Native American Captivity Narratives in American Literature

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This paper examines the genre of Native American captivity narratives and how the narratives influence the way the Natives are perceived. Some of the early captivity narratives depict Indigenous Americans as inhuman savages, while the more recent narratives, those in which the captives choose to spend the rest of their lives with their Indian captors instead of going back to their white community, are more likely to contain a positive perception of the American Natives. Although both men and women adopted this genre, it was mostly about women who were held captives by the Native Americans. The narratives gave women a place in American literature, as the narratives focusing on women's experiences while in captivity allow for women's storytelling at a time where this opportunity was otherwise unavailable. When men removed women from the writing and publishing of their stories, women could still rely on the captivity narrative genre to give them a voice and a place in literature. Narratives were used not only to warn the white colonists of the savagery of the uncivilized Indians but also to strengthen the hatred and separation between the English and Indian inhabitants of America. The anxiety of degenerating into savages that possessed the white colonists became a pressing reality, and that anxiety became even more frightful as captives' adoption into Native American families emerged as a prevalent feature in narratives. The life of Cynthia Ann Parker is a great example of that matter. I will go into details about the story of her life, through her captivity narrative, after she was captured by the Indians and how it affected her and the way she portrayed the Native Americans in her narrative.

With the publication of Mary Rowlandson’s narrative of her ordeal while under the captivity of the Natives in 1682, captivity narratives became an integral part of American history. Before the end of the seventeenth century, American captivity narratives became recognizable as a distinct literary genre. Captivity narratives such as those by Mary Rowlandson and the reverend John Williams portrayed the white colonists' extreme piety and fear of the Native Americans, whom they considered uncivilized enemies. On the contrary, the narratives by Mary Jemison and Eunice Williams, in both instances, they willingly choose to stay with their Native American captors, thereby challenging the superiority of European American culture. Despite there being a numerous amount of white captives who willingly stayed with their Native American captors and refused to be traded off to return to their white community, most of what was accessible to the public during this time were well-rehearsed stories about a joyous homecoming owing to the grace of God or, more tragically, a captive’s brutal death at the hands of the Indians. The Puritans tended to write narratives that negatively characterized the Indians. Both the women and the very few men that were captured had a puritan background controlling their thoughts on the Natives and influencing the way they portrayed them. The narratives reflected the white captives' puritan beliefs. The whites considered this episode of being captured by the natives as a warning from God, and that the more they suffer, the more likely they will be rewarded with heaven. They concluded that God is their only hope for redemption. What is interesting about this genre is that we can trace how the whites chose to portray the Natives. This arouses the doubts of historians and anthropologists on the plausibility of their narratives. Most of the captivity narratives were considered factual, but close analysis reveals that they are not fully objective. However, it did provide an inside view of the Natives tribe life.

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Captivity narrative gives voice to the voiceless, in both events and people it explores. A major outcome of the American captivity narratives is that it gave women a chance to speak and place their voices in American literature. This genre allows women to express themselves, regardless of the time it takes place, or who else was involved in creating the narrative and what the captive's intention and purpose of writing the text is. Derounian Stodola claims that the captivity narrative genre is “arguably the first American literary form dominated by women’s experiences as captives, storytellers, writers, and readers”. Captivity narratives put words into the experiences of women which readers could apply into their daily lives, making the texts unique to each and every female reader. Women in captivity narratives were not treated the way a woman should be treated, even the fact that they publish stories of their lives and experience in capture is stepping outside normal women's behavior in the white community. A genre catering to women, captivity texts were often best-sellers, able to connect with readers across the country, particularly female readers. The women in capture often experience a life and culture foreign to their own, an experience filled with cultural changes, divisions, and differences occasioned by the captives that they can share in their narratives. The narratives allow discussion of experiences which have a major factor on the analysis of American culture – control, fear, power, discrimination– that women cannot always fully share in other mediums. The captivity narratives set a story of transformation in writing, and therefore in history.

Stories of women who had been captured, acculturated, and chose to stay with their Indian husbands and families presented the greatest threat of all— that of miscegenation. Once this boundary had been crossed, political, ideological, and cultural boundaries had also been breached, putting America’s expansion mission at risk. The story of Cynthia Ann Parker can be used as a model to which we may apply the white captives' adoption into Native American families and tribes. Cynthia's first experience of oppression came as a child of nine when captured by a large force of Comanche warriors in an attack on Fort Parker, Texas, in 1836. Forced to live in an alien environment, she was initially physically and mentally abused and unable to communicate until she mastered the Comanche language. Her Comanche captors adopted Parker into their family, and when she matured, she married a Comanche man with whom she had three children. Seventeen years after her initial abduction, Parker encountered American traders interested in ransoming her, yet reports document that she rejected their offer and chose to remain with her adopted Comanche family (‘The Captivity Narratives of Cynthia Ann Parker’ by Treva Elaine Hodges). Twenty- five years later, this process was then reversed and virtually repeated through her recapture, along with her two- year- old daughter, by Texas Rangers in the Battle of the Pease River in 1860. Cynthia Ann had by then completely acculturated within the tribe and was a respected member, wife, and mother of three children. Snatched from her Indian family and adoptive culture, she was bullied and interrogated by the soldiers before her uncle Isaac Parker came to claim her and take her home. While traveling through Fort Worth she was photographed with her daughter at her breast and her hair cut short-a Comanche sign of mourning. She thought that her husband was dead and feared that she would never see her sons again. The second capture of Cynthia, this time by the whites, rendered her mute, her native tongue long forgotten. She was violently dislocated once more from her own identity. She was held against her will surrounded by a language she did not speak and culture she did not comprehend. Furthermore, Cynthia's return to the white colonists' community was celebrated throughout Texas as a politicized victory and a vindication of white settlement. Cynthia's many years living among the Indian society meant that she was unable to readapt to her originating. Parker never fully reintegrated and repeatedly asked to be allowed to return to her sons and husband, but her requests were denied. Cynthia was not encouraged to speak publicly about her life among the Comanche tribe. It was believed, among the white community, that she had greatly suffered and was abused during her time with the Indians, and her so-called redemption from the uncivilized enemies was seen as a triumph. Her longing to return to her native family was painfully tangible, and yet her personal story was never told. Despite the celebration for her return to the white society, filled with cheers and publicity, Cynthia Ann Parker remained desperate and silence. Her recapture ironically replicates the silenced Native women’s experience when captured by white colonialists.

Captivity narratives - such as those by Mary Rowlandson 1682, Cotton Mather 1696-97, Susannah Willard Johnson 1796, the Reverend John Williams 1709, Mary Jemison 1824, Cynthia Ann Parker and Olive Ann Oatman - are examples of the sensational novel that sells due to the combination of women, rape, sex, violence, shocks, surprises… However, these Native American captivity narratives serve a directly political purpose and can be seen as a kind of political propaganda. What the narratives do not portray is the way the Native Americans were robbed of their homes, property, and lands by violence and manipulation. As a result, the Native Americans were displaced, suffered the loss of many families and tribal members, and were forced to choose between becoming forcibly civilized according to white cultural standards, or die.

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Native American Captivity Narratives in American Literature. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/native-american-captivity-narratives-in-american-literature/
“Native American Captivity Narratives in American Literature.” Edubirdie, 01 Mar. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/native-american-captivity-narratives-in-american-literature/
Native American Captivity Narratives in American Literature. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/native-american-captivity-narratives-in-american-literature/> [Accessed 21 May 2024].
Native American Captivity Narratives in American Literature [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Mar 01 [cited 2024 May 21]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/native-american-captivity-narratives-in-american-literature/
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