Authorship Analyzed: Gretchen Eick’s double biography explores the writing careers (and marriage) of Charles and Elaine Eastman

Every few years, I teach a graduate seminar on “Authorship.” I’ve just begun the latest offering of the course. Preparing for it always involves reading around the topic in a range of ways: exploring memoirs by writers about their craft, revisiting issues of authorship such as copyright and intellectual property, and considering how to promote my students’ own authorship, for instance. Part of this preparatory work also involves reading other scholars’ studies of authorship–some of which make it onto the syllabus directly, and some of which may not become part of the official class readings yet inform my teaching nonetheless.

This year, one text that fits the latter category is a thoughtful book by Gretchen Eick, whose recent book on Charles and Elaine Eastman offers up a double study of authorship in action–maybe even a triple one, by examining the careers of each of these two fascinating writers as well as their authorial collaborations in the context of their complicated marriage.

Eick’s They Met at Wounded Knee offers readers a helpful example of how case studies of gendered authorship can simultaneously provide a compelling overview of a long-term body of literary writing and an illuminating analysis of writerly identities shaping particular publications’ conception and reception. Eick takes on by having her ambitious dual biography also show the Eastmans of her subtitle as deeply engaged in questions about Native Americans’ place in US culture. In each case, her research points to ways that an author’s work–whether a text by Charles or one by Elaine–is both constrained and enabled by the larger culture’s view of “Indian” identity and the writer’s efforts to navigate that complex terrain.

Intersectionality has rightly become a byword in today’s literary studies. However, models for actually doing scholarly inquiry intersectionally rare. By bringing together biographical study of both Elaine Goodale Eastman (1863-1953) and her husband Charles (Ohiyesa) Eastman (1858-1939) (Santee Dakota Sioux) as authors, Eick’s book enacts intersectional interpretive work. How? She situates her analysis in an historical context of Native American history. Throughout, against the backdrop of this larger history, Eick weaves in well-researched details demonstrating how different gendered role expectations, along with constraints and opportunities associated with their contrasting race identities, ultimately moved the Eastmans apart. And this growing separation, she shows, played out both personally and philosophically. Meanwhile, Eick’s book demonstrates what it meant for accomplished writers like the Eastmans to navigate complex, sometimes conflicting, social forces with intense self-awareness. As readers, we see how the two authors—while negotiating these personal tensions—produced an ever-shifting array of publications across multiple decades.

They Met at Wounded Knee sets up connected yet contrasting intersectional portraits. First, we learn about the bonds that initially united the two in a romantic cross-racial marriage. But over time, Eick’s study ultimately emphasizes, the Eastmans took divergent paths. She tracks Elaine’s evolution from education reform advocate (They Met, 81-83) and “Friends of the Indian” affiliate (85) to frustrated home-bound mother of multiple children and supporter of Charles’s growing celebrity as lecturer, memoirist, and spokesman for Native people. Social class, region, and educational experiences, Eick demonstrates, combined with race and class differences to generate constraints for both Charles and Elaine Eastman. Yet, these same conflicting forces ultimately provided them with different opportunities for writing-based social authority.

Charles, sometimes viewed too simplistically as an ideal assimilated Indian, emerges in this dual biography as a principled activist determined to serve his Native community and, over time, increasingly committed to a Pan-Indian vision. Eick’s thoughtful engagement with his oeuvre includes well known autobiographical narratives like Indian Boyhood (1902) and From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916).

However, she also spotlights less familiar material such as his speech at the 1911 First Universal Races Congress in London (They Met, 185) and his involvement with the Society of American Indians (SAI), including his collaborations with Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša) and writings for The American Indian Magazine (220). If Charles, after separating from Elaine and spending his last years back in Native homeland, could still affirm his wife’s original commitment to Sioux culture, in Eick’s view he would also mourn how the woman who had shared his passionate devotion to Indigenous causes grew increasingly conservative and pressed their children to align with her white New England heritage.

On a parallel yet distinct track, Eick gives Elaine Eastman credit for writings, in the 1880s and the early 1890s, grounded in time spent within Lower Brulé Sioux community. There an idealistic young Elaine learned the local language and advocated for reservation-based day schools over boarding schools. Eick movingly depicts the pair nursing survivors of the infamous Wounded Knee massacre, then condemning that genocidal attack in reporting for white audiences back East. This book’s They Met at Wounded Knee title becomes doubly accurate, marking both the literal historical occasion that brought the Eastmans together and, more figuratively, the one area of agreement in their views on Native Americans that would remain constant across decades: the Eastmans’ shared horror at the US government’s assault on Indian peoples, particularly in the brutal genocide embodied in that 1890 massacre.

Given a focus on tracing forces that pulled the Eastmans’ marriage and their writings in different directions, They Met understandably devotes less attention to their collaborative publications. Looking beyond this book, it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that, despite their domestic tensions, the Eastmans’ collaborative authorship produced notable successes.

Similarly, the only two of six offspring claiming notable attention in Eick’s account are Ohiyesa II and Irene. Here again, though, Eick’s emphases fit her focus on the parents’ growing cultural tensions. The Eastmans’ sole son, Ohiyesa II, Eick argues, eventually identified most of all the siblings with his father’s culture, despite spending much of his youth in New England.

The talented singer Irene Taluta, whose tragic death from the 1918 flu heightened her parents’ increasing estrangement (216-19, 234), stands in at a familial site of love and loss.

Through Eick’s research and an intersectional approach foregrounding Native issues, the social and political history shaping the Eastmans’ experiences becomes more than mere backdrop. She spotlights turning points in Indian policy and its devasting impact on Native communities. For instance, she undoes any positive assumptions about white homesteading that some readers might have learned from more traditional histories of the West. Additionally, negative results emerging from the Dawes Act claim Eick’s convincing criticism. Equally illuminating, however, are historical milestones that some readers might not associate with Native American history, including World War I and its role as a rallying point for seeking Indian citizenship.

Eick returns repeatedly to key figures involved in shaping the fate of Native peoples from the nineteenth into the mid-twentieth century and beyond. Predictably, for example, Richard Henry Pratt strides memorably into the Eastmans’ lives as controversial leader of the infamous residential boarding school movement, a position at odds with Elaine’s favoring of on-reservation teaching early in her career. Yet, Eick recounts, Pratt provided employment for Charles in one of many periods when the Eastmans’ family finances were under duress, and Elaine would eventually write a biography which, in some respects, recuperated Pratt’s reputation. Elaine’s seeming acceptance of Pratt’s program, in the end, may have been understandable to white readers of her day. But Eick’s account of her shifting position on assimilationist teaching is hard reading now, especially in light of multiple discoveries of children’s graves in First Nations schools in Canada and the call by current Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) for parallel investigations in the US.

Lesser-known now, yet then-influential personalities come alive here as well. John Collier’s time as Commissioner of Indian Affairs becomes a telling example of how white political figures, however well-intentioned, repeatedly exercised far-reaching control over Native communities, undermining their sovereignty.  

Eick’s project aligns with efforts to study settler colonialism and its abuses relationally. Thus, she underscores resonances between post-Civil War assaults on African Americans and persistent moves by Congress and a series of US presidents to suppress Native people. Through such details, linking the Eastman’s personal and professional lives with this larger historical narrative, They Met at Wounded Knee provides an informative critique of structural racism. Beyond readers of this book most intrigued by its gender analysis of authorship, therefore, Eick’s work will be useful to readers eager to immerse in a case study of race, region, and social differences as they interact with US history writ large.

They Met at Wounded Knee: The Eastmans’ Story. By Gretchen Cassel Eick. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2020. ix+354 pp. $45.00 cloth/$42.75 e-book/kindle

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