Biopolitical Temporalities and Native Girlhood in Elaine Goodale Eastman’s Yellow Star | Mary Zaborskis

Biopolitical Temporalities and Native Girlhood in Elaine Goodale Eastman’s Yellow Star

by Mary Zaborskis

Assistant Professor of American Studies and Gender Studies, School of Humanities
Penn State Harrisburg
Paper presented at the MLA 2022 Roundtable: The Biopolitics of Childhood
Washington DC, January 8, 2022
[Please do not circulate or cite without permission of the author.]

This paper examines the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century textual production around Zintkala Nuni (Zintka), an infant survivor of Wounded Knee, to consider the futures available to Native children under the guise of welfare, care, and progress. After the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890), Zintka was abducted and illegally adopted by General Leonard Colby, who brought Zintka home to his wife, Clara Bewick Colby, a women’s rights activist and founder of the suffragist periodical The Woman’s Tribune (1883-1909). Zintka was a public figure from the moment of her abduction, narrated as a peculiar surviving anachronism of a conquered people across her childhood in newspapers, lectures, and events. Elsewhere, I have argued that throughout her childhood, Zintka “bore the burden of incommensurate coexisting temporalities: she was the embodiment of a settler-perceived/desired solidly-frozen Native past that enabled settler temporality; [and] she was the female child who should carry on the legacy of her suffragist ‘mother,’ ushering in a future of gender equality from which she would be excluded by virtue of her race” (Zaborskis, forthcoming in American Literature in Transition: 1876-1910).

This burden was manufactured and amplified in writing about Zintka that was particularly concerned with how this child would grow up. In 1895, a popular column entitled “Zintka’s Corner” was established in Bewick Colby’s periodical in response to public interest in Zintka. This column, which chronicled Zintka’s experiences in childhood and to which Zintka later contributed, became defunct as Zintka entered adolescence. The last column ran in 1902, when Zintka was 12, which raises questions about why public interest and the intense preoccupation with how this child would grow up expired upon her reaching a certain age. For her “mother” and the suffragist population consuming her story, Zintka could only function as the symbol of white benevolent feminist futures while she remained a child. Her symbolic function diminished as she grew, which also corresponds with Bewick Colby finding her impossible to raise anymore in real life – Bewick Colby ultimately abandoned her role as caretaker and sent Zintka away to predominantly white and later Native American boarding schools. Zintka eventually ran away and attempted to support herself by “playing Indian” (Deloria 1998), joining the Buffalo Bill Show for a season and later acting in Hollywood, occupying a mode of indigeneity that her abduction prevented her from inhabiting outside of these performances. Zintka’s position in white kinship and settler temporality was contingent on her not exceeding the infantilized, suspended, immobilized role of Native girl.

While the column stopped running in 1902, a fictionalized account of Zintka’s childhood in the form of a children’s story was published in 1911. Elaine Goodale Eastman’s wrote Yellow Star when Zintka was 21. Goodale Eastman, the wife of Sioux doctor Charles Eastman, was a friend of Bewick Colby and while she met Zinkta a few times in her childhood, they did not have a relationship (although her husband was actually part of the team that discovered the surviving Zintka in the arms of her dead mother after the murders of women and children at Wounded Knee). Goodale Eastman was a prominent figure in the genocidal project of Indian education – she taught at several educational institutions for Native children, held positions in the Bureau of Indian Affair’s education program, and later wrote the biography of Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Industrial School.

The sentimental children’s text that Goodale Eastman wrote was largely based on the public narrative and romanticization of Zintka as the stoic orphan, upposed last survivor of her people, and beneficiary of and model for assimilation into bourgeois white womanhood. In what follows, I consider how Yellow Star functions as a biopolitical text in both form and content: the text works to manipulate its protagonist’s (an idealized Zintka) position in time, permitting her to grow up once there is a guarantee she will disappear into a white future in which she will be assimilated and subservient to white causes. I consider the vexed position the living Zintka occupied in relation to the settler and feminist forces projected upon her fictional form in the text and what it tells us about approaches to and settler feminist desires for Native children.

Briefly, Yellow Star refers to the English translation of the protagonist’s name, which the omniscient narrator tells us she chose for herself at age 4. Yellow Star is more frequently referred to as her “school name . . . Stella, because it is the Latin for Star” (58), but also sometimes with a racialized nickname for her Ojibwe heritage, as well as “The-One-who-was-left-Alive” (59). Her mediated, translated, overlapping identities encapsulate the contradictory spatiotemporalities in which she’s embedded and are captured in these varied names. In the fictional story, Stella was orphaned as a child and taken in by a missionary and his wife; when the missionary dies, his wife, Lucy, returns to her hometown of Laurel with Stella, and she enrolls Stella in the local school. Here, Stella excels and is generally viewed as a positive influence on her classmates. Critic Ruth Alexander notes that the text “resembled that of . . . popular juvenile stories of the time” (“Elaine Goodale Eastman” 95, 1998), with its focus on school, domestic tasks, relationships with teachers, and girlhood friendships.

The text is fascinating and I am working on a larger essay about it, but given my limited time, today I will focus on one central plot line in the text that sets up for a conclusion that reveals the function that Stella serves for the settler community in which she finds herself. In a chapter entitled “Wild West Performance,” Stella and her friends go to see the Buffalo Bill show in a neighboring town. Before they arrive, Stella’s friend gushes that this show will “make [Stella] think of home” (79) with its “real, painted, plumed, ferocious warries and daring horsemen of the plains” (78-9). Stella corrects this notion by reminding her friend “our men all dress like farmers now, and most all wear their hair short. I never saw anything like this before” (79). The chapter opens with the settler fantasy of and pleasure in viewing those “playing Indian,” and Stella asserts that this fantasy is neither a past or a future for her – this is not a version of Indianness she or the community from which she’s come has had access to, nor is it a version present among peoples who have been forced to assimilate to survive. That her friends have access to this fantasy and impose it on Stella shows how Stella’s attempts at assimilation, while recognized in some ways in the Laurel community, are curbed by settler-imposed limits – Laurel is not viewed as her home, the reservation and the fantastical past attached to it is still viewed as her home.  

While Stella doesn’t recognize the performance of indigeneity in the show, she does recognize some of the performers from home and connects with a young woman nursing a sick baby. Stella doesn’t immediately return to Laurel with her friends, and instead stays to help take care of the baby. While Stella does eventually return to Laurel, she “seemed to everybody a good deal older, after her Wild West adventure. She was now nearly fifteen, and the eager, child-like wish to belong was already partly obscured by the more womanly and deeper desire to help” (98). Stella’s attempt to connect with and help her people is narrated as a byproduct of interpellation into proper white womanhood and a settler-desired proper Indian object as mediator and translator. Stella gives up a sense of belonging, position, landedness—home—in exchange for service, help, and care of others. She “seemed . . . older” and is no longer “child-like”—the narrative permits Stella to begin aging into adulthood now that she is properly inhabiting the role of subservient woman. Her desire to “belong” is abandoned—occupying this role means acknowledging the limits of assimilation – she will never truly be home at Laurel and must give up the expectation of belonging.

Upon graduating, she learns that the mother and child she helped at the Buffalo Bill show are in need of help on their reservation. The mother writes and says she wants Stella to teach her children to “’walk the white man’s road,’ and she wanted The-One-who-was-left-Alive to come and live with her, and teach her how to teach her children. There were many women in the camp, she said, who needed such help” (202-3), and so “Yellow Star had made her difficult decision—to go back to her own people and do for them what she could” (202). The text indoctrinates Stella into proper white womanhood so that she can do the work of returning to her community and assimilating them, teaching them “the white man’s” ways as she was. While struggling on the reservation, where she is viewed with suspicion, Stella is told by a local bishop that the “name the old women gave you when they saved you from the sad fate that overtook your father’s people—The-One-who-was-left-Alive! You must have been kept alive for some good purpose; always remember that, Stella.” Stella’s “purpose” and survival are linked specifically to a genocidal project of teaching “the white man’s road.”

We further understand this “purpose” by seeing what happens to the children Stella helps. Earlier in the text, Stella’s guardian’s sister says that Stella should have been “place[d] . . . at once in one of the excellent Government boarding-schools for Indian children” (6). Stella’s guardian Lucy objected to this advice, citing these schools as overcrowded, underresourced, and not appropriate for the “sensitive” (7) Stella—the day school in Laurel was imagined to be a more supportive and future-opening environment for Stella. At the reservation, Stella helps take care of the children, including the child she had helped nurse back to health just a few years earlier at the Buffalo Bill show. While Stella is at the reservation, the child turns five. In a letter to a friend, she writes: “the policeman came for him to go to the boarding school. Well, it was dreadful! [His mother] wailed, and Grandmother sang the old Indian songs and shook her fist in the policeman’s face, and the poor little fellow was scared out of his wits and screamed” (232). Stella’s government appointed position on the reservation helps to guarantee the future from which she was supposedly rescued – she helps this child to survive only for him to go off to a boarding school, where he will be denied connection to his family, language, culture and experience emotional and physical abuse under the guise of assimilation and care. Stella came to the reservation to “teach [women] how to teach their children,” but the boarding school program means there will be no children to teach. Stella’s entry into white womanhood is permitted so she can assist in the continue reinauguration of Native communities into settler temporality, which is infantilized child time, which will be absent of Native children.
This brief foray into Yellow Star shows us what happens to the Native girl who has served her role for white audiences – once Stella is successfully educated, she is permitted to grow up and disappear – the book enacts what happened to Zintka – Zintka was continually made a child to secure settler and feminist feelings of victory, superiority, and futurity – once grown, she was no longer of service to the community and effectively abandoned. In Yellow Star, the abandonment of Zintka is narrated as a product of success versus a consequence of abuse and neglect over the Native child no longer wishing to fulfill her tokenizing role. The sentimental school girl story imbued with Goodale Eastman’s “feminist Protestant ethic” (Alexander 90) reveals how the settler feminist approaches to Zintka enacted material and epistemic violence under the guise of benevolence, virtue, and service.

Comparative work on the sexual abuse of free and enslaved girls runs the very real risk of eliding substantive differences in the vulnerability, exploitation, and maltreatment of the two groups. But studying the phenomena separately obscures the encompassing biopolitical strategy that manages male sexual access to girl populations.

The “racial polarization” of sexual innocence in the mid-nineteenth century documented by Robin Bernstein denied Black girls the sexual purity accorded to white girls and simultaneously endowed white girls with “a state of deflection: a constantly replenishing obliviousness that causes sexual matters to slide by without sticking” (41). In this framework, Black girls were always already sexual and inviolable, while the truly racially and sexually pure could not be successfully assaulted because their own bodies deflected predation. I call this logic the cult of true girlhood. The same strategy of racializing sexual purity rendered Black and white girl bodies sexually available by holding girls biologically accountable for their sexual victimization. Black girls were essentially always consenting; whereas white girls who did not avoid violation confirmed their lack of purity. 

American sentimental fiction and law worked together in the nineteenth century to root the capacity to withhold sexual consent in the body, as a racialized biological capacity to restrain sexual impulses and to repulse sexual overtures. Black girls were born incapable of refusing sexual advances. White girls became constitutionally incapable of doing so after their first illicit sexual experience. Laws against sexual violence were mediated by the “chastity requirement,” the legal understanding that sexual experience conditioned consent in that prior sexual experience rendered voluntary consent as a given. In the eyes of the law, once a girl had given her consent to an illicit sexual encounter, she would never again be physiologically capable of withholding it.

In nineteenth century evolutionary race science, as Kyla Schuller argues, “sexual restraint” is “an overdetermined criterion of civilization”: “Sexual desire, in the evolutionary view, represents a primitive inability to temper impulses to touch with reflective thought” (84). Science, like sentimental fiction, positions white and Black girls at opposite poles of the hierarchy of impressibility that determines “[t]he body’s relative capacity for receiving and regulating impressions” (41). Black girls inhabit “unimpressible bodies [that] merely react to sensory impressions.” They are “captive to whatever stimulations crossed their paths” (13). By contrast, civilized white girls are cast as hyperimpressible (80). They are born “freed . . . from the impulses dictated by immediate sensation” (18) and capable of self-control. Not despite but because of the racialized polarization of girlhood impressibility, many white girls themselves become unimpressible after illicit sexual relations. White girls’ “Heightened impressibility” made them capable of advanced civilization and of dramatic degeneration into the primitive. The sexually ruined girl lost the sexual and racial purity that underwrote her biological categorization as civilized.

In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman argues forcefully against commonalities in the statuses of free and enslaved with regard to sexual violence. She asserts that “Kinship and captivity designate radically different conditions of embodiment.” But this “radical difference” does not include the white girl’s freedom from sexual exploitation. Sexual violence is inherent in the patriarch’s proprietorial relations with his daughter, ward, and servant, and the patriarchal traffic in chastity produces a surplus of the unemployable unchaste to meet the voracious market for illicit sex with girls. 

This “radical difference” does include the denial of the capacity for sexual restraint to any Black girl no matter how young. The implications of this difference were profound in a culture that commodifies sex with inexperienced children and associates illicit sexual experience with contamination, degeneration and animal appetites. The age of consent for free girls was low, between ten and twelve depending on the state, but it did create a population of girls with whom sex was always against the law regardless of the character of the victim. Legally, an enslaved woman could not be raped, and there was no age of consent for enslaved girls. In evolutionary race science, law and sentimental literature, Black girls are always already consenting sexual partners, and white girls have the capacity to become perpetually consenting if they are impressed by an illicit sexual milieu and experiences early in life. The lack of an age of consent establishes one form of subordination that results in sexual access while extension of the capacity to consent to the ten-year-old establishes another. 

I end with the suggestion that the “radical difference” between enslaved and free is connected to the intentions and behaviors of the attackers. As Sharon Block writes, “Both African American and Native American women were far more likely than white women to be the victims of sadistic and horrific sexual violence that went beyond the gratification of men’s sexual desires and starkly expressed relations of subordination through intentional sexual cruelty” (80). But I maintain that we can better understand the biopolitics of sexual consent if our frame includes free and enslaved girls. The discourses that deny Black girls the capacity for nonconsent stabilize those that render that capacity easily and irrevocably lost so that girls of both colors are subsumed into the population of the always willing and accessible.

Works Cited


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