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Captivity Narratives

Captivity Narratives (2009)
45″ X 40 ½ ”
Lenticular Print
Mendel Art Gallery solo exhibition: Transposing Perspectives

Captivity narratives first appeared as early as the 1600s and quickly evolved into a popular genre that we still see today in romance novels. Although the stories have always posited the Aboriginals as captors, in reality members of the Spanish and British armies frequently took Aboriginal women as slaves, or for ransom, or as proof to be evidenced back in Europe of the exotic Other. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, some Aboriginal groups had a practice of taking captives from other tribes during warfare, with the captives being made members of their band. From the 1600s to 1800s, some Aboriginal groups would also take European women to be held for ransom in negotiations with early settlers or colonial government bodies.

The first captivity narratives tended to be written by women who had actually been held for ransom or negotiation. Their story lines all share similar components, beginning with an attack by ‘Indians,’ repetition of concepts of good and evil, savagery and civilization, and the final religious redemption of being saved. Narratives would embellish in great detail what it was like to live amongst the ‘Indians’ and the horror of subordination and cruel treatments that tested the women’s courage and survival. There were religious overtones throughout all texts. While some of these accounts were real testaments to brutalities that occurred during the Colonial and Indian War, others were sensationalized or strictly fiction. In all cases they clearly demonstrate the ideology of the times. The Spanish viewed Aboriginals as wild beasts, while the French perceived Aboriginals as souls needing redemption, and the English either saw them as innocent exotics or shared the Puritan view of them as satanic threats to their religion.

Some of the most famous narratives include one written by Mary Rowlandson (1637–1710), the story of Hannah Dustan (1657–1736), and a memoir by Saskatchewan’s Amelia McLean Paget (1867–1922).

Rowlandson was an English immigrant married to a preacher. Her narrative, entitled Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, details the events that unfolded after her 1675 captivity by the Narragansett and Nashaway Aboriginals in Lancaster, Massachusetts. Her account is perhaps the most real and horrific of the captivity narratives, in that she not only witnessed the deaths of fellow colonists but also faced near starvation and the death of her baby. On the other hand, she expressed the extreme Christian sentiment that Aboriginals were evil instruments of Satan, and interrupted her text with many sermons and religious ramblings.

A portion of her narrative describing the day of her capture appears in my lenticular work:

On the tenth of February 1675, Came the Indians with great numbers upon Lancaster … the bulletts flying thick, one went through my side, and the same (as would seem) through the bowels and hand of my dear Child in my arms … The Indians laid hold of us, pulling me one way, and the Children another, and said, Come go along with us; I told them they would kill me: they answered, If I were willing to go along with them, they would not hurt me … this was the dolefullest night that ever my eyes saw. Oh the roaring, and singing and danceing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell.

Hannah Dustan is the first female in the United States to have a monument erected in her honour due to her claim that she, along with a nurse and young boy, scalped their ten captors while they slept and consequently were paid bounties. Dustan’s story is very likely untrue; it is more likely that they collected the scalps for money after another party killed their captors. Upon her return from captivity, she was rewarded with money, and she became instantly famous for setting an example of courage and revenge. She wrote, “I am Thankful for my Captivity, twas the Comfortablest time that ever I had; in my affliction God made his Word Comfortable to me.” The night of the supposed scalping was described by the Puritan priest Cotton Mather in his Magnalia Christi Americana, published in London in 1702:

On March 15, 1697, the Salvages made a Descent upon the Skirts of Haverhill, Murdering and Captivating about thirtynine Persons, and Burning about Half a Dozen Houses…..[O]ne of these women took up a Resolution, to intimate the Action of Jael upon Siseria…. She heartened the Nurse, and the Youth, to assist her in this Enterprize; and all furnishing themselves with Hatchets for this purpose, they struck such Home Blows upon the Heads of their Sleeping Oppressors… Cutting off the Scalps of the Ten Wretches, they came off, and Received Fifty Pounds from the General Assembly of the Province.

Two famous Saskatchewan captivity narratives are that of Theresa Delaney and Theresa Gowanlock, and that of Amelia McLean Paget. These women were all held captive at two different Big Bear camps at the time of the North West Rebellion in 1885. Delaney and Gowanlock were present at the Frog Lake Resistance; warriors had killed their husbands along with seven others, despite Big Bear’s attempt to prevent their deaths. Gowanlock wrote:

On the 3rd of April Big Bear came into our tent and sitting down beside us told us he was very sorry for what had happened, and cried over it, saying he knew he had so many bad men but had no control over them. He came very often to our tent telling us to “eat and sleep plenty, they would not treat us like the white man. The white man when he make prisoner of Indian, he starve him and cut his hair off.” He told us he would protect us if the police came.

The young Amelia McLean’s family was well connected with Cree and Saulteaux people due to their family’s long history of working with the Hudson’s Bay Company. She lived near their territories in Fort Qu’Appelle, and in fact spoke Cree at the age of seventeen. Her family spent two months in captivity with Chief Big Bear’s mobile group of Plains and Woods Cree, and during that time was involved in three violent confrontations at Fort Pitt, Frenchman Butte, and Steele’s Narrows.

Although the media of the day turned the McLean family’s ordeal into a horror story, the reality was that they were not vulnerable, but resilient and resourceful; Amelia and her sisters possessed excellent shooting skills, courage, and independence, which no doubt impressed the Cree and Saulteaux, and contributed to their acceptance by the group. In fact, in 1909 Amelia McLean Paget (by then married to Department of Indian Affairs bureaucrat, Frederick Paget) published a book called The People of the Plains that was a sympathetic account of Plains Aboriginal culture, challenging conventional views in many ways.

Early captivity narratives often had an underlying reference to potential sexual interactions, described as temptations before God. The lust of the ‘savage’ was directly referenced and the potential for rape alluded to, although none was recorded. Scholar Emma Laroque suggests that these references were an early form of pornography, as “descriptions of torture, to some minds at least, are titillating, arousing the passions.” I used John Vanderlyn’s famous painting, Death of Jane McCrea (1804), in my Captivity Narratives as it is an excellent example of the way torture and sex were juxtaposed to titillate audiences, with Jane McCrea’s breast exposed for the viewer as she is about to be scalped.

Jane McCrea was a Loyalist during the American Revolutionary War; her reported death at the hands of Aboriginal allies of the British became a motivating event for the American rebels. On the morning of July 27, 1777, a group of Aboriginals, led by a Wyandot known as Le Loup, was moving in advance of the main British force and descended on the village of Fort Edward in upstate New York. They raided the McNeil house, taking McCrea and Sara McNeil, another Loyalist, hostage. As they withdrew, the two women were separated. McNeil was later united with her family, but before being set free noted that one of the men was carrying Jane’s scalp. There are conflicting accounts of her death. The most popular version has it that two warriors were quarrelling over who would take McCrea in for an expected reward, when one of them killed her with a tomahawk to settle the issue. Another version claims that she was killed by a bullet from the rear guard of the Americans withdrawing from Fort Edward, and that the Wyandot collected her scalp for a reward from the British.

In the past two centuries captivity narratives have departed from stories of the ruthless captor and transformed into tales of the exotic lover captor, an especially common trope in contemporary romance novels. Romance novels evolved from the early 1900s as society became fascinated with the ‘Indian’ way of life in the natural world and fantasized about assuming their identities or having intimate unions with them. For the middle class white woman of the 1920s to 1950s, it offered symbolic freedom from conservative, traditional female roles by allowing them to step into the wild side. Curator Deborah Doxtator explains that this notion reflected the imagined belief that “once having experienced the joys of an Indian lover, everyone else is just too tame.”

A typical captivity narrative in contemporary romance novels begins with the capture of white woman by an Aboriginal man when she becomes lost in the forest. She often experiences conflicting emotions of fear and attraction. Soon after her capture she begins to admire the lifestyle of Aboriginal people and falls in love with her captor. Accounts of their intimate union are the focal point of the plot, with lengthy descriptions of their sexual interactions. In the end, the protagonist experiences conflict again when she returns to her community and is rejected because of the perception that the ‘Indian’ has tainted her. She is forced to make a difficult choice about where she belongs and the nature of her own identity.

The book Savage Flames is a typical example of the contemporary romance novel. I adapted portions of it for the background text in Captivity Narratives, which reads:

As she wandered in the forest, searching for the perfect wild flower bouquet, she was startled by an Indian approaching in his canoe. She quickly hid behind a bush, her heart pounding with both fear and amazement of his strong stoic presence. She suddenly lost sight of him, and was startled as he spoke from behind her, “You shouldn’t be here alone in the woods, night is approaching. Come with me, I will take you to my village for the night and return you home safely when the sun rises.” … She watched him sleeping; his long black hair was spread out beneath his head, framing his sculpted face. The muscles of his shoulders and arms bulged. She ached to run her hands over those muscles. Her eyes roamed slowly lower, marvelling at his muscled chest, past his flat belly, to see something that made her knees almost buckle, her gaze froze on that part of him that god had been so generous with. Flaming Wolf awoke and whispered, “I have been dreaming of you. Come to me, let me love you,” and held out his hand. She lay down beside him and he blanketed her body with his. He kissed her hard with fierce possessive heat. She then felt him push his smooth hardness deep inside her and she moaned uncontrollably, surrendering to his savage flames.

An image of the two lovers in this novel was modified to repeat similar elements found in the Vanderlyn to emphasize the parallels between the two forms of captivity narratives. The blond woman of the book cover has her breast exposed, while the male has elements of Iroquoian dress with leggings, armbands, and a headband with feathers. His short hair is transformed to long locks flowing in the wind, enhancing his desirability as the exotic Other. Interestingly, the third space (transitional zone) of this lenticular flip reveals the contemporary blond woman with her arm wrapped around the neck of the Iroquois in the McCrea image.

I must here make a comment on scalping. Contrary to the popular belief that only Aboriginals scalped, Europeans have an extensive history of scalping and in fact are believed to have taught scalping to Aboriginals. The tradition goes back to 440 B.C., when ancient Scythians practiced scalping, as documented by the Greek historian Herodotus. To the Scythian, the enemy’s scalp was a trophy and showed off his status as a warrior. Scalps were proudly transformed into napkins and hung on the bridles of horses, or were made in to cloaks. Germans also practised scalping in the 9th century, according to French historian Emmanuel Domenech. The English in particular have a history of scalping. Records show that the Earl of Wessex scalped his enemies in the 11th century, and the English paid bounties for Irish heads.

There is no concrete proof that scalping was an Aboriginal activity prior to European contact, although we know for certain that hair locks were appended to war shirts and pants that were made in the 1700s by Plains people. These hair locks were always long black hair, suggesting that they came about as a result of intertribal warfare, in which wearing the hair of the enemy was a symbol of warrior status. Another theory suggests that Aboriginals kept the scalp or locks of deceased band members as memorial pieces. There are also written accounts from European explorers during the 1500s and 1600s that provide evidence of the practice in the early contact period. In 1535 Jacques Cartier saw “the skins of five men’s heads, stretched on hoops.” Samuel de Champlain wrote an account of scalping after a battle in 1609, and stated that scalps were hung on sticks.

Then there is the so-called French and Indian War, which endured from 1756 to 1763. It should have been called the French and British War of North America, with a start date of 1688, as it was at this time that French and British tensions grew in the struggle for land and power and they engaged a war strategy of recruiting Aboriginal allies to scalp the opposition. In 1688 French-Canadians began paying for every enemy scalp. This encouraged the development of groups who tried to make a business out of scalping settlers. The British responded in 1693 by announcing they would pay money for the scalps of Frenchmen and their Aboriginal allies.

The British Scalp Proclamation introduced in the 1700s permitted several governors to initiate bounties for Aboriginal scalps throughout North America, typically offering 130 pieces of eight (or silver coins) for the scalp of any Aboriginal man over twelve years of age, and fifty pieces of eight for a woman’s scalp, although many head-hunters killed mainly women and children because it was easier and sex could not be determined by the scalp alone. In 1744 Massachusetts Governor William Shirley offered head-hunting payments for Mi’kmaq and Maliseet scalps. In 1756 Governor Robert Hunter Morris declared war and proclaimed a bounty for ‘Indian’ enemy prisoners and for scalps as well, while the British Governor Charles Lawrence issued a bounty for Mi’kmaq scalps. Between 1835 and the 1880s the Mexican authorities paid private armies to hunt Aboriginals, paying per kill and using scalps as receipts. The French never created an official bounty for Aboriginal scalps, though they would use Aboriginal scalps for negotiation with the Indians to purchase back French prisoners.