To promote the good citizenship of the Indians of this country, to help in all progressive movements to this end, and to emulate the sturdy characteristics of the North American Indian, especially his honesty and patriotism. [End Page 24]
Not too many years ago, in a conversation at a conference, I listened to someone rant about the early-twentieth-century Dakota intellectual Charles Eastman: “He was so assimilated. I hate to see those pictures of him in a suit and a starched white collar. He was so implicated in the colonial project that I just can’t take him seriously.” And so on. My own thought was rather different. It seemed to me that Eastman was an extraordinary figure. “If Eastman walked into the room right now,” I suggested, “you and I would hardly be able to look him in the face. He was that much more interesting, more committed, more able than you and I.”
In October 2011 a group of scholars gathered in Columbus, Ohio, to contemplate, consider, and celebrate the founding meeting of the Society of American Indians in 1911. We could not look Eastman in the face, but his presence was palpable. No one could forget that he and his colleagues had walked the same land where we now stepped, almost exactly a century before. Their interests, commitments, and abilities mattered, for the Society of American Indians (sai) had bequeathed to us what were, one hundred years later, now visible as a set of legacies. And their discussions and debates continue to frame problems for the future.
A century feels like a long while, but it is almost no time at all. My own life feels relatively brief. But take two of me, and you have arrived back in 1911, with years to spare. The generations of memory and story that carry one back to the past easily traverse the rather meaningless block of time we call a “century.” Indeed, my great-grandfather, Philip J. Deloria, was also in Columbus for the inaugural meeting of the Society. If I contemplate meeting Charles Eastman face-to-face on the Ohio [End Page 25] State University campus, I also have to contemplate meeting my namesake and near-ancestor on the same street. The thought is both exciting and disconcerting.
No one should be surprised to hear me defend Eastman or other sai members on the complications that underlie this question of “assimilation” and “colonization,” for my great-grandfather is quite easily placed in the “assimilated” category. While other members of the Society of American Indians practiced medicine or law or museum scholarship or worked in the Indian office or at Carlisle, my great-grandfather’s starched white collar came from the Episcopalian Church, which educated, trained, and then appointed him the head of the mission on the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota.1 Church, ethnography, museums, the colonial bureaucracy—all these things were significant tools of domination, and it can be hard to see an Indian person occupying one of these positions and not also see the active shadow of assimilation.
That shadow was cast in at least three ways: In the most general sense all these colonial practices and institutions were critical to abstract, historical processes of domination. At a biographical level it is not unreasonable to think that the individual people of the sai—Charles Eastman, Arthur C. Parker, Angel DeCora, Francis LaFlesche, Sherman Coolidge, Gertrude Bonnin, and the rest—must themselves have been dominated and “assimilated.” And worst of all these individuals, so fervent about their professions, can be seen as the active agents and apostles of further assimilation—and thus the attenuation of Native cultures and societies. These things are undeniably true. It is also the case, however, that everyone in this cohort—in one way or another—worked actively to preserve elements of Native cultures and societies from destruction.
Recent scholarship has made ranting about the supposedly assimilated Indians of the turn of the twentieth century seem a little quaint, a kind of naive political artifact of the 1990s and early 2000s. Scholars have worked to understand the complexities embodied in Eastman and others of...