Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Better Life Among the Indians

Mary Jemison was captured by Seneca Indians in 1758. Her parents and most of her siblings were killed, and for some time she tried to resist her captors and find a way back to place and family. But, eventually, she stayed, stayed to marry two Indian men, to have Indian children, and, living with Indians as an Indian in her 80s, to give an interview about her life to a white doctor named James Everett Seaver. Her “memoir,” first published in 1824, had been published in at least 30 editions by the time the author of the book I read, Lois Lenski, published her fictionalized account of Mary Jameson’s life in 1941.

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, won the Newberry Award for children’s literature in 1942. I read the Harper Trophy edition, first published in 1995—my copy is the 17th printing! I imagine it is still in print.


Indian Captive. Parents and siblings murdered by the Indians. Children’s literature?

There are many ways to talk about Euro-American ambivalence towards Indians, but this is certainly one of them! Author Lenski, in her treatment of the subject, explains her research into Seneca Indian history and culture at several museums, includes drawings of tools, clothing, and places, and lauds Jemison for giving us the real story of pre-contact Indian life. Buckskin clothing is compared to the traders’ broadcloth, porcupine quills to beads, coiled pottery to brass cooking post, and guns to bows and arrows.

More importantly, she deals with the social life—the nature of capture and adoption in Indian culture, the friendships and kinships that sustained Indian life. While the early chapters and Mary’s fictional voice are harsh towards the Indians, by the end of the book she is defending Indian ways to an English officer. And, given the opportunity, refusing to go back to a white community.

In Lenski’s treatment, the English officer is a convenient foil—and a pivot point for the captive girl. She listens to him deal man to man with the Indians—he wants their support against the French, but then, when he encourages her to come with him, to leave the dirty savages and their heathen ways, he is totally disparaging of the people and family that she had become a part of.

There are several striking things in this story. First, it is based on a real—and one of the first—narratives of a white captive of Indians. Indians capturing—and sometimes killing—white settlers was not uncommon, and treaties, as the one alluded to in this book, often stipulated the return of white captives. And captives, as even Benjamin Franklin acknowledged, and as a myriad of stories from the 1700s to the late 1800s, often wanted to stay with their adoptive Indian families.

The book paints a sympathetic view of Indian life—the relationships with land and among tribal members are strong, the knowledge of natural resources is keen, and the importance of and comfort in tradition is comforting to readers.

But maybe the most important thing that I’ve learned with this book and a small amount of research, is that there has been and still is a vigorous interest in the “Indian experience.” I’ve only dipped into the literature, but one cannot help but contrast the tightly wound lives of white children—and especially of their mothers, from Colonial to modern times, with the relative freedom enjoyed by Indians. I see in my mind’s eye a prim colonial woman in her patriarchal nest, in church for hours each week, tending to food and childrearing and housekeeping for a dominant husband who makes decisions for family and community. I see a young American girl in the 1940s, constrained by family and convention, looking to a life of housekeeping and childrearing, listening to men who preach more of the same.

That this book, Indian Captive, has a 75 year history of publication as a “children’s book,” is telling. It tells me about the long oppression of white American women: property rights—about 1900 in most states; the vote—the 19th amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1920; participation in high school and college athletics, and more than a token chance at medical or law school—Title 9, passed in 1972.

My guess is that thousands—no millions—of American girls have listened to these stories, had these thoughts, read this book and others over the past 250 years, and dreamed of a better life among the Indians.

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