Book Review: Painting the Dakota: Seth Eastman at Fort Snelling (by Marybeth Lorbiecki) : WW

8/12/2001 • Native American Indian Chiefs, Wild West Reviews

Painting the Dakota: Seth Eastman at Fort Snelling, by Marybeth Lorbiecki, Afton Historical Society Press, Afton, Minn., 2000, $14.95.

At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Seth Eastman was at the top of his class in drawing, and when 2nd Lt. Eastman came to Fort Snelling, a frontier fort in Minnesota, in 1830, he found time to sketch–and time for love. He married Wakaninajinwin, the daughter of a Dakota (Eastern Sioux, sometimes called the Santee Sioux) chief. Eastman left Company I, 1st Infantry Regiment, the fort, his wife and his daughter (Winona, or Nancy) behind in January 1832 to join the Topographical Corps. A year later he was assigned to teach drawing back at West Point, where he found love again and married a white woman, Mary Henderson. But he would return to Fort Snelling, and he would not forget what he knew about the Dakota Indians. No artist in America knew more.

After fighting Seminoles in Florida, Eastman, now a captain, was transferred in the summer of 1841 back to Fort Snelling, where he was able to further study the Dakotas and to sketch and paint them. He set up a studio right in the fort and began documenting on canvas the traditional ways of the Dakota people (and sometimes the Ojibwa Indians, too). He remained there until reassigned to Texas in September 1848. By then his illustrations had been published in his wife Mary’s book Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux, and soon he would become the illustrator for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s six-volume study on the Indians of the United States. In April 1857, Eastman was sent back to Fort Snelling to survey the lands and sell the fort, since the Dakotas had been moved to reservations. Eastman spent his last years in Washington, D.C., painting Indian scenes and American forts, among other things. He died on August 31, 1875.

Painting the Dakota tells the moving story of the artist and his families and is accompanied by more than 45 drawings and paintings, many of which were based on sketches Eastman had made in Minnesota. A descendant of Wakaninajinwin (Stands Sacred) and Seth Eastman, Lorei K. Crowchild says in the foreword that many other descendants “continue to live in and around Dakota communities in Minnesota and South Dakota.” And Seth Eastman’s artwork continues to have a life of its own. As Marybeth Lorbiecki points out in this nicely written little book (104 pages): “By capturing what he saw, Seth Eastman created a record in pictures unlike anyone else’s. No other painter of Indians left behind such realistic snapshots of the ‘Sioux’ and life before reservations.”

Chrys Ankeny