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.”