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.”


Addressing Despair in the Classroom: An Ecocritical Approach to Non-Canonical American Writers

PALS Note: This is the second post from Christina Katopodis about her novel approaches to the American literature survey. Read below for her ideas on combatting despair in face of the many injustices and tragedies in American literary history. And find her first post here

In my last post, I talked about building community in the classroom, something I value as a teacher because it means simultaneously establishing a safe and flexible learning environment. The community-building began with the nature walk and class blog, in shared experiential learning. The ecocritical framework to the course, from the walk to the readings, bolstered a sense of solidarity in the classroom that we discovered we needed later in the semester. One additional goal I had for “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” was to center America’s origins around her founding mothers and people of color in addition to the “city on a hill” story. While I view this as a good strategy, I didn’t anticipate despair in the classroom when we encountered the never-ending violence of nation-building on multiple fronts. The underlying ecocritical framework to the course became a method to combat despair with activism.

Reading Dissonance in American History: Indian Removal & The Noble Savage
To construct a feminist American origin story from the outset, we devoted time to Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, and Hannah Dustan, women in and on the edge of the wilderness. From risking the dangers of childbirth to committing murder, these women demonstrated that life in the wilderness was all about survival, skill, and reason. Despite the Calvinist doctrine of passivity, they didn’t have time to be victims. In early American captivity narratives, the wilderness was a space in which transgressing gender boundaries was palatable even to Calvinist readers.

Bridging early American origin stories and nineteenth-century reimaginings, we read the introductions to Deloria’s Playing Indian and Mielke’s Moving Encounters. There’s little room for secondary reading in a survey course, but both were a fantastic investment of class time. Playing Indian provides context for the Boston Tea Party, from appropriations of Native American identity under the guise of radical freedom to shedding the costume after the war to adopt Indian Removal politics. Likewise, Moving Encounters provides several readings of sentimental moments between whites and Native Americans predicated on the death and departure of Native Americans.

We discussed the Indian Removal Act (1830) at length while reading Hope Leslie and Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Teaching the two together was extremely rewarding. Students loved Hope Leslie—it’s an exciting tale that reimagines the Pocahontas story very differently from John Smith’s telling. According to David Reynolds, Magawisca is portrayed as an angel of the forest, which counterbalances the nineteenth century “Angel of the House” stereotype. Students strongly sympathize with Magawisca, more so than any other character, yet this compulsion to empathize warrants addressing the problematic portrayal of the noble savage. The novel can easily lead into the trap of apology but Mielke’s book prepares students to problematize Magawisca’s sentimental departure. Then, and I highly recommend teaching them in this order, students view Cooper’s novel very differently: the disguises are all taken off at the end and racial boundaries are clearly restored. The love stories in Hope Leslie disguise this, whereas Cooper’s racism is obvious. The secondary readings bring this contradiction to the forefront: students understand that novels sympathetic to Native Americans may also be supportive of Indian Removal.

Race and Gender in the Wilderness: Intersectionality & Environment
The wilderness in both novels plays a large role in representations of race and gender. In Hope Leslie, the potential love between Magawisca and Everell is acceptable only when they are young and living on the edge of the wilderness, the borderline of “civil” and “savage” that gets wider with age. In the wilderness, Magawisca’s arm is severed in the act of saving Everell’s life. It’s clear she is a warrior who saves Everell instead of being saved. Likewise, at sea, Hope uses her education (more specifically, her Latin) to escape from a band of drunken sailors chasing her. Sedgwick’s refusal to write women as incapable victims recalls the early captivity narratives; she uses the wilderness as a place to test gender boundaries and break them.

While racial boundaries seem clear in Mohicans, Cooper’s view of masculinity is not. Heyward is a charming suitor for Alice Munro when he’s standing in Colonel Munro’s office, but in the wilderness he’s incompetent, always falling asleep on watch, and rather pathetic for a hero compared to the skilled Chingachgook and Uncas. Yet Heyward displays gentlemanliness, weary of violence, establishing himself as “civil” and not “savage” in comparison. Gender and race intersect in different ways depending on the ground a character stands on, or what his ambitions are. We read Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick through a similar framework but adding in disability studies, the white whale symbolizing whole masculinity, endlessly deferred.

Finding Individual Accountability: Transcendentalism & Self-Reliance
Both Cooper and Melville can be read using animal studies, but this can also lead to despair when discussing the pigeon shooting in Cooper’s The Pioneers or the whaling industry. When students expressed mounting anxiety about deforestation, climate change, and animal extinction, I told them to go back to Thoreau and to connect his love of nature to civil disobedience and activism. The “Economy” chapter of Walden is as much about Thoreau’s financial accounts as it is a philosophy of personal accountability.

As the irony of the Declaration of Independence infiltrated class discussion, and the revolutionary American spirit lost its romance, the Emersonian part of my pedagogy kicked in: I believe that students need to go out into their environments and decide for themselves what justice is and what they need to do to achieve what feels most true to them. I ask them to do some self-reflection, form their own ideas and back them up with evidence and analysis, and, in turn, form their identities and career paths. Emerson asks, “Where do we find ourselves?” That, to me, is what college should be about. At least, it’s a good time to start questioning.

A student spoke up in class one day to tell us about her younger brother who was studying 8th grade American History. He told her what he was learning and she said he had it all wrong, fact-checking his history book based on what she had learned in our class. This moment became an example of how students were already taking a first step to making change happen. I used the structure of the course to argue that we were already working toward justice by doing justice to people as well as the animals and lands that have been marginalized in history. I said it was up to them to do something with that knowledge. There are worse things to be accused of than being an optimist.

Despair in the Classroom: Teaching Slave Narratives

Image via PBS

Most students define “American” at the beginning of the semester using words like “freedom,” “acceptance,” and “equality,” probably based on their 8th grade history class. But the American origin story becomes an even more obvious myth when we talk about the Fugitive Slave Law (1850). The connections between America’s origins and today’s politics lead quickly to disillusionment and despair. Concurrent discourse in the media about shootings, the second amendment, Black Lives Matter, and police brutality had trickled into class discussion throughout the semester because they were so relevant. It quickly became apparent that not much has changed in the country’s violent history.

I think we reached a breaking point at Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I had framed Incidents as a narrative about survival instead of victimhood, but disillusionment with “the land of the free” made it hard to view her as anything but a victim. As I discussed Dr. Flint’s power over Linda Brent, a student in the back of the room repeatedly commented, “but that’s so sad.” I opened my mouth and then stopped the protective teacher impulse because empathy is not enough, and there are zero “take backsies” in history.

The best thing I think we can do for our students is to treat violence and injustice as content and not as metaphor. For example, rape isn’t a literary device, no matter how many times you teach Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” That’s why I teach consent in the college classroom, treating my students as actants and survivors, young Cora Munros and Magawiscas instead of victims.

Addressing Despair: Choosing Literature that leads to Social & Environmental Justice
Empathy and anger are only preliminary, limited responses to literature. Literature leads to activism, which is the best way to argue for its relevance today. Stowe’s sentimental novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although it has many, many problems, nevertheless served as evidence in Congress to argue for the abolition of slavery. This course ended in the spirit of social justice once we openly acknowledged our despair and talked about it together as a class.

Central Park - Harlem Meer copy
Central Park via the author

This fall I’m working environmental justice into the syllabus and tying it to social justice. I’m inspired by my colleagues Kaitlin Mondello and Becky Fullan and their work at John Jay on this blog: Sustainability & Environmental Justice. I will be asking students to pledge to do one thing that is environmentally sustainable for the duration of the semester and to write a reflection about the experience as one of their blog posts. If we reach a moment of despair about climate change, I can remind them that they are already taking part in a solution, similar to the work of questioning and reading critically. I hope the disillusionment will turn into an optimistic sense of social and environmental responsibility as well as a belief that they will effect change in their adult lives.

Contributor Bio:

IMG_4852088740534 copyChristina Katopodis is a 19th Century Americanist, Adjunct Lecturer at Hunter College, and an English PhD student at the Graduate Center CUNY. Christina’s dissertation brings together American Transcendentalism and Sound Studies, examining vibrational epistemology in the works of Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James. Her teaching philosophy balances backwards pedagogy with student-driven learning, aiming to empower individual students by providing flexible learning environments in the classroom and online. She draws from a variety of approaches to make texts accessible, allow individual students to progress at different paces, and encourages intellectual risk-taking in class discussions, collaborative group work, and using media platforms from blogs to Twitter. For further information, check out her website, where she also blogs about teaching.