- A “Second Look” at Charles Alexander Eastman
In his 1914 article “‘My People’: The Indians’ Contribution to the Art of America,” Mdewakanton Dakota author Charles Alexander Eastman associates an Indian “sense of the aesthetic” with “religious feeling” (179). “That which is beautiful,” he writes, “must not be trafficked with, but must be reverenced and adored only. It must appear in speech and action” (179). Eastman disdains art in which “there is no mystery left; all is presented.” Native representational art differs from art of “the civilized world” not “in the lack of creative imagination” but “in [the Indian’s] point of view,” which is averse to commercialization of the sacred and mysterious (179).1 Despite Eastman’s contempt for art that presents “all” with “no mystery left,” scholars consistently argue that Eastman sought in his many publications to demystify Indian art for a non-Native audience. In such readings, Eastman is an “‘Indian informant’” who works against Indian stereotypes; he aims to draw “equivalencies between Indian and Euroamerican culture” or “to teach his readers that the tribes were noble” (Powell 421; Vizenor, Manifest Manners 50–51). In more tribal-centric accounts, Eastman “seeks to demystify and deromanticize” Dakota practices, and he works to transport his “reader into a Dakota-centered world” (Kelsey 53; Martínez 33).2
This essay argues that Eastman aims not to make Indians legible for white readers but to demonstrate the complexity of Indian information exchange and representational practice for distant audiences. Combining print publication with multiple voices and sites of knowledge in his work, Eastman creates an aesthetic that opens rather than seeks to resolve questions about Native peoples. This aesthetic emerges from childhood lessons that encouraged young Eastman to look beyond obvious sites and forms of information. In Indian Boyhood (1902), his [End Page 1] account of his childhood among the Mdewakanton Dakotas, Eastman describes an exemplary lesson in which his uncle asks him, “How do you know that there are fish in yonder lake?” (44). Ohiyesa (young Eastman) gives what he calls a “prompt but superficial” reply: “Because they jump out of the water for flies at mid-day” (44). In response, his uncle, White Footprint, compels him to look deeper within and around the lake: “What do you think of the little pebbles grouped together under the shallow water? and what made the pretty curved marks in the sandy bottom and the little sand-banks? Where do you find fish-eating birds? Have the inlet and the outlet of a lake anything to do with the question?” (44). Basing one’s conclusion on the jumping fish confines the observer to a superficial perspective where “all is presented” but little is known. In contrast, awareness of the groups of pebbles, the “curved marks” in the sand, the birds, and the flow of water to and from the lake provides a more comprehensive picture that links the jumping fish to many more subtle impressions. This requires more than a cursory assessment, and therefore Eastman’s uncle advises him “to follow the example of the shunktokecha (wolf). Even when he is surprised and runs for his life, he will pause to take one more look at you before he enters his final retreat. So you must take a second look at everything you see” (45). The “second look” does not end the conversation but opens up a series of questions and areas for further scrutiny; it points to information that is not easily accessible and requires looking again and shifting one’s point of view.3
Eastman’s childhood was filled with such moments of looking again, of seeing beyond immediate signs to deep-rooted patterns of behavior and action. In a period of immense change in his own life and in the lives of Native people more generally, Eastman adapted this practice as aesthetic into his books and articles, where he consistently alludes to intricate means of understanding that cannot be fully transmitted by nineteenth-century print technologies. When Eastman’s absent father, presumed dead after the violent U.S.-Dakota conflict of 1862, returned when Eastman was fifteen and encouraged him to pursue an American education, Eastman began to encounter...