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Indian Captivity Narratives

Women Captives

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About Captivity Narratives

A genre of American literature has been the Indian captivity narrative. In these stories, it's usually women who are kidnapped and held captive by American Indians. And the women who are taken captive are white women -- women of European descent.

These captivity narratives are part of the culture's definition of what a "proper woman" should be and do. Women in these narratives are not treated as women "should" be -- they often see the violent deaths of husbands, brothers and children. The women also are unable to fulfill "normal" women's roles: unable to protect their own children, unable to dress neatly and cleanly or in the "proper" garments, unable to restrict their sexual activity to marriage to the "appropriate" kind of man. They are forced into roles unusual for women, including violence in their own defense or that of children, physical challenges such as long journeys by foot, or trickery of their captors. Even the fact that they publish stories of their lives is stepping outside "normal" women's behavior!

The captivity stories also perpetuate stereotypes of Indians and settlers, and were part of the on-going conflict between these groups as the settlers moved westward. In a society in which men are expected to be the protectors of women, the kidnapping of women is viewed as an attack on and affront of the males in the society, as well. The stories serve thus as a call for retaliation as well as for caution in relating to these "dangerous" natives. Sometimes the narratives also challenge some of the racial stereotypes. By depicting the captors as individuals, often as people who also face troubles and challenges, the captors are also made more human. In either case, these Indian captive narratives serve a directly political purpose, and can be seen as a kind of political propaganda.

The captivity narratives also usually refer to the religious contrast between the Christian captive and the pagan Indians. Mary Rowlandson's captivity story, for instance, was published in 1682 with a subtitle that included her name as "Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, a Minister's Wife in New England." That edition also included "A Sermon on the Possibility of God's Forsaking a People that have been near and dear to him, Preached by Mr. Joseph Rowlandson, Husband to the said Mrs. Rowlandson, It being his Last Sermon." The captivity narratives served to define piety and women's proper devotion to their religion, and to give a religious message about the value of faith in times of adversity. (After all, if these women could maintain their faith in such extreme circumstances, shouldn't the reader maintain her or his faith in less challenging times?)

Indian captivity narratives can also be seen as part of a long history of sensational literature. Women are depicted outside their normal roles, creating surprise and even shock. There are hints or more of improper sexual treatment -- forced marriage or rape. Violence and sex -- then and now, a combination that sells books. Many novelists took up these themes of "life among the heathens."

Slave narratives share some of the characteristics of Indian captivity narratives: defining and challenging women's proper roles and racial stereotypes, serving as political propaganda (often for abolitionist sentiments with some ideas of women's rights), and selling books through shock value, violence and hints of sexual misconduct.

Captivity narratives have been of special interest to postmodern literary and cultural analysis, looking at key issues:

  • gender and culture
  • narratives versus objective truth
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