Settler girls play Indian too! Kiara M. Vigil, ‘Charles Eastman’s “School of the Woods”: Re-creation related to Childhood, Race, Gender, and Nation at Camp Oahe’, American Quarterly, 70, 1, 2018, pp. 25-53

04Apr18

Abstract: This essay examines a program of outdoor education created by Charles (Ohiyesa) Eastman—Dakota physician, author, and activist—which has been largely absent from scholarly work on his life and writings. The Eastman family founded Oahe in 1916 in New Hampshire as a summer camp for girls. Reading the Eastmans’ camp through the lenses of redfacing and survivance, I provide new insights into the “playing Indian” phenomenon associated with outdoors education that was part of an American youth wilderness movement promoted by groups like the Camp Fire Girls and Boy Scouts of America. For the Eastmans, “Indian play” served a broader pedagogical and political purpose. Their camp was distinct from other wilderness outfits because they did not view Native practices as “savage” and part of an early stage in child development that young people had to experience and overcome to become successful adults. Rather, the Eastman family sought to engage white girlhood to teach the future mothers of the nation about the values of Dakota teachings to recast Indian culture. Oahe was led by Eastman and his wife as well as their three eldest daughters, who were themselves exemplars of a Native cosmopolitanism that they hoped white campers would embrace to fully accept Indian people as shapers of American society and as integral to the past as well as future of the United States. The story of Oahe highlights a new venue Eastman used to represent himself as a Native intellectual and reveals his awareness of the structural limits of settler colonialism. Oahe illuminates Eastman’s cultural politics of recognition as someone poised to respond to the threats of erasure and dispossession posed by the colonial state. In this context, the Eastman family’s camp sought to counter prevalent notions of savagery and primitivism by using redfacing as an embodied performative tactic and instructive cultural force that constituted survivance. Whether performed by the Eastmans or their campers, redfacing in this context differed from the minstrel tradition of “blackface,” since Indian people remained in control of how to deploy these strategic performances of Indianness. This essay provides new analysis of early twentieth-century gender roles, dynamics, and expectations related to Indian people to reveal another dimension of outdoors education in shaping American attitudes toward identity, family, childhood, and nation.



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