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  • On Autobiography, Boy Scouts and Citizenship:Revisiting Charles Eastman's Deep Woods
  • Tova Cooper (bio)

Let us follow the trail of the Indian in his search for an earthly paradise!

Charles Eastman, Indian Scout Talks

During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, autobiography served as one means by which new citizens, whether immigrants, American Indians, or African Americans, claimed belonging to the United States. Even though many ethnic autobiographers critiqued mainstream U. S. culture and policies, they did so within an atmosphere of nativism and racism, which often compelled them to frame their critiques with an embrace of their adopted country and its ideologies. In From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of an Indian (1916), the Dakota (Santee) Sioux writer Charles Eastman couches his critique of the United States within an assimilationist framework. Many critics of Eastman's work have cited this text, as well as an earlier memoir, Indian Boyhood (1902), as examples of Eastman's immersion in a Social Darwinist mindset and his complicity with, or at best ambivalence about, the ideology of assimilation prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century.1

Eastman has been particularly controversial in recent years because American Indian literary critics who have embraced native struggles for political sovereignty and cultural autonomy (Craig Womack and Robert Allen Warrior, for example), view Eastman's acculturation to mainstream U. S. culture and his rejection of reservation life as evidence [End Page 1] of his antipathy to Indian tribes' ongoing struggles to be recognized as nations. In Red Matters (2002), Arnold Krupat characterizes the approach of critics like Womack and Warrior as nationalist and contrasts their approach with what he terms "cosmopolitan comparativism"; critics like Krupat recognize the influence of Western intellectual culture on native authors and attempt to establish a productive dialogue not only between Indian nations and the United States, but between Indian nations and other ethnic groups within the United States.2 This essay participates in Krupat's cosmopolitan criticism insofar as it recognizes the influence of mainstream values on Eastman's writing; however, it also emphasizes the way in which Eastman attempted—and succeeded, in some cases—to bring "Indian" (and particularly, Sioux), values to American culture.

Eastman's critics correctly suggest that in his autobiographical texts, Eastman represents his adoption of "civilization" as progress; this essay emphasizes, however, how the assimilationist rhetoric of Deep Woods functions as a genre convention through which Eastman offers a veiled critique of the violent and dramatic transformations effected by his education in U. S. institutions. Gerald Vizenor's discussion of "manifest manners" provides one useful framework for understanding Eastman. Eastman was, in Vizenor's terms, a "warrior of survivance" who simulated the language and values of the dominant culture, but did so self-consciously, in order to "undermine the simulations of the unreal in the literature of dominance" (12). One reason why Eastman has been dismissed by so many critics as an assimilationist is not only because they have treated Indian Boyhood and Deep Woods as representative texts, but because they have not properly valued these texts' simulations of survivance. Moreover, by overlooking other texts through which Eastman conveyed his increasing skepticism about U. S. culture and policies, these critics miss the opportunity to see him as a figure who adapted his pan-Indian sensibility to reimagine civic culture in the United States. Thus, whereas the surface narrative of Deep Woods represents Eastman's identity as multi-layered, with his "Indian" qualities subsumed by the white American ones, his other texts emphasize the centrality of "Indian" values to U. S. culture, and promote recognition of native contributions to historical and contemporary life in the United States. By situating Deep Woods as one in a series of texts (published between 1914 and 1919) through which Eastman critiqued the [End Page 2] ideology and exclusionary citizenship policies of the United States, this essay emphasizes the productive elements of Eastman's ambivalence.3

Charles Eastman (1858–1939) was a doctor, autobiographer, children's writer, and political activist who, at the age of fifteen, began years of schooling that would increasingly distance him from the Sioux upbringing of his childhood. Eastman had good reason...


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