Close Reading American Literature

Native Americans Over Time

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Throughout history, Native Americans have been portrayed many times as bloodthirsty, savage, and near inhuman. They were pitted against a European scale of the “ideal” person. Though this representation has changed over time, there is a difference to be seen in the portrayals of Native Americans, over time, through the lens of gender. Through gender, you can see a markedly different portrayal of Native Americans, and for the women, a more diverse and multifaceted one. Cotton Mather and Catharine Maria-Sedgwick showcase just how different Native American portrayals can be.

Mather, in his work A Notable Exploit details the account of Hannah Dustan, a woman who was reportedly captured by Native Americans. Mather makes sure to paint Dustan as a pious woman who is merely trying to survive in the presence of “savages,” despite the fact that she kills sever Native Americans. The portrayal of Native Americans in Mather’s work is dismal. They have little to no voice, and only one line of dialogue. They were given the mention of prayers three times a day, but seeing as they are Native Americans with a different religion than the Puritans, they are praying to their own gods, idols in the eyes of Christianity. This is a great sin, and yet almost unnoticeable given all the other atrocities Mather claimed the Native Americans committed, such as kidnapping and infanticide. The singular line of dialogue used to characterize them was unfeeling and cold. “What need you trouble yourself? If your God will have you delivered, you shall be so!” (Mather 346). This was a harsh, almost mocking line. Not only did it have a domineering tone, it was altogether uncaring and unpleasant. Native American representation in Mather’s work was brutal and unforgiving.

In her 1827 novel Hope Leslie, Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote

“She wore a waistcoat of deer−skin, fastened at the throat by a richly wrought collar. Her arms, a model for sculpture, were bare. A mantle of purple cloth hung gracefully from her shoulders, and was confined at the waist by a broad band, ornamented with rude hieroglyphics. The mantle and her strait short petticoat or kilt of the same rare and costly material, had been obtained, probably, from the English traders. Stockings were an unknown luxury; but leggins, similar to those worn by the ladies of Queen Elizabeth’s court, were no bad substitute. The moccasin, neatly fitted to a delicate foot and ankle, and tastefully ornamented with bead−work, completed the apparel of this daughter of a chieftain, which altogether, had an air of wild and fantastic grace, that harmonized well with the noble demeanor and peculiar beauty of the young savage.” (Sedgwick 28)

Sedgwick notes specifically that Magawisca’s arms, “a model for sculpture,” were bare. It is important to note who makes sculptures, who has the means to make sculptures, and who puts emphasis and attaches beauty standards to sculptures. The Europeans do, the Greeks, the British, the Italians, and more. We’re being shown a European standard, right off the bat. Yet, her arms are also shown as bare. Typical women of the period were usually covered up more than that, which shows that Magawisca’s very physical being is some kind of Other figure, distant and to be admired like a statue but never truly understood.

Sedgwick further writes that Magawisca’s clothing is “ornamented with rude hieroglyphics.” Rude by definition can mean indecent, unrefined, unskilled, or even sudden and unpleasant. This is an interesting choice in word to note, considering Magawisca had just been described as beautiful by European standards. Abruptly, there is a reminder that she is not like them. To cement this concept, Sedgwick writes that, “stockings were an unknown luxury; but leggins, similar to those worn by the ladies of Queen Elizabeth’s court, were no bad substitute.” Stockings don’t mean anything to Magawisca’s culture. Saying an approximation isn’t a bad thing encourages the thought that Native Americans should try their hardest to conform to European standards, because approximation is possibly the best you can get.

Sedgwick makes it a point to claim that, “this daughter of a chieftain…had an air of wild and fantastic grace, that harmonized well with the noble demeanor and peculiar beauty of the young savage.” Of course, the term savage is still being used, reminiscent of Mather and many before him. However, although Magawisca is a Native American she is given the desirable qualities of grace and nobleness, traits that were held in high regard in European culture at the time. Nevertheless, this is all called a peculiar beauty and she is referred to as a young savage, as if Magawisca being able to have European standards applied to her is some kind of anomaly. It creates the argument that all Native Americans are savages, and so any of them who are able to act at all like Europeans were fascinating and worth attention.

Our first portrayal of Native Americans in this novel gives the clear impression that they are Other, foreign, lesser. Yet, this is still one of the most progressive portrayals of a Native American that we have seen thus far. Magawisca is a Native American and also a woman, two parts of her identity that were more than enough at the time to keep her sufficiently suppressed. However, Sedgwick portrays Magawisca as a woman who can embody European ideals if forced, but still be a translator, save lives, and give significant motion to the plot. Magawisca is not a female Native American character who is pushed to the side or silenced, she was not written as an afterthought or put in place specifically as a character that could be used to belittle the Native American people. Magawisca is a character designed to paint Native Americans in a light that was very different for the time period, which was much later than Mather’s. Many of us now could spot historical racism in the first ten pages, but for Sedgwick’s time, this novel was far from the usual. Far from perfect, it still managed to give life to Native Americans in literature, where before they hardly even had a voice. There is a push and pull in the representation of Magawisca, a Native American woman, where there was little to no debate before. The writing of a woman, not only gave us a semi-uplifting female perspective, but also a broader portrayal of Native Americans as a whole.

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3 thoughts on “Native Americans Over Time

  1. This is a really good beginning for a research paper. The focus on women is quite clear, though I would suggest sharpening the thesis a bit. You analysis of Cotton Mather’s text is great – however, it focuses more on religion than on gender, so I would incorporate religion into the thesis, perhaps, and find examples of condescension towards Magawisca’s refusal to accept religion. Your analysis of both texts supporting the view of American Indians as “Others” is on point, you should also articulate that clearly in your thesis. Overall, you have many moving parts that would make a great paper if you would revise your thesis a bit to accomodate the points you have made in this blog post.

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  2. Wonderful post! This is really well written, with your ideas clear and easy to follow. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I like the intersectionality of your analysis of Sedgwick’s portrayal of Magawisca. The Othering and backhanded compliments reminded me of all of the racist comments in Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”; even when the “good” characters were trying to compliment a slave, they were still racist and offensive to modern day readers. But, like during Sedgwick’s time, these comments were seen as progressive and unoffensive. That could be another comparison you make in your final paper, if you wish. Both novels are written by white women who portray people of color in positive, though still damaging light.

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  3. Great post, and excellent comments! I echo the sentiments of Gurjeet and Danielle. Both have provided thoughtful and useful comments.

    As far as your revisions toward the final draft go, what I want you to focus on is writing the first sentence of each paragraph as a point (the P in PIE) or claim in your own words. Most of your paragraphs above start with a description of what an author has done. This is more like already starting with an example or illustration (the I in PIE) instead of a topic sentence. By the final draft, try to revise your paragraphs so they always begin and end in your own words and with your own argument/point/direction. All students in the class would do well to remember this and take it into account in their drafts as well!

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