman's best-known work seems attributable in part to the fact that Indian Boyhood is, in the words of one reader, "expressly a children's book" (O'Brien 34), a book limited both in its subject matter and its intended audience. Hertha Dawn Wong, for instance, devotes a few pages to Indian Boyhood in her study of Native American autobiography but concludes that the book is significant primarily as "background reading for understanding the more mature Eastman found in From the Deep Woods to Civilization" (145). Bernd Peyer voices another common sentiment when he maintains that Eastman depicts "a somewhat idealized, nostalgic childhood" in his writing, "made to correspond to values adopted in the course of his later Christian upbringing" (233). This notion that Eastman mined his memories of childhood in service to a set of ideas or values foreign to that childhood is much more forcefully argued by H. David Brumble III, who outlines (in one of the few sustained analyses of Indian Boyhood) a thoroughgoing critique of Eastman's "Romantic Racialist and Social Darwinist assumptions" in his first autobiography (148).

What these diverse critical appraisals share is a sense that Eastman's early attempt at autobiography lends itself to easy summary, particularly when set next to his later volume of autobiography, composed by "a more mature Eastman" and addressed, as Peyer notes, "to a mature reader" (235). In this light, Indian Boyhood appears uncomplicated, unsophisticated--in short, a children's book. As such, the text does not seem to invite (or require) the sort of inquiry into questions of identity and politics that From the Deep Woods to Civilization, even in its title, encourages. Particularly to readers interested in just such critical questions, Eastman's Indian Boyhood reads as something of a disappointment, and raises questions of a different sort: how could one who knew the trials and tragedies of Native American life so intimately, who had personally searched for survivors among the dead at Wounded Knee, have so thoroughly glossed over those ugly realities in recalling his life as an Indian boy? And, perhaps more to the point: what did Eastman hope to gain by writing a story of Indian childhood primarily for child readers?

The question becomes more complicated in light of the widely held perception at the turn of the century that Native Americans were, in the evolutionary scheme of things, a "child race." Viewed through the racial ideologies of the time, Native Americans appeared to be frozen in an early stage of human development, no more sophisticated than the children of the "advanced" races, and thus in need of vigilant supervision as wards of the superior white "civilization." In the context of such racist assumptions, one might expect Native American writers such as Eastman to depict Indian adulthood, in all its complexity and particularity and self-sufficiency--the sort of self-portrait Frederick Douglass presented in his Narrative, a half-century earlier, as a direct challenge to similar stereotypes regarding the child-like dependency of African-American slaves.

To be sure, one might argue, as Brumble does, that Eastman's choice of subject matter and audience in Indian Boyhood is "quite consciously appropriate" in light of his apparent acceptance, even affirmation, of the prevailing notions of the evolutionary immaturity of Native Americans (162). …

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