Misattribution and Repurposing the Captivity Trope: Teaching Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie with Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest post from Randi Tanglen on complicating the discussion of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative through the work of two contemporary Native American poets. Tanglen is an Associate Professor of English and director of the faculty development and teaching center at Austin College. 

Update: PALS is pleased to have Randi on board as a full-time contributor!

9780312111519I often teach Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 Indian captivity narrative The Sovereignty and Goodness of God in early American and American frontier literature classes. The narrative tells of Puritan Mary Rowlandson’s six-week captivity with the Narragansett and Wampanoag people of New England during King Phillip’s War in 1676. Very popular with British and colonial audiences alike, it went through four editions in its first year of publication and 23 editions by 1828. Today Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is heavily anthologized and regularly taught in a wide range of American literature courses as an example of Puritan spiritual autobiography and the Indian captivity narrative form. In my classes, I teach Rowlandson’s captivity narrative to demonstrate how the captivity trope and its anti-Indian rhetoric have been deployed in American literature and culture to justify the perceived rightness of usually white-provoked wars and the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

PALS contributor Corinna Cook recently discussed how she asks student to consider the ways in which “Native peoples draw on and similarly repurpose aesthetic patterns, literary tools, and textual practices of colonial origins.” So in order to illustrate what captivity narratives scholar Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola calls the “the complicated nexus of politics, cultures, identities, and ethnicities at the heart” of any captivity experience and its various depictions, I make it a priority to teach Native representations of and responses to the trope of captivity when I teach white accounts of Indian captivity. To that end, I teach two Native rejoinders to Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative after my classes have read it: Louise Erdrich’s (Chippewa) 1984 poem “Captivity” and Sherman Alexie’s (Spokane Coeur D’Alene) 1993 poem of the same title.

Both poems suggest that Rowlandson did not leave her captivity experience with the absolute certainty about white cultural superiority that the captivity trope tries to reinforce and thereby subvert the political purpose and cultural meaning of the colonialist captivity trope.

The Misattribution

Both poems open with an epigraphic misattribution that might prevent students from initially seeing the powerful ways in which both poems repurpose the captivity trope. With the exception of a few changed words, Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems both begin with the same epigraphic quote ascribed to Rowlandson:

He (my captor) gave me a bisquit, which I put in my pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fearing he had put something in it to make me love him.

The epigraph goes on to credit the quote to “the narrative of the captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, who was taken prisoner by the Wampanoag when Lancaster, Massachusetts was destroyed, in the year 1676.” My students, familiar with Rowlandson’s narrative, point out that this quote addresses some of Rowlandson’s most accentuated concerns: food and sexual vulnerability.

However, when students go back to look for the epigraphic quote that spurs the dramatic situation of both poems, they realize that it cannot be found anywhere in Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. This is because the epigraphic quote actually comes from the more obscure 1736 captivity narrative of a different Puritan captive named John Gyles, who wasn’t necessarily afraid of “loving” his Maliseet captors, but rather their French Jesuit allies. Although to a present-day audience these words may seem laced with erotic implications, the most literal meaning is that Gyles feared a priest would convert him to Catholicism.

Although it could be that Erdrich and Alexie (who seems to be writing in response to both Rowlandson and Erdrich) purposefully included the misattribution, students sometimes grapple with the inaccuracy. Once they know the origin of the epigraph, I asked the students to consider the following questions for class discussion and essay prompts:

  • Do you think the incorrect citation was intentional or an oversight by the poets?
  • What is the poetic effect of this “misattribution”?
  • What does this specific epigraph bring to each poem that would otherwise be lost?
  • Is there a quote from Rowlandson’s narrative that would serve as a more effective epigraph?
  • How does the epigraph help us see something new about Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative?
  • How does the epigraph contribute to the cultural work of each poem?
Erdrich’s Use of “Captivity”


Through John Gyles’s misattributed epigraph, Erdrich’s “Captivity” picks up on Rowlandson’s simultaneous desire for intimacy with and the fear of contamination by a Native other. Throughout the poem, a speaker in the voice of Rowlandson revisits scenes of her captivity, describing her repulsion to her captives’ culture, yet her attraction to the specific individuals within it. Early on, the speaker is able to “recognize [the] face” of her master, and is able to “distinguis[h] it from the othe[r]” “pitch devils.” Students usually note that even in the early lines of the poem, by discerning the sound of her master’s voice, the speaker engages the process of individualizing and, thereby, humanizing, her master. Immediately after this recognition, though, the speaker admits that “There were times I feared I understood/his language,” or, as students regularly point out, that the speaker fears identification and intimacy with her master and his culture.

And even though the speaker had “told myself that I would starve/before I took food from his hands,” when her master offers her the meat of an unborn fawn she eats it and finds it to be, “so tender/the bones like the stems of flower.” Students always pick up on these lines because they reference one of the most memorable moments in the captivity narrative. Rowlandson states that she would never eat the “filthy trash” offered by her captors, but a few weeks later finds the meat of a fawn “very good.” The next stanza of the poem intimates that Rowlandson had a sexual encounter with her master, after which the “birds mocked” her and the “shadows gaped and roared”—evidence that God was displeased. But as she becomes more accustomed to her captors’ culture, the speaker realizes that her master doesn’t notice these signs of a Puritan God’s displeasure, and eventually she too, figures that God might not punish her for whatever intimacy developed between her and her master.

When Erdrich’s Rowlandson confesses that “Rescued, I see no truth in things,” students see the connection to the end of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative when she admits, “I can remember the time, when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together: but now it is other wayes with me,” the only indication of uncertainty or doubt in Rowlandson’s account of her Indian captivity.  Students often conclude that Erdrich’s “misattibution” of Gyle’s words must have been intentional. By revealing the interchangeable nature of captivity texts, the poem is able to expose the instability of white cultural identity represented by the trope of captivity.

Alexie’s Malleable Mary Rowlandson
via Wikipedia

Alexie continues with Erdrich’s appropriation of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative by  responding to her “Captivity” poem with his own of the same title. Since the poem similarly opens with the same quote from Gyles but attributed to Rowlandson, it enters an intriguing intertextual conversation with Erdrich, Rowlandson, and even Gyles, which leads to rich classroom discussion. The speaker in Alexie’s prose poem tells and retells a variety of captivity scenarios that transport versions of Mary Rowlandson into present day reservation life. In the first stanza of Alexie’s poem, the daughter of a white Indian agent runs out of the reservation classroom, “waving her arms wildly at real and imagined enemies.” Echoing the same language as Erdich’s shared epigraph, the speaker wonders, “Was she afraid of loving us all?” Students often associate this line with the white fear of intimacy with a Native other embodied in Rowlandson’s narrative and revealed in Erdich’s poem. By maintaining Erdich’s original use of John Gyle’s words, Alexie offers commentary on the power and malleability of cultural tropes; the speaker at one point reminds the reader that “The best weapons are stories and every time the story is told, something changes. Every time the story is retold, something changes.” The poem moves Mary Rowlandson from the seventeenth century into the twentieth—she is the scared new white girl at a reservation school, the only survivor of a car crash on the reservation, a woman drinking coffee at the reservation 7-11. As students come to realize through class discussion, Alexie’s modern Mary Rowlandsons aren’t captive of a Native other, but rather of the pernicious limitations of the colonialist captivity trope.

In each of the poem’s fourteen stanzas, Alexie makes Rowlandson herself a cultural trope, a representation of white contradictory and ambivalent responses to and fear of Native people and cultures in Rowlandson’s day and our own. Some students even wonder if a “white boy…who spent the summer on the reservation” is a reference to John Gyles, which the students see as an intertextual clue that Erdrich and Alexie were both conscious of the misattribution. The speaker reports that “It was on July 4th that we kidnapped him and kept him captive in a chicken coop for hours.”Bringing so many iterations of Mary Rowlandson and even John Gyles types into the present day emphasizes the historical nimbleness of the colonialist captivity trope, but also the power to change it. Alexie’s speaker asks: “Was it 1676 or 1976 or 1776 or yesterday when the Indian held you tight in his dark arms and promised you nothing but the sound of his voice?” Linking these words to the epigraph, students wonder if that Native voice will ask the white captive to “love him.”

Implications and Resources
via Slabcity Gang on Flickr

When considering the goal of both poets to highlight the long-term impact of European colonization on Native cultures, the epigraphic quote shouldn’t be written off as a “misattribution” or poetic flaw. This limits students’ capacity to interpret the works. Rather the poems are commenting on the historical and on-going use of the captivity narrative to promote assumptions of white cultural superiority and the instabilities inherent in those assumptions. Teaching Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems in conversation with Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative allows students to recognize the subversive re-salvaging of the colonialist trope of captivity. For many students, this diminishes some of the power of Rowlandson’s ethnocentric, anti-Indian rhetoric and they are able to engage more deeply with the narrative itself and consider its present-day implications.


Ben-Zvi, Yael. “Up and Down with Mary Rowlandson: Erdrich’s and Alexie’s Versions of ‘Captivity.’Studies in American Indian Literature, 2012.

Fast, Robin Riley. The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. U of Michigan P, 1999.



Randi Tanglen is associate professor of English and director of the Robert and Joyce Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. She is currently co-editing a volume of essays on “Teaching Western American Literature.”


Bookending the Survey Course with Native American Literature – Part One: Oral Cultures

Given the present clashes at Standing Rock and the irony of those voices telling Native Americans to “go home,” I’d venture to say the time is ripe for teachers of American literature to revisit the ways in which our classes construct—both explicitly and implicitly—Americanness.

I’m interested in how we begin the survey course, odd beast that it is, and how strategically that beginning can frame the course as a whole. This semester, I’ve bookended my Intro to American Lit class with Native American literature, and in this post I’ll report on teaching traditional oral literature at the beginning of a survey-style, intro-level course.

My priority in introducing students to American literature is to frame America as a place of literary continuity, or as a place always already literary: specifically, I do not want students to see the our literature as something that started with the Pilgrims. …When we do get to the Pilgrims, I want them to appreciate the enormity of interconnected social, cultural, and aesthetic transformations spurred by colonial contact. But in order for students to perceive the literary contours of this particular upheaval, they need a grounding in oral traditions.

Of course, teaching students about ancient oral literary traditions comes with challenges. What do they need to know in order to get their historic and cultural bearings? What are the related discourses, and what are the major questions driving those discourses? What analytic tools will give students traction to participate in said discourses? And how do we use existing textual literature to teach ancient oral literature, anyway? Furthermore… given that academic engagement with this content, like so much that we present for only one or two class periods in a survey course, comprises entire graduate degrees and by extension, entire careers—how do we retain any degree of nuance in our approach?

I lean heavily on the independent scholar, Robert Bringhurst: his writing is clear, Robert Bringhurst image.jpgaccessible, and full of provocative cross-cultural comparisons. A poet, translator, linguist, typographer, and critic, he has devoted a substantial portion of his career to studying Haida poets Skaay and Ghandl and John Swanton’s transcriptions of their works. Ultimately, Bringhurst understands the oral literature of the Haida to be one of the world’s great classical traditions (comparable to that of the Greeks, for example), and his translations and scholarship work toward establishing classical Haida literature as such for a contemporary, westernized audience.

Image result for haida gwaii mapAs political boundaries currently stand, Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, and designated by the yellow/pink circle on the map to the right) is part of Canada, not the native-languages-mapUnited States. But there is also a strong Haida presence in Alaska, meaning some contemporary Haida are Canadian and some are American. Beginning an American literature class with a Canadian translation puts the logic of borders and the colonial scissoring of the Americas on the table for discussion; I encourage students to contrast current political boundaries with basic culture and linguistic maps.

Actual Class Material: First, Topics

In his 2014 interview with Guernica Magazine, Bringhurst lays out a spunky and rich introduction to oral culture, unpacks his claim that “a myth is a theorem about the nature of reality,” and suggests ways of reading—and reasons to read—translations of ancient works. This interview is a great place to start because it combines basic information on oral tradition with issues of live performance, transcription, and translation, and it’s grounded in a specific place (Haida Gwaii) and its culture. Before tackling a textual record of ancient oral literature, students need time to think about the great many wedges falling between what we will be able to access on the page, and what we won’t.

Bringhurst also offers tools by which to gain analytic traction. As students begin to see how much richness of traditional oral literature is ultimately inaccessible to us (because we simply can’t go back in time), students also need recognizable landmarks that are accessible, that can be found and followed on the page, and that do demand critical analysis. In my class, we focus on Bringhurst’s argument about the more-than-human world, for example, and how his idea of “mythtime” (in which rules of reality are malleable) interacts with “realtime” (reflecting things as they are now).

Actual Class Material: Second, Textual Analysis


The next reading I give students is the prologue and first chapter from Bringhurst’s book,
A Story as Sharp as a Knife. This chapter, “Goose Food,” is part essay and part poem, combining a historic discussion and textual analysis with an excerpt in Haida from Ghandl’s telling of the Goose Woman story and Bringhurst’s translation of it. We do two main things with this chapter: (1) we discuss Bringhurst’s arguments, and (2) we close read his translation of the Goose Woman story.

Perhaps most challenging for students was the word “mythology.” Bringhurst demonstrates that all humans in all cultures make myths: these are our oldest stories, “ones endlessly available for retellings.” In “Goose Food,” Bringhurst develops a comparison between Haida mythology and Christian mythology, discussing a painting by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (“The Kitchen Maid,” roughly 1620-1622) in which mythtime is framed by realtime: the painting foregrounds a kitchen maid (realtime); behind her, Jesus, resurrected, is at the table (mythtime).

“The Kitchen Maid” (1620-1622), Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez

It’s a provocative comparison to bring into the classroom, because some students aren’t ready to apply a literary term (“mythology”) to their own traditions. On the other hand, some embrace it. Bringhurst’s emphasis on truth—for he argues vehemently that mythologies are fundamentally about reality—helps complicate the debate.

The Big Picture

Survey courses are characterized in no small part by the massive omissions we’re forced to make. But they’re also characterized by rather grand connections: large-scale thematic arcs emerge in survey courses, as do long-term formal developments. Big picture through-lines are, from this perspective, the bread and butter of the survey approach.

Beginning a survey of American Literature with ancient oral tradition puts several touchstones in place for the semester as a whole:

  1. Discussion of mythology entails discussion of creation. This makes for a profoundly spiritual literary backdrop to the remainder of the course, one that resonates with subsequent discussions of America’s religious/literary intersections.
  2. The politics of colonialism, westward expansion, othering, assimilating, and resistance all converge in discussion of why and how we have the records we do.
  3. Bioregional specificity of oral tradition both links to—and contrasts with—place-based priorities of, for example, 19th-century American Regionalism (and its future iterations and offshoots).

I’ll be following up in a future post with thoughts on returning to Native American literature at the end of a survey course, reading that literature as a contemporary call for sovereignty, and considering sovereignty—the freedom of people to flourish by governing themselves with their own ambitions at heart—as one of the lenses available for students looking back over a course in American literature as a whole.