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  • Citizen KinCharles Eastman's Reworking of US Citizenship
  • Christopher Pexa (bio)

(Il)legible Subjects

Many, if not all, of the writings of author, physician, and intellectual Charles Alexander Eastman (Waȟpéthuŋwaŋ Dakhóta, 1858–1939) attempt to navigate the assimilationist demands of US settler society in relation to his own sense of Native societies' enduring epistemic and ethical differences from white "civilization." Part of a small group of Native American intellectuals comprising the leadership of the Society of American Indians (SAI), a Progressive Era organization that worked to air Native grievances and lobbied for the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act (ICA), Eastman was nonetheless often cast as a cultural mediator who worked to build a bridge between worlds inhabited by irreconcilable races. Indeed, throughout his adult life Eastman was in demand as a racialized spokesman, even serving as the representative of all North American Indians at the First Universal Races Congress, held in 1911 in London, where he joined W. E. B. Du Bois in a panel session entitled "The Modern Conscience in Relation to Racial Questions (the Negro and the American Indian)."

In his congress talk, entitled simply "The North American Indian," Eastman's remarks on the political place of Native Americans in the United States vividly frame my topic of discussion here: an Indigenous politics of the land whose embodied and relational contexts push back against a national citizenship model based in racialized, settler colonial logics of assimilation and absorption.1 Eastman broaches this politics almost innocuously, in a kind of ethnographic-nostalgic mode, through what he calls the "friendship" of "the first North American": [End Page 1]

A loyal and disinterested friendship was one of the finest things developed by the first North American, who knew how to be a true comrade, even to death. Intelligence combined with patriotism meant leadership, and was always at a premium. Of culture in the technical sense he had none, but that his mind was logical and keen is sufficiently proved by his oratory and generalship. His children were taught to obey: silence, self-control, self-denial, these were the foundations of character-building. There was a school of the woods in which the young were systematically trained in body and mind, by sports and Native arts of many kinds, nature-study and wood-craft, together with a thorough drill in tribal history, tradition, and folk-lore.

(Eastman, "North American Indian" 369)

Here, the merging of loyalty and disinterestedness recalls treaty language, where the perennial "peace and friendship" vowed between Indigenous and settler nations was often underscored with pledges of noninterference in one another's social and political lives or, in other words, by recognition of mutual sovereignty.2 Indeed, treaty discourse may have been the most effective means for Eastman to voice his twofold concerns in this speech: on the one hand, to argue for an end to government paternalism and to secure greater protections for Indigenous individuals, and on the other, to achieve these protribal goals through national incorporation. By framing friendship in terms of "intelligence" plus "patriotism," in which the latter is infused with "Indian" ideals of service, Eastman turns what might be taken as a nostalgic and racialized performance into the voicing of political questions that would inform the debate over Indian citizenship over the next decade: How may an "Indian" (a generic term that Eastman marks as specifically Dakhóta, as I will show) politics of the land move outward—from the stolen physical and epistemological grounds of the tribal nation to those of the settler nation—as a tribal-national supplement to US citizenship?3 And how might that "school's" lessons also move inward—within tribal nations—to re-Indigenize and reterritorialize long-occupied Dakhóta homelands?

This essay addresses these questions by examining Eastman's most overtly political work, The Indian To-day (1915), alongside two texts that deal with children's physical and moral education: his ostensibly apolitical handbook for children, Indian Scout Talks (1914), and his essay [End Page 2] "What Can the Out-of-Doors Do for Our Children?" (1920). The latter two works grew out of Eastman's close involvement with the Boy Scouts...


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