Seth Eastman’s Indian Courtship: Courtship and Music in Dakota Life

Seth Eastman’s painting, "Indian Courting," depicts a young Dakota man sitting on a fallen log, playing courting music on his flute. It is twilight on a cloudy, seemingly blustery, perhaps autumn evening, and we can see the object of his affection, a young Dakota woman, standing in the background, cloaked in a robe, listening to the music behind her family’s tipi. We are witness to one of the first steps in a Dakota courtship, the wooing of a young woman by a young man through music. Though traditional methods of Dakota courtship have now mostly faded from use, we still have a sense of them through paintings by Eastman and other artists, as well as contemporary Dakota flutists such as Bryan Akipa, who continue to keep the music and spirit of Dakota courtship alive through their art.

Music and song permeated all aspects of Dakota life, from birth to marriage to death. It was, and still is, an essential part of Dakota culture. Some of the music played at wacipis (or powwows) is decades old, having been passed down from generation to generation. The same holds true for much of Dakota flute music. The song the young man is playing in Eastman’s painting might have been similarly passed down to him by his father as part of his own family’s unique cultural heritage, or else might be one of his own composition, his to pass down to a future son. Some contemporary Dakota flutists have suggested that many of the songs composed for the flute had lyrics or words to go with them, but were unnecessary to sing because the music itself was so expressive and evocative, full of emotion and, of course, love and romance. As for the flute he is playing, if it is not something he himself made, it, along with the sheath lying at his feet, might also be a family heirloom.

At the moment we are privy to in the Eastman painting, we see the young man’s first moment of success in his courtship of the young woman. She is shown attentive, and definitely interested. Had he not been a success, the woman would have simply ignored him by walking past him, or else discouraged him by insuring that her chaperone showed up to interrupt the scene. Instead, she is encouraging him by listening. The next step in the courtship would have entailed the young man leaving gifts in front of the young woman’s tipi or lodge. The idea was to show that how much he valued her, and, just as importantly, to demonstrate that he could care for her, and by extension, her family. The basic aim of a Dakota life was to become as good as a relative as one could be, and this was an essential requirement of a good husband. The husband generally became a member of his wife’s family and band, rather than the wife following her husband elsewhere. This is an echo of the matriarchal nature of Dakota society at large. He did not necessarily have to be a member of the band his potential wife was from, or, after the Dakota people came into contact with white people, necessarily be born a Dakota person, but he did need to exhibit that desire to become a good relative.

Once a union was given its blessing by the families of both the young man and woman, the two were married in a lavish ceremony, officiated over by a respected elder in their camp. At the wedding, the bride would be dressed as elaborately as her family could manage. Mary Henderson Eastman, Seth's wife, wrote that a Dakota bride’s outfit might include porcupine quill-lined moccasins, leggings layered over with silk ribbons in an array of colors, skillfully done beadwork in the floral patterns common to Dakota art, a colorful shawl shaped like a mantilla, with heavy earrings and brooches covering her chest. After the elder finished his speech, the bride’s father would call for the young man to come for her, which can be seen as paralleling the moment in a Christian wedding when the father gives his daughter away.

As federal attempts to assimilate the Dakota people into the American mainstream intensified, the traditional methods of Dakota courtship and marriage began to wane as the United States entered the twentieth century. Educational efforts such as the boarding school system and later federal programs such as relocation served to split apart Dakota families, making it difficult or impossible for those families to continue longstanding cultural practices such as courtship. Consequently, some flute music that had been in families for generations was lost, as was much of other Dakota ceremonial music. The Dawes Act of 1887, which introduced the blood quantum as a means of conferring Native American identity on tribal peoples, further complicated matters, introducing race as a factor into Dakota marriages. (Although Dakota people are members of a sovereign government, federal recognition of traditional Dakota marriages was almost certainly an issue after the turn of the century. It is likely that many Dakota people were forced to marry in a Christian or a civil ceremony.) Whereas race had previously been mostly irrelevant to Dakota relationships, federal Indian identification policy made it relevant, as children of marriages between Dakota and non-Dakotas could conceivably lose their rights as tribal citizens if their degree of Indian blood dropped below a certain level. Once issues of property and race were forcibly introduced into the Dakota people’s concept of marriage and relationships, it was difficult for cultural practices such as courtship, which was based on love and personal and social responsibility, to continue unabated. Nevertheless, through the art of Seth Eastman and the music of Bryan Akipa, we can maintain a connection to those original concepts, which affirm love and commitment as the core of any marriage, rather than what might be gained materially or legally.