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. 

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”

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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
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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
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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.

Resources:

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.

Bio:

Randi-Tanglen6

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.”

The Burst of The ITT Tech Bubble and Pedagogical Support

PALS Note: PALS welcomes this guest post from Darcy Mullen, a PhD student at University at Albany. In this post, Mullen explores the closing of the for-profit ITT Technical Institute and asks how non-profit college professors can support students coming into their classrooms from the for-profit sector. 

Things we don’t like: when students fall through the cracks of any given education system.

Things we REALLY don’t like: when predatory for-profit learning institutions take advantage of students, leaving them with piles of debt, wasted years, credits that won’t transfer, and questionable skills to show for all this.

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from http://itt-tech.info

When ITT Tech filed for bankruptcy in September of 2016, and shut its electronic doors to students in the July 2016 term, students were left in a lurch. ITT Tech offered some options. Many were offered a deal: ITT Tech will wipe out any of their loan debt, and they will lose the credits they earned, OR they can take the credits and keep the debt. Some have taken the first option, others have taken the second. I want to focus on the second group.

We don’t have concrete data on how many students have done which option. But many students have taken their credits and signed off on that option. They’ve taken their credits to local community colleges and found that many of these credits won’t transfer. Others, with the equivalent of an associate’s degree, are approaching four year colleges to find that there are major transferability issues as well. While some started this spring, another problem is that many have to wait for fall enrollments (due to major-sequencing).

The drive behind this essay is not to bash predatory for-profit institutions (although they make my blood boil). Instead, I’d like to propose some lessons to be learned from the case study of ITT Tech and its pedagogy for communication and writing in order to expand the pool of who we think  of as a non-traditional student and their pedagogical needs.

I have not yet encountered students in my first year writing classroom that have self-identified as ITT Tech transfers. My interest in this topic came from a friendly conversation with a former- ITT Tech student. I marveled over how the ITT Tech commercials were such an institution amongst all commercials ever! With other for-profit, distance-based institutions in recent news, I am hoping we start a conversation about these  students that have been discarded rather unceremoniously.

I was given access to course materials (such as syllabi, and the assignments I reference) and other information comes from a former ITT Tech student (who I am keeping anonymous here). We can still find a lot of course materials, like syllabi, online.

Non-traditional students take many forms with diverse subjectivities. However, when we consider the traditional “non-traditional” student, we don’t tend to consider the students that have been betrayed (financially, pedagogically, and so on) by a prior institution. This is a subjectivity that is important to consider in both comp/rhet and literature classrooms. Let’s take a look at some potential areas to focus on in, specifically in the case of the  American Literature classroom.

After reviewing a sample of curricula materials for the reading/writing requirements of what we would call the ITT Tech core requirements, I propose we spend some time thinking about 3 ideas. For these ideas I offer some hypothetical text-assignment-goals that might work for a classroom with either a high proportion of this type of nontraditional student, or (more generally) in a classroom where one might need to do a bit more work to build trust:

Never Underestimate Zombies

Assignments in lower-level composition courses were about procedural writing—one assignment I saw was on Surviving A Zombie Apocalypse. Zombies seem to be the thing that bring students together these days. From Colson Whitehead’s Zone One to Cormac McCarthy’s quasi-zombies in The Road, zombies get everyone’s blood flowing.

Beyond content, zombies are applicable here because these particular students have survived the closest, metaphorically hyperbolic, thing to a zombie apocalypse that American colleges have produced. These students may not have yet had the opportunity to build skills anticipated in first or second year literature and writing classes.

They are entering the American Literature classroom having experienced instability and disappointment at high levels. Regardless of one’s teaching methods for dealing with trigger warnings, this is a trigger worth noting. And like many students that have had challenging experiences, they have empathetic perspectives that should be framed as strengths for understanding complexity. Using a text such as McCarthy’s The Road, or Whitehead’s  Zone One to examine issues of identity in American culture is one way to bridge a discussion about identity issues while modeling close reading in a way that fits a variety of student literacy needs.

The Eye of The Tiger vs. Unsupervised Hours

Part of the ITT Tech curriculum included a large emphasis on independent learning that wasn’t always supervised or used as an opportunity for feedback. I saw one assignment, for example, focusing on a profile of Bruce Lee. The assignment was structured around independent learning. We know students tend to do better with mentoring and, well, teaching. The grade the student received was not great. Not a big surprise, and not cool either. The work seemed to come with very brief feedback or opportunities for revision, or many other elements of the writing process for that matter.

Some of these students, I’m sure, will be happy to have more supervision and hands-on feedback from conferences, face-to-face classes, workshops, requirements of revisions, and so on. But this will also be a new thing for many students coming into four year colleges as Juniors. What we would see as normalized classroom processes may  be perceived with resistance—“Why do I need to do this?” In other words, “This is not a process I’m used to.” I think first person, or a good old Bildungsroman, in combination with modeling the workshop process can help with this.

A text like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird or Karen Russell’s Swamplandia can demonstrate the need for community in critical thinking. Like any other transfer student, changes in expectation of the rhetorical situation is to be expected. Novels like these are great for writing assignments that identify the role of communication and rhetoric  within communities and the dangers of breakdowns in communication. The next tactic I would take with such a project is to do collaborative writing on these texts. Small writing groups could begin with the common ground granted in a template from They Say I Say, and to make decisions together about how to present an argument.

Apples and Oranges

In another assignment, a student compared the visual rhetoric of the company Apple with The Department of Homeland Security. One of the biggest issues that the instructor’s marginalia indicated was a lack of citations. If I had gotten that paper in my classroom, I would have reported it for plagiarism, period.

All institutions have different standards for what is a plagiarism offense or not, and the specifics of those standards are not my point. I’m trying to get at the idea that institutions do have standards and disciplinary procedures for plagiarism. But it is also a good reminder not to take both college-level skills and expectations for interaction and Welcome to Braggsvillesupervision in the American Literature classroom for granted. This was a skill that slipped through the cracks in a second-year level writing course, and the loss of this particular skill might be one that causes serious problems with irrevocable consequences.

For this, I’d prescribe Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Jackson, and maybe some exercises from, the not as popular textbook, Writing Analytically. The relationship between actions and consequences is pretty much what drives most American Literature. Using literature that takes that relationship seriously isn’t the worst way to deal with cause and effect in: argument structure, how to build a paper, close readings, and the role of procedures in college.

[Apples to Oranges: Appendix

Apples to Apples

When in doubt– or when there’s a problem in comprehending materials or re/building community in the classroom–my go to is having students make red and green cards for Apples to Apples. We play that, with small groups acting together as a single-player. It’s a pedagogical exercise that forces group decision-making, and the competition acts a solidification tactic. Working out concepts as a whole class, like “failure” in Welcome to Braggsville, through a discussion of hypothetical “red cards” like “college,” “performance art,” “America,” “adviser,” and/or “spring break” gives the opportunity for a discussion of how the narrative operates. I have not obtained rights to “copy” Apples to Apples in my classroom. This is my public mea culpa if I am violating intellectual property rights.]

 

We don’t have much data, yet, on the scope of students impacted by ITT Tech’s collapse. We won’t have that hard data for a while. Many students are still trying to decide if they should erase their debt or keep their credits and start in a new college in the fall. The shift in demographics of non-traditional students to include this demographic hasn’t happened yet.

Until we have more information with which to make better-informed decisions, I suggest we keep an eye on the fallout from ITT Tech and hope that students haven’t been put off from higher education by the whole process. It is worth keeping in mind that these students are not just transfer students. They were dropped by a school they trusted. When they end up in our classrooms, we can, and will, do better.

Contributor Bio:

FullSizeRenderDarcy Mullen is a PhD student at University at Albany, studying  Rhetoric, Food Studies and Protest Writing. Her most recent publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a cartographic tool in the local food movement, one on the  politics of place and tourism in Myanmar, and a chapter on pedagogy and disability studies using “Beowulf” as a case study. Darcy blogs regularly about stories and soil, and tweets #bookselfies with her adorable #souphound @FarmsWatson.