Written just a few short years prior to the Indian Removal Act, Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s captivity novel Hope Leslie portrays Native Americans in an unusually positive light for the time period. With tensions high between the American frontiersmen and the Natives, Sedgwick reflects on the origins of these tensions roughly two hundred years ago in her novel. The two time periods parallel with the constant fighting and mutual fear and hatred of one another between the Natives and the white settlers/frontiersmen. But unlike the other captivity novels that were popular during Sedgwick’s time, she did not fully feed into the harmful stereotypes of savages versus heroic whites; instead, Sedgwick uses positive Native American characters and negative portrayals of settlers to offset the stereotypes of the time, leading the reader to unknowingly favor the Natives and understand their side of history.
While to the modern reader Sedgwick’s novel appears as fraught with racist paternalism and micro-aggressions, such as Magawiska’s description “her face, although marked by the peculiarities of her race, was beautiful even to an European eye” (23), the novel is still relatively forward thinking for the time period. Carolyn L. Karcher explains in her introduction that, contrary to the popular depiction of Natives, “Hope Leslie refuses to dwell on Indian violence or to accept warfare as the unavoidable outcome of white colonists’ encounters with Indians” (xx). There are four possible options for dealing with the “Indian problem”, according to Karcher, and Sedgwick chooses interracial friendships as her ideal solution. Sedgwick creates a strong friendship between Everell, a young European settler, and Magawiska, a young Native American girl; they are so dedicated to one another that Magawiska goes against her father’s commands and attempts to help Everell escape, and even goes as far as symbolically castrating herself while saving Everell from execution. This loyalty and heroism displayed through Magawiska in her relation to Everell showcases Sedgwick’s sympathy and admiration for the Natives during a time when they were most despised.
Sedgwick also creates sympathy for the Natives, and thus apposing the sentiment of the Indian Removal Act, through Magwaiska’s recount of the destruction of her people. Contrary to most history books, Magawiska’s account shows the unseen Native American perspective of the arrival of the Europeans; and this arrival is wrought with blood and ruin, providing ample reasoning behind the Native’s revenge. The attack is seen as a betrayal from Magawiska’s eyes, stating “Then was taken from our hearth-stone, where the English had been so often warmed and cherished, the brand to consume our dwellings” (50). Her father is described as a friendly chief, who prefers peace to war; the Europeans are the savage and untrustworthy ones, since they attacked an unsuspecting village while the chief was away. Here, Sedgwick reverses the stereotypes of savage and innocent white. Finally, after Magawiska describes the capture and death of her brother, Samoset, she wittingly asks Everell “You English tell us, Everell, that the book of your law is better than that written on our hearts, for ye say it teaches mercy, compassion, forgiveness – if ye had such a law and believed it, would ye thus have treated a captive boy?” (53). In this biting remark, Sedgwick speaks through Magawiska to show the hypocritical attitude of the settlers, who do not practice what they preach.
Overall, Sedgwick’s positive and sympathetic portrayal of Magawiska and interracial friendships shows her aversion t the Indian Removal Act and the genocidal practices of her time. Conflict is not the solution, but rather peaceful coexistence, because the Natives are just as much human as the white frontiersmen/settlers.