Struggling to Survive

Posted by Quinn.

Sarah Wakefield’s captivity was both a tragic and overwhelming experience for her. For six weeks, she and her two young children, James and Nellie, lived with Native Americans of the Sioux tribe.  Wakefield endured numerous struggles including starvation, separation, as well as other things including being pursued by a ruthless Indian named Hapa. So one of the most important questions to ask is, how were Wakefield and her two children able to survive? All around her, other white captives were being murdered left and right, but not her. Men and women are getting slaughtered, but for some reason she is spared. How come? Why was she lucky? Why did she survive? Wakefield should have been one of the first to go. She had an infant on her back and held her boy by the arm. Wakefield was an easy target, yet she lived to tell her tale. How is this so?

Wakefield had lived with the Native Americans for a year or so prior to her capture. Upon arriving, she is horrified by the Indians, “as we were ignorant of Indian customs”(Wakefield, 243).  However as she interacts with them, she learns a lot about their culture and way of life. She even comes to embrace certain aspects of it. One thing she enjoys in particular is the comforts of the teepee, “ I always had in our teepee a wash cloth, a towel, soap, and wash dish …… I had my own corner of the teepee” (Wakefield, 300) Unlike Mary Rowlandson who called them “savages” and “heathen”, Wakefield respects the Native Americans and shows them decency. This viewpoint was very rare among whites on the frontier. Why did Wakefield have a different viewpoint then the other whites? She wasn’t overly religious, but she did believe in “doing unto others as she would be done by” (Wakefield, 237). Should this belief be applied to the Native Americans? Why, surely the “savages” wouldn’t return this kindness, would they?

However, Sarah Wakefield’s experiences tell her otherwise. If you respect the Indians and embrace their culture, they will give you respect in return. Wakefield does everything she can to become like the Sioux. She does all the little things that differentiate between the two culture to assimilate with the Indians. Essentially she adapts to Indian culture. She puts mud on her face to darken her skin, carries her infant on her back, and dresses like a squaw and so on. But are these minor differences that important? Some might say no. However aren’t these minor disparities the ultimate difference between the white and Native American culture? Also, wouldn’t be easier if your going to live with them, to adapt, be like them and embrace their culture? She was one of the few white captives to totally embrace the Sioux culture. Most captives are still hostile to the Indians, “I wish every one dead; I would like to cut their throats” (Wakefield, 283). They despise them, and have no intention of adapting to their customs, unlike Wakefield they would end up murdered. So, was adapting to the Indians customs important? Did that have a role in who was murdered and who was spared?

Wakefield and her children, however, had one major difference then all the other whites that were captives. Wakefield essentially had a “guardian angel” in Chaska. He was a Christian Indian farmer who had known the Wakefield family before her captivity. He serves as her protector and keeps her from harm. He tells her when to run and hide, sends her and the children off to his relatives, and does too many things to count. Wakefield even says, “I thought my doom was sealed, and if it had not been for Chaska, my bones would now be bleaching on that prairie” (Wakefield, 254). Chaska is very important to Wakefield’s survival through her captivity, but how important is he? How long would have she survived without him? A day? A week? The unfortunate thing is that despite all his chivalrous deeds towards Wakefield, she can’t repay him. He is arrested and later hung, for being present at Mr. Gleason’s murder. Wakefield does whatever she can to have him freed, but to no avail. Why was she unable to help Chaska? Was it because she was a woman trapped within the confines of a patriarchal society, powerless against her limits? Or were there other factors in play? After his execution, the Agency admits they made a mistake, “Chaska was hung instead of another” (Wakefield, 308). Why did the Agency not listen to her? Maybe they just wanted to execute as many Indians as possible, even the good ones.

Wakefield’s children are also a critical part of her journey. At first, one could argue that they are a hindrance and only cause problems for her. However as the story progresses, that isn’t necessarily the case. Wakefield insists throughout her narrative are that her children are what kept her going.  Numerous times she falls down and wishes to die, but only to remember that she has her children, “I begged him to spare me for my children’s sake……. anything rather then die and leave my children.” (Wakefield, 254) They are her sole motivation to fight for survival. She doesn’t know what will happen to them if she perishes. How would of things been different if her children had not been captured, or if they had been killed right away? Her captivity would have been significantly different, but how so? After all, didn’t she need them as much as she needed them?

So back to the question, that started this post: how did Wakefield and her two small children survive six weeks with the Sioux? Was it because of adaptability and embracement of the Indian culture? Was it her children and the motivation they provided for her, or was it the “guardian angel”, that was constantly watching over? I feel as though all three of these were important factors in their survival and she couldn’t have done so without any of one them. They all played a critical role in her survival. However, were there other factors in play? Was her faith important and have any role in her survival?

4 responses to “Struggling to Survive

  1. To answer the question about her faith, I feel that it was important because I think it underpins all three topics you mentioned. Her kindness to others and desire to treat others as she would like to be treated explains why she is so culturally accepting of the Indians and tries so hard to understand them. This general kindness also explains why she cares after her children. In tough scenarios she could have dumped her children and ran for herself, yet she cared for them. Whether this is an act of maternal significance or religious significance I do not know, but even if it is primarily maternal instinct, the basic morals that drive her to drag along her children can be seen in her faith. As for Chaska, Wakefield knows him as a Christian and expects him to share the same beliefs that she does, and therefore she can rely upon him with unwavering certainty.

  2. In regards to the main question of how Wakefield and her two children survived, I would definitely have to say it was mostly due to Chaska. I like the idea of Chaska being Wakefield’s “guardian angel” because it gets at the fact that her God has sent her a protector. Numerous times, Hapa could have (and he really wanted to whenever he got drunk) killed Sarah. However, every single time Chaska was there to step in and protect Sarah and her kids. When Hapa entered the teepee one night and was drunk and went over towards Sarah to wake her up, Chaska stepped in and stopped him. Hapa wanted to make Sarah his wife (Chaska knew Sarah would not have married Hapa because of her white husband), and if she would not become his wife then he planned to kill her. To make Hapa finally leave the teepee, Chaska laid between his mother and Sarah. Although it may have appeared scandalous, Chaska told him he was just doing it to protect her. There are some many other instances of Chaska and his mother, a second guardian angel, protecting Sarah, James, and Nellie. Therefore it was because of God and Sarah’s guardian angels that she and her family survived.

  3. It’s true that Wakefield had no shortage of Indian guardians helping her survive during her captivity, including Chaska, Paul, and Chaska’s family; but I believe another reason she persevered throughout her stay with the Indians was her overwhelming sense of fear. Wakefield describes herself as “naturally timid, and afraid of death under any circumstances” (274), which gives her an innate sense of approaching danger. When Wakefield was first disguised as a squaw, in order to blend in with her captors, she thought about escape, but was afraid of being discovered (265). When Wakefield was in danger of being killed (which seemed to happen every 5 pages or so), she escaped to the woods, or to a ravine (257) or even hid in a hay stack (267). Wakefield’s timid nature was a major factor in her survival; if she had been brave, and stayed with the Indian tribe at all times, she would have most likely been brutally killed early on in her captivity.

  4. I wouldn’t say that Sarah Wakefield’s adaptability and embracement of Indian culture saved her, so much as her positive and grateful attitude saved her. Think about the situation: Here is a captive woman charged to a family to keep her until the time comes to either kill her or release her. In the meanwhile, this woman and her two children are three extra people to feed, to look after, and to house. Who would you be more willing to put up with, a submissive, grateful, helping guest or an angry difficult prisoner? I would call Mary Rowlandson the later, and remember how great captivity was for her. So, Wakefield chooses to be the better of the two options, less burdensome. Sure, she recognizes that she isn’t in an ideal situation. She still has pains and trials and fears, but she thoughtfully keeps a relatively subdued appearance. This may be attributed to her previous experience with Indians, or just her natural personality, but either way I think her attitude saves her. She has a strategy, thinking that she “must try to be pleased , and not mistrust them; make them think [she has] confidence in them, and hey would soon learn to love and respect [her], and that would be [her] only way of prolonging [her] life.” (256) This woman isn’t simply lucky that Chaska takes special guardianship over her; her planned attitude facilitates that relationship.

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