The BUZZ | American Quarterly | Charles Eastman’s ‘School of the Woods’: Re-creation Related to Childhood, Race, Gender, and Nation at Camp Oahe

By Kiara M. Vigil

Vigil, Kiara M. “Charles Eastman’s ‘School of the Woods’: Recreation Related to Childhood, Race, Gender, and Nation at Camp Oahe.” American Quarterly Vol. 70, No. 1 (2018), pp. 25-53. 

In my article, I examine a unique program of outdoors education created by Charles (Ohiyesa) Eastman and his family. Although Eastman is well-known by historians and literary critics with an interest in Native American and Indigenous Studies due to his prominence at the turn of the twentieth century as a Dakota physician, author, and activist, the story of Camp Oahe has been largely absent from scholarship related to his life and writings. My article argues that Oahe offered Eastman a new venue to reach white audiences, both the campers and their parents, so that any performances of Indianness by Eastman, his daughters, or even their campers might shift popular attitudes and understandings concerning the future of Native people in the United States.

Located along the shores of Granite Lake, in Munsonville, New Hampshire the Eastman family founded their “School of the Woods” in 1916 as a summer camp for girls from nearby urban centers, like Boston and New York. Reading the Eastmans’ camp through two theoretical frameworks, 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 being promoted by groups like the Camp Fire Girls and Boy Scouts of America. To counter prevalent notions of savagery and primitivism, by utilizing redfacing as an embodied performative tactic and instructive cultural force, the Eastmans offered new stories of Indianness at Oahe that constituted survivance. As the main ambassador for the camp and philosophical leader, Eastman’s strategic choices of when to appear in Indian “garb” reflected a complex strategy of Indianized performance, one that referred to the cultural and ideological work of playing Indian that also aligned with the trickster figure. 

This article argues that “Indian play,” for the Eastmans, served a broader pedagogical and political purpose. In this regard, their camp was distinct from other wilderness outfits because they did not view Native practices as “savage” or part of an early stage in child-development that young people had to experience in order to overcome any tendencies towards wildness before they could grow up to be successful adults. By targeting white girlhood, the Eastmans taught the future mothers of the nation about the values of Dakota epistemologies so they might reframe Indian culture for their future sons and daughters. These efforts had political and socio-economic class implications, since Oahe was led by Eastman and his wife as well as their three eldest daughters. Representing themselves as exemplars of a Native cosmopolitanism, the Eastman daughters hoped white campers would embrace their place in society in order to fully accept all Indian people as shapers of the nation, and as integral to not only its past but also its future. As highly educated ladies who embraced some aspects of Christianity, Eastman’s daughters, who were both Dakota and white, recreated Indian play on their own terms for pedagogical purposes so they could help their campers be better prepared for college and enjoy some time away from home and the strictures of their families’ lives and white upper-class society.

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. It also illuminates how important his children were in their family dynamic and in the space of the camp. Eastman hired other Native “experts,” like Ho-Chunk artist Angel de Cora–a Smith College graduate who must have gotten to know the Eastman family well while she attended college and they lived just across the Kwintekw river in Amherst, Massachusetts—to help shape Oahe’s pageants by guiding their curation and the participation of white campers. De Cora had experience collaborating with Elaine Eastman, and Native writers like Zitkala-Sa and Francis La Flesche, by illustrating her book, and thus was highly familiar with the politics of representation inherent in any displays or narratives concerning Indians and Indianness. 

Oahe’s campers also took part in sporting activities, many of which Eastman details in his handbook, Indian Scout Talks (published by Brown Little and Company in 1914), which provided readers with tips on wilderness education from a Dakota perspective. Whether performing skits or practicing archery or canoeing, campers at Oahe were guided by the Eastmans and their staff to acknowledge these activities as forms of Indian play. Redfacing in this context differed dramatically from the minstrel tradition of “blackface,” in that Native people remained in control of how performances of Indianness were deployed. Thus, my essay provides new analysis of early twentieth century gender roles, dynamics, and expectations related to Indian people to reveal a new dimension of outdoors education’s role in shaping American attitudes regarding identity, family, childhood, and nation.


Kiara M. Vigil is an associate professor of American Studies at Amherst College. Trained as a cultural historian and literary critic the central focus of her research and teaching is on topics pertaining to the fields of Native American and Indigenous Studies and American Studies. She is the author of Indigenous Intellectuals: Sovereignty, Citizenship, and the American Imagination, 1880-1930, published by Cambridge University Press in 2015. She is currently working on her second book: Natives in Transit: Indian Entertainment, Urban Life, and Activism, 1930-1970, which examines a set of networks driven by performance and social activism that connected a wide-array of Indigenous people in Los Angeles and New York during the mid-twentieth century, one of whom was her great-grandfather the Dakota actor Shooting Star. Kiara’s research has been supported by fellowship awards from the Mellon Foundation, the Autry National Museum, the Newberry Library, the Rackham Graduate School of the University of Michigan, Williams College, and Amherst College. Her work can be found in American Quarterly, Great Plains Quarterly, and the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies.    


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