The Eastmans and the Luhans: Interracial Marriage between White Women and Native American Men, 1875-1935

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, United States, Women on 2011-08-26 01:37Z by Steven

The Eastmans and the Luhans: Interracial Marriage between White Women and Native American Men, 1875-1935

Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies
Volume 23, Number 3 (2002)
pages 29-54
DOI: 10.1353/fro.2003.0009

Margaret D. Jacobs, Professor of History & Director, Women’s and Gender Studies
University of Nebraska, Lincoln

At a lavish wedding and reception in New York City in 1891 Elaine Goodale, daughter of a prominent New England family, married Charles Eastman, a member of the Wahpeton band of the Santee Sioux (Dakotas). Writing in her memoirs Elaine declared, “I gave myself wholly in that hour to the traditional duties of wife and mother, abruptly relinquishing all thought of an independent career for the making of a home. At the same time, I embraced with a new and deeper zeal the conception of life-long service to my husband’s people.” Charles, a medical doctor, described himself a few months before their marriage by writing, “I was soon to realize my long dream—to become a complete man! I thought of little else than the good we two could do together.” Both Charles and Elaine were members of a group of reformers who sought to solve the so-called Indian problem through assimilation, and they portrayed their marriage as a natural means to overcome Indian “backwardness” and poverty. The white woman would further uplift her already civilized Dakota husband, and the couple would work diligently to serve his people.

Fifty years later New York socialite Mabel Dodge moved to Taos, New Mexico, with her Russian émigré husband, the painter Maurice Sterne. Mabel soon became entranced with Tony Luhan, a Taos Pueblo Indian. Describing her feelings, Mabel wrote in her memoirs:

I had a strange sense of dislocation, as though I were swinging like a pendulum over the gulf of the canyon, between the two poles of mankind, between Maurice and Tony; and Maurice seemed old and spent and tragic, while Tony was whole and young in the cells of his body, with his power unbroken and hard like the carved granite rock, yet older than the Germanic Russian whom the modern world had destroyed.

Mabel and Tony eventually divorced their respective spouses and married each other in 1923. In this case Mabel saw herself as a bridge between Tony’s people and her own; she envisioned her marriage not as a vehicle by which to uplift and “serve her husband’s people,” but as a means to save her own race from the destruction wrought by the modern world.

The stories of the Eastmans’ and Luhans’ marriages contain all the necessary ingredients for two “racy” novels but they also provide more than voyeuristic romances. As Peggy Pascoe has written, “For scholars interested in the social construction of race, gender, and culture, few subjects are as potentially revealing as the history of interracial marriage.” Both the Eastmans and the Luhans operated at the outer boundaries of American racial norms. Yet, through writing and speaking about their marriages, both couples worked to transform the racial ideologies of their times. Similarly both couples were bound by the gender norms of their respective eras but they also actively reshaped gender and sexual conventions…

…As Pascoe argues, a study of interracial marriage can also yield a greater understanding of the construction of gender norms as well. Just as with the study of race, women’s historians and other feminist theorists have for decades documented the fleeting nature of gender norms and argued that gender is not a fixed set of notions that directly correlates with biological differences between the male and female sex. Many scholars of intermarriage have ignored gender; they have made little distinction between attitudes toward and laws aimed at relationships between white men and nonwhite women and those directed toward unions between white women and nonwhite men.10 But, as a growing number of other historians have shown, American society has had markedly different attitudes toward interracial marriage depending on the gender of the white person involved. In general, interracial relationships between white men of the colonizing, dominant group and nonwhite women of colonized, conquered, and/or enslaved groups have been tolerated. Although laws in many colonies and states forbid interracial marriage between white men and black women, for example, many white slave owners commonly engaged in forced sex, concubinage, and informal relationships with their female slaves without social opprobrium. As we shall see, relationships between white men and Indian women were similarly tolerated within American society. Liaisons between white men and nonwhite women did not violate the hierarchical order that developed between European Americans, African Americans, and American Indians. Rather, they represented extensions and reinforcements of colonialism, conquest, and domination.

As David Fowler, Kathleen Brown, and Martha Hodes have pointed out, however, white Americans were much more threatened by interracial sex and marriage that involved white women and nonwhite men. Where there was a higher incidence of such liaisons, as in Virginia and Maryland, colonies and states were much more likely to pass laws against interracial marriage. When white women and nonwhite men engaged in sexual relationships or married, they violated the colonial, racial, and patriarchal order. Within this order, white men dominated both their daughters and wives as well as groups of subjugated peoples, including American Indians and African Americans. By law, white women were economic, social, and sexual possessions of white men, therefore, a nonwhite man who “possessed” a white woman undermined the gendered and racialized dominance of white men. The children of such unions also threatened the social order, especially since southern colonies had conveniently passed laws establishing that children followed the condition of their mothers. Thus a union between a white woman and a nonwhite man could allow a child of a “Negro” or Indian man to be legally white…

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