Settler colonialism is a ‘reverse captivity narrative’: Laura L. Mielke, ‘Transforming Captivity Narratives in Kevin Willmott’s The Only Good Indian (2009)’, American Studies, 55, 1, 2016, pp. 5-30

07Jul16

Excerpt: The Indian captivity narrative genre, or “accounts of non-Indians held by Indians,” has long been described as establishing both a triumphalist narrative of national progress and a template for American identity, in contrast with American Indian identity. As often noted, the Indian captivity narrative is marked by its perpetual metamorphosis, as well as its status “as the archetype of American culture, or its foundation text.” Richard Slotkin, in his trilogy on the myth of the American frontier, traces the critical function of the captivity narrative, alongside the story of the Indian fighter, in the development of the colonial project and then national ideology beginning in the seventeenth century. The two figures of the frontier myth that Slotkin identifies—the captive and the Indian fighter—were “codified and systematized” in James Fenimore Cooper’s nineteenth-century frontier romances and have persisted in various permutations through popular literature, theater, art, and film to the present day. While political exigencies informed those permutations, so did cultural confrontation. Focusing in particular on the key roles of gender and familial relations in the genre, June Namias concludes, “The popularity of the captive story came from a fascination with both the other and the self. One’s own culture, one’s own family, one’s own gender, that whole complex of Anglo-American culture one inherited by being raised on the American continent, was brought into relief.” The captivity narrative prompted such reflection, argues Joshua David Bellin, and exhibited in a multiplicity of ways the intercultural exchanges that produced the narrative in the first place. Its descendants in literature and in film, for all of their revisions to the historical antecedents, nonetheless carry forward the record of exchange between American Indians and white captives and combatants.

Running parallel yet counter to the Indian captivity narrative tradition are accounts of American Indians held captive, or what have been termed “reverse captivity narratives.” In the context of colonial negotiations, warfare, Christian evangelism, and educational institutions, American Indians were repeatedly interned by Euro-Americans determined to exert political–geographical control and to expunge Native culture, particularly through forced English literacy. The resulting as-told-to and autobiographical narratives in English stand as echoes, revisions, and even inversions of the Indian captivity narrative. Alumni of the federal boarding school system, such as Francis La Fleshe (Omaha), Zitkala-Ša (Dakota), Charles Eastman (Santee Sioux), and Luther Standing Bear (Lakota), recount with deep emotion and sharp irony the physical and psychological pain they suffered in the process of acculturation. They also celebrate Native students’ “strategies to assert independence, express individuality, develop leadership, use Native languages, and undermine federal goals of homogenization and assimilation.” Thus, the reverse captivity narrative, like its foil, takes up questions of individual survival, cultural identity, and national membership.

What happens when the reverse captivity narrative, like the Indian captivity narrative before it, makes its way into other genres, especially film? Does the filmic adaptation of the boarding school narrative echo or depart from the adaptation of the captivity narrative? More specifically, how does the reverse captivity narrative brought to film animate the genre’s central concern with linguistic colonialism? And how does the Western—a genre grounded in archetypal struggle between savagery and civilization but perpetually revised since the mid-twentieth century to reflect the violence of US settler colonialism and imperialism—continue to evolve in the context of American Indians’ experience in captivity? In this essay, I begin to answer these questions by focusing on a recent independent film that productively, provocatively embraces the intertextuality of both the Indian captivity and the reverse captivity narratives and their role in the construction—and deconstruction—of a mythic West.



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