Mary Jemison’s narrative indicates that during the eighteenth century accounts of captivity began to offer two competing narratives of national identity. One narrative equated the English family with English culture and unfolded as if perpetuating the Englishness of Anglo-America depended on restricting subsequent marriages to people who come from exactly such a family as their own. The alternative view, as encapsulated in the story of Mary Jemison’s captivity, assumes that English culture is reproduced within and perpetuated by the household.
“The virtue of this second and initially residual model lay in the fact it takes for granted the mixed nature of the domestic unit. No matter who makes up this household or where they come from, it can incorporate, imitate, reenact or otherwise replicate whatever appears to be most English about the English family. Such a household produces a family peculiar to the settler colonies.” Through her (and her rather influential, narrative-wise) editor Seaver, it appears that through the white and Native practices of labor and marriage/love, there is a picture that emerges that offers a utopia of sorts laid forth by the presentation of this Native culture through Jemison’s eyes—a utopian impression that does not quite disappear even after the great accounts of barbarity are related.
This work “challenged authors and readers to consider the appeal of Indian life to once “proper” Christian women. Captive Mary Jemison actively chose not to return to “civilization” and this loyalty to her Indian husband and adopted culture seemed an affront to white society” while at the same time holding mass appeal and a certain longing (or at least one can suppose) for this life free from the constraints placed upon British/colonial women. Sweet goes on to relate, ““The Narrative was one of only four books to sell over 100,000 copies in the U.S. between 1823 and 1827 and continued to be hugely popular, thus having the chance to do more cultural work, contemporarily, than many of our now favorite texts. Jemison literally occupied a middle ground, living ground living between Seneca and white villages and she resists the white male editor’s attempts to define in his his terms” but it is perhaps this very narrative tension that gave the narrative the kind of appeal it obviously had for readers in the 1800s.
Mary Jemison’s narrative, edited and transcribed by a white male, James Seaver, is at once a startling account of brutality of the Native American tribe that captured and murdered the young Mary’s family but moves on to represent a fuller picture of the “Indians” than the story may first project. In reading such a narrative, particularly one mediated by the biases and interests of a white man, it is important to recognize the tensions that had existed between Natives and colonists during Jemison’s lifetimes and to also realize that no one group was without its share of brutal and savage aspects. Instead of viewing the narrative as a testament to the barbarity of the murderous Natives, Namias reminds readers that, “Capture, to native peoples, especially of the Northeast, was a common and ancient practice for replacing family members lost to war or illness. The great number of whites captured in New England alone between 1675 and 1763, over 1600 cases, is related to the co concurrent decimation of tribes due to the spread of European civilization and diseases.” While this does not negate the brutal acts of the Indians, it should be remembered that the conflicts were certainly provoked and while one might expect this white editor to interject a great number of accounts of the “good” of the whites, this does not happen in any explicit manner.
It is necessary to preface this study with those point before narrowing in on the idea that more than representing a good versus evil debate on the “Indian question” this text is more usefully employed in a more historical/anthropological level. By examining the ways in which love and marriage as well as women’s roles more generally functioned, it becomes possible to see the similarities and differences of the whites versus the Natives in the domestic sphere. Even though Jemison’s narrative reveals a great deal about Native life ways in dealing with gendered divisions of labor, marriage, and love, it is mediated by a more implicit voice—the voice of the male white “background” narrator, Seaver, who, perhaps without even realizing it, has peppered the texts with his own views based on the historical period he writes about.
In a time of armed conflict between the whites and Native Americans, the importance of gender roles became even more pronounced since it had become to the men’s duty to protect the villages and homesteads and thus the women’s to stay at home and prepare food, raise the young who would eventually replace those lost in the many battles, as well as perform any number of agricultural tasks. In Jemison’s account she notes, “the Indian women have all the fuel and bread to procure, and the cooking to perform, their task is probably not harder than that of white women, who have those articles provided for them; and their cares certainly are not half as numerous, nor as great. In the summer season, we planted, tended and harvested our corn, and generally had all our children with us; but had no master to oversee or drive us, so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased.” Here Jemison seems to recognize two important elements of this labor division. First of all, she notes that her work is difficult and taxing, but in many ways it is enjoyable since they may keep their children with them as they labor without anyone watching over them. This, coupled with the fact that many women call each other “sisters” throughout her Native American experience indicates that there was a strong community of women. They worked together and raised their children in this environment.
The second important point is that she takes into account the labor of white women and suggests that their labor is probably “not harder than that of white women” but notes that white women have things provided for them and therefore have less cause to be concerned about them. While she does not state that they have it harder than white women by any means, she does suggest, even proudly, that they do not have things provided for them, thus must work for what they own—even if they enjoy the labor. “Admittedly, we can only speculate about how much, or where, Jemison responded to Seaver’s promptings, or whether he prompted her at all” and one must wonder how Seaver’s conceptions of women’s labor in both cultures effected the final outcome of such a passage. To the upper-middle class Seaver writing after some of the most trying years of the colonists, it may have appeared to him that many white women were provided for and therefore there labor would not have been so great. Although there are several instances where a distinctively ambiguous statement is made in which both narrators can be heard, this stands out as one of the clearest. While Jemison remarks on the works she must do but that it is not as rough as the white women’s and in the same sentence negates it by saying white women are provided for, this narrative tension is quite present—despite all of his claims of relating everything as exactly as possible.
Gender and labor in the Native communities form the basis of the family and the tribe and although there are many descriptions of Native women performing household tasks, there are no signs of white women working. Even Allan’s women that are white are provided for and are not stated to have any role beyond that of a wife or concubine. Therefore, without this community of women’s labor, white women are shown to be bereft of companionship and it should be noted that aside from family members, white women are shown alone (except when they are later married). In the community of the Indians however, there is something of a utopian community of women based in labor that exists—a community that the reader cannot help but feel is being slightly romanticized. When one considers the event when Mary, her life at great risk, goes and hides and her sister tells her she “would bake a small cake and lay it at the door…and if the cake could not be found in the place specified, [Mary] was to go in; but if the cake was there, I was to take the child and go as fast as I could” To Walsh, “This scene is made particularly resonant by the ingenious signal of the corncake, a complex symbol evoking both the female domestic realm and the Senecas’ religious veneration of the ‘Three Sister,’ the life-giving beans, squash, and corn. In the women’s secret language of cookery, a household staple and cultural emblem sustains an endangered sister.” This community of women seems to hold equal importance to the wife’s duty to her husband in Native culture and actually saves her life in the end as the women stick together in the face of male wrath.