The Confiscation of Cultural Identity

The intermingling of contradictory cultures is perhaps nowhere more identifiable to Americans than the encounter between Native North Americans and the European settlers. Within this encounter there exists a close first-hand glimpse of how these indigenous people lived. These accounts are filled with personal feelings and biases toward the native groups. However, within these biases there arises an interesting incite into not only the manner by which Native Americans lived, but also how the European outsiders viewed their way of life.

The preconceptions based upon existing accounts of Native American contact were a considerable factor in the belief systems maintained by Europeans before direct contact had ever taken place. The result is a cycle of cultural identification that displaced a native culture into a position of resentment among the European settlers. These captivity narratives were more than simply descriptions of an unfamiliar culture; captivity narratives were political and socializing tools used to promote the Native Americans in a certain identity based upon much more than personal experience.

The initial reports of captivity were not met with the same slants that the eventual accounts would render. They were done to put Indians into a social context. Stereotypes of the Indian emerged when colonization of the New World succeeded exploration and it became necessary to have fixed views so that the Indians could be dealt with. These stereotypes varied with the aims of the colonizing nations and were based on preconceptions and in turn were used as evidence to confirm and hence to perpetuate.

Placing Indians in a context was part of the infestation of European culture. The European stereotyping had many consequences toward the eventual take over of the continent. The creation of an Indian identity served to promote the European way-of-life as the morally correct model, made legitimate actions and intentions of colonial and American policy toward Native American groups, created a social fear of Native Americans and Native American interaction, and enraged a cultural divide to unite against the native culture to which the Native Americans could not withstand.

The movement toward creating a Native American identity through captivity narratives holds many conscious and subconscious backings from a colonial point of view. Captivity represents an ultimate boundary situation where human existence, identity, and ultimate meaning are called into question as the captives world is turned topsy-turvy and his freedom and autonomy are stripped from him, along with his social status, clothes, and other cultural accouterments and markers. When investigating these narratives one must consider not only at the setting of the captivity, but also the situation in which captivity was present.

Each individual taken into captivity brought with them their personal identity. This identity was based upon many factors concerning Native American existence. When being forcibly entered into a condition of captivity it is important to realize the clashing of not only personal identities, but also cultural identities. Captives taken brought with them preexisting sentiments toward Native Americans that gave a slant to the perspective by which they witnessed Native American life. In considering the narration offered by an individual captive to the Native Americans one must look at the circumstances by which they were taken captive.

Often time captives are taken to alleviate the mourning of a lost relative. When a prisoner is brought before the mourning party it is their option either to satiate their vengeance by taking his life in the most cruel manner they can conceive of; or, to receive and adopt him into the family, in the place of him whom they have lost. A violent or vicious overtaking would obviously strain the individual to feel any sort of connection to their captures simply based upon the manner whereby they were taken.

Conversely, a European settler taken under without violent confrontation would therefore exhibit more open and accepting tendencies toward the native way-of-life. For instance an early assimilation into Native American culture would not allow the captive to retain their identity outside of the Indian culture. Mary Jemison was twelve years old when her parents were exterminated at the hands of a Shawnee war party. Mary was taken prisoner and was soon adopted by a family of Seneca.

Despite Marys loss of blood family, her youth combined with the kind nature of the adopting Indian family made it easier to assimilate toward Native American culture without the conflict of an existing colonial identity. It was my happy lot to be accepted for adoption; and at the time of the ceremony I was received by two squaws, to supply the place of their brother in the family; and I was considered and treated by them as a real sister, the same as though I had been born of their mother. Mary had to deal with a distinctive conflict of identities.

Her conflict led her to be a ardent supporter of native and European coexistence. Mary crossed the lines of identification that for most were too darkly drawn to be crossed. Her relation between cultures was the model for a peaceful interaction between warring cultures. Yet Marys case was all too rare to erase the hatred that manifested itself in the European conquest of North America. Despite the clashing of identities there did exist the instances of White Indians. The concept of the White Indian holds major significance when investigating identities in North America.

The White Indian completely lost connection with their European identity for absolute assimilation into the Native American culture. The process complete acceptance into native culture is recognized as Indianization. Through the narratives of the White Indian we see an interesting aspect when comparing white and Indian cultures. Benjamin Franklin wrote of the cultural comparison: When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return.

When white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short Time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them. This calls into question the identities being considered.

There remained a far greater number of Europeans who sought the lifestyle of the Native Americans than is true of the opposite. This situation prompted many of the cultural identification that occurred during this time period. The threat of this cultural assimilation is the backbone of European characterization of the Indian Savage. The formation of Native American identity was, in part, to perpetuate the imported culture of the Europeans. Captivity must also be considered under the social context of the times.

The strong moral basis for existence gathered with the Biblical nature through which most colonists lived their lives ushered in beliefs that captivity served as punishment for sin. Indians were considered creatures of the devil who take up those not living their life under God. The narrative of Hannah Swarton finds her blaming captivity on the family for [leaving] the Publick Worship and Ordinances of God, to go to live in a remote Place, without the Publick Ministry; depriving ourselves and our Children of so great a benefit for our Souls; and all this for Worldly Advantages.

By leaving the congregation in search of a new homestead the Swarton family had doomed themselves to a hellish life that took the lives of the eldest son and the father. This rationale carries with it the connotations toward all Native Americans. The masses feared being taken by the savages so they maintained a life close to their church. The view of Native Americans as the son of the Anti-Christ did little for promoting positive relations with the colonists. These children of the devil served to keep the colonists in sound moral standing with God.

Those who were to fall out of line found themselves engulfed into a culture of repent. Many of the narratives were not indicative of the cultural identities of the Native Americans. Rather, the narrative was more than a personal journal reflection. Narratives were used as propaganda tools within English settlements. The goal of these narratives was to engage the public in a general sentiment with regard to native groups. The settlers took to a policy of non-coexistence with the natives. Many narrators heavily slanted the perceptions of the Native Americans that the culture existed based on savage inhumane practices.

These perceptions were used to legitimate the policies and practices used by the colonialists, and, eventually the Americans, against the Indians. In the case of the Seven Years War there were many accounts of narrative use as propaganda against the acts of the French and Indian partnership. The narrative of Reverend John Norton tells of the horrid manner by which the English captives were treated amongst the French and Native American parties. The tales of cannibalism and conduct to promote Indian viciousness against the captives brought rage against not only the Native Americans, but the French as well.

These accounts brought forth an identity of revenge and hatred through their travels through out the English settlements. The rebellious colonists in the American Revolution employed the same practice against the British. The accounts of John Dodge took to the American Patriots as a rallying cry. Dodge served as an Indian trader and at the inception of war strove for Indian neutrality in the War for American Independence. This made him a target for the British Military who captured Dodge and held him captive. Dodges writings were portrayed across the continent in newspapers and inspired paintings of the atrocities that he told.

The British were promoting a sadistic treatment of American captives by the Native Americans. The Party of Savages under Le Mote went out with orders not to spare man, woman, or child. To this cruel mandate even some of the Savages made an objection, respecting the butchering the women and children, but they were told the children would make soldiers, and the women would keep up the flock. Conceptual propaganda such as this was a powerful tool in placing those between English and American identities toward American Nationalism.

This American Nationalism existed holding revolt against Native Americans tightly in its creation. In this Nationalism we can find the policy of American/Indian interaction that spawned expansion, Manifest Destiny, and indeed Native American existence today. The romanticism of the narratives served to establish an American identity through interaction with the Native Americans. Nationalism among colonists, and eventual Americans, could be found in the heroic nature by which the narratives portray conflict.

Tall tales of heroic white peoples in the frontier were met by taller tales of the inhumane nature of the Native Americans. In the narrative of Mary Smith, she identifies the heroic nature of her saviors against the Native American enemy. The company of men encountered the captures of the Smith Family. The commander sends scouts, who retrieve the information that the number of savages is far more than they have to combat them with. The company assembles to discuss: whether it would be prudent to risk an action with a force so much superior to their own, there probably being four to one!

But the idea of rescuing from the merciless hand of their enemies their unfortunate countrymen, who probably were designed as victims to feed their savage fires, inspired the Lieutenant and his little band with unconquerable resolutionnot one expressed a doubt of their success, but the whole company begged to be led on to the unequal combat! The commander, placing the utmost confidence in his men, who he knew were well skilled in the Indian mode of bush-fighting, did not hesitate to devise a plan of attack that would insure the release of their unfortunate countrymen.

The heroism placed the Native American identity to be a single enemy of savages to be overtaken by unification of white peoples. This narrative places the colonials in a unifying against one common cause. The use of the word countrymen places a nationalist identity for the Europeans that be asserted by discarding the weak native populations. The displacement of Native American identity comes in the falsification of presenting a colonial/American identity. Throughout captivity narratives we see more than a simple journal or description.

These narratives were written with a purpose behind them. While the purposes may vary one aspect remains consistent; captivity narratives serve as an identification method of two cultures in a territorial conflict. The conflict was settled by drawing lines of who belongs where. These cultural lines served to establish one culture through destruction and diffusion of another. The relentless nature of the European culture was, in the end, the downfall of the Native American inhabitance of North America.

The identification of the Native American as being a defeated force led to a massive herding and containment by a culture based upon power and dominance. The scars from the long struggle still remain today although conceptions of the situation have changed. The image of the evil Indian has been replaced by a glorified Native American. Many people of the dominant culture dream of a life in the culture that was swept away by the past. The few records that lead back to their way of life exists through the eyes of those taken captive within the lost culture.

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