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”


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 Two: Contemporary Texts and Authors

In November, I blogged about teaching ancient oral literatures at the beginning of a semester-long survey course in American literature. Here’s the follow-up on coming full circle from oral tradition (in weeks one and two) to contemporary Native American literature (in weeks fourteen and fifteen).

Bookending a survey course with studies of Native literature is not only structurally satisfying, but finishing an American literature course with study of contemporary Native literature is also a good latter-half or latter-third of the semester review: since “contemporary” Native American literature is usually understood to include the 21st and 20th centuries, you could easily end up reviewing over a hundred years of the literary landscape. In other words, if the course has put Realism, Naturalism, Existentialism, Modernism, and Postmodernism on the table, turning to contemporary Native American literature gives you a chance to revisit any/all of these, but from a sometimes surprising standpoint. Students discover how the big moves happening in published Native literature sometimes align—and often don’t align, or don’t align in expected ways—with the canonical literary landscape they’ve been probing in the course.

Second wave/Native Am. Renaissance: Paula Gunn Allen’s The Woman Who Owned the Shadows

For example, scholars see “pairs of opposing foci”—a structural staple of Native American Renaissance literature of the 1970s and 80s—as a re-emergence of Modernist binaries. Indeed, Native American Renaissance texts often construct stark contrasts between rural/urban, reservation/city, white/Native, tradition/Anglo-European, etc., opening the door for class discussion to delve into the aesthetics and politics of reviving and repurposing Modernist techniques and methods of expression in a new cultural and historic moment.

Below, I’ll introduce two critical resources helpful in teaching, lecturing, and shaping analytic discussion of contemporary Native American literature. Then I’ll touch on some of my own experiences and reflect on what worked… as well as where I dropped the ball.

Critical Resource #1

Simon Ortiz’s 1981 “Toward a National Indian Literature” discusses the way in which Native Americans have been adopting, adapting, incorporating, and repurposing colonial languages—especially Spanish, French, and English—on their own terms. “It is the way that Indian people have creatively responded to forced colonization,” writes Ortiz. And along with repurposing languages themselves, Native peoples draw on and similarly repurpose aesthetic patterns, literary tools, and textual practices of colonial origins. The thrust of Ortiz’s argument is that we must understand this particular fusion—the fusion of language adoption/repurposing with the continued use of oral tradition—as the foundation of Native American contemporary literature.

Ortiz’s argument makes for rich lecture and discussion material in the classroom because it introduces students to a basic interpretive practice: part of an analytic encounter with contemporary Native American literature entails re-engaging knowledge of the basic literary features that characterize oral tradition. As I wrote about in November, Robert Bringhurst’s 2014 interview in Guernica Magazine foregrounds oral traditions’ (a) emphasis on the more-than-human world, and (b) its exploration of how “mythtime” interacts with “realtime.” These two characteristics give students something concrete to draw out, close read, compare across texts, etc.

Critical Resource #2

Erika Wurth’s 2016 article in Writer’s Chronicle, “The Fourth Wave in Native American Fiction,” lays out a historic framework and charts four major literary developments. Wurth’s claims are specific to fiction, so her article might be less useful for instructors
wanting to emphasize another genre (e.g., poetry, a genre with respect to which a westernized literary audience is arguably already comfortable discussing orality). On the other hand, many Native American writers contest westernized genre-boundaries, so bringing poetry to the table alongside Wurth’s arguments could be an interesting exercise.

Either way, Wurth’s writing is accessible (the article can be assigned to students if time and reading load allow) and her division of over a century of literature into four distinct and digestible parts provides landmarks. Here’s a compressed run-down:

  • The first wave of contemporary Native American fiction anticipates an
    First wave: D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded

    untrained, unfamiliar audience. In texts from the early 20th century, plot, action, and character development are all apt to be “interrupted” by explanation of cultural references and/or history lessons.

  • Literature of the second wave (which corresponds with what is usually called—albeit problematically—the Native American Renaissance) tends to work with one general plotline: stories of individuated pain give way in the end to collectivity, shared consciousness, and realization of embeddedness across boundaries of time, space, and species.
  • Wurth’s third wave is “language first” fiction; that is, stories and novels no longer bear the second wave’s burden of asserting communal healing, and instead prioritize lyricism.
  • The most recent shift Wurth identifies is that writers contributing to the fourth wave
    Fourth wave: Richard van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed

    take a Native point of view as self-evident, thus requiring the reader to bring a degree of historic and cross- or multi-cultural familiarity to the table.

My Experience

Students seemed to find the most traction when tasked with returning to what they had learned about features of traditional oral literatures. They approached contemporary Native American texts as a scavenger hunt, seeking out evidence of emphasis on the more-than-human-world, mythtime, and realtime. Our most lively discussions revolved around describing and questioning these features’ functions in contemporary (as opposed to ancient, sacred) texts. The “active, ongoing presence of the past” became a theme for us, one students applied to pop culture references as well as to class texts.

On the other hand, students had more trouble applying Wurth’s four waves as an interpretive tool—they wanted it to work as a roadmap. In other words, they sought firm dates to associate with each wave, and were game to seek out evidence of, for example, “language-first” lyricism in a text if that text was pre-designated as third wave. Lessons learned? I feel that Wurth’s schema would have been a better teaching tool if I had framed it more directly as grounds for debate. For example, asking half the class to argue that Louise Erdrich’s “Fleur” is most productively understood as second wave, and the other half of the class to argue that it is most productively understood as third wave—or that Sherman Alexie’s “War Dances” belongs more squarely to the third versus the fourth wave—would have positioned students to engage Wurth’s ideas less as a system of classification and more as an analytic lens.

In Closing… Texts and Authors?

The Open Education Database proposes this list of twenty Native American must-read authors. Ernestine Hayes, Debra Magpie Earling, Eddie Chuculate, and Eric Gansworth are four more I’m eager to mention…and of course I would be happy to supply additional authors/titles to anyone interested!