The White “Woman’s” Burden?

Mary Jemison     Posted by Allison

A young American girl was captured by Indians and lost her family, while knowing it was her very captors that murdered the people she loved most. She had neither knowledge of the language the murderous strangers spoke nor friend to share the burden of suffering… Mary Jemison knew loneliness. She was adopted into the Seneca tribe by her Indian “sisters” shortly after her captivity and was thrust into a world in which she knew nothing. Mary acclimated herself to the ways of the tribe and little by little, began to accept her new identity. Over time and throughout her narrative, Mary recounts her life in “captivity.” But was she really a captive all those years?

Her story portrays her as a woman that was able to roll with the changes and grow into a life she never dreamed would befall her.  It seems to be more than just hopeless acceptance of her fate and rather a gradual enthusiasm and pride for the Seneca woman she became. Here’s my question: In the end, is she an American Woman forced into wearing moccasins, fearful of returning back to the society of her birth, or is she a true Indian woman, prideful and secure with her place in the tribe? Does her forced captivity turn into a voluntary adoption and embracement? Or is she a woman eternally doomed for misery?

Before Mary is taken away from her family, her mother realizes her daughter may be spared and leaves her with the warning to never forget English, her own name, and her prayers. She also urges her to never attempt escape, for the Indians will “find and destroy [her]” (page 136). This warning gave Mary fear to escape in the early stage of her captivity, but it may have had more of a lasting impression even in her later years. Mary is given the opportunity to go with a Dutchman and obtain her freedom, to which she runs from and desperately fights to be able to stay with the tribe she now calls her own. So, one of two things: her fear of freedom may carry hints of Stockholm Syndrome or on the opposite end of the spectrum, just a genuine love and acceptance for her new home.

It seems as if Mary Jemison is more of a white woman than an Indian woman when she witnesses several grotesque murders, to which she never quite gets used to. When men of her tribe torture a white man, she says she cannot handle watching his distress and “begged of them to desist-I entreated them with tears to release him” (page 151). This seems to be Mary’s sign of affection towards all, but it could possibly be an inherent loyalty to those of her own race.  However, she recognizes the difference between herself and the life she left behind. When she is again given the opportunity to leave the tribe, she says “I had got a large family of Indian children…and that if I should be so fortunate to find my relatives, they would despise them, if not myself” (page 178).

In the Introduction of “Mary Jemison,” the author comments on the old woman’s disposition and says “when she looks up and is engaged in conversation her countenance is expressive; but from her long residence with the Indians, she has acquired the habit of peeping from under eye-brows as they do with the head inclined downwards” (page 127). She does not see the Seneca as savages; she is one of them and instead refers to them as “our Indians, our houses,” etc. Mary acquires her own land eventually and says that whenever it is sold, the money will not go to her own family, but rather “it is to be equally divided amongst the members of the Seneca nation, without any reference to tribes or families” (page 206). She has an intense loyalty and love for her adopted Seneca family. When she returns to them after two years and sees her “sisters,” she comes to realize “I loved them as I should have loved my own sister had she lived, and I had been brought up with her” (page153).

Can you ignore your roots and become a completely new identity? Mary Jemison was a woman who got lost in the culture of the Seneca, yet grew to love it and establish her place as a respected woman. She no longer yearned to be free and seemed to thrive despite the hardships she faced. In the words of Mary Jemison herself, “Time is the destroyer of every affection.” Or is it?

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2 responses to “The White “Woman’s” Burden?

  1. You bring up a very interesting point in quoting “Time is the destroyer of every affection.” I think this quote applies to the passage in a completely opposite way. It seems to me that time fostered every affection in Jemison’s case. The longer she is living with the Indians, the fonder she becomes of them. Her “tolerance” of their way of life soon shifts to genuine love. About halfway through the story, Jemison is given a choice: to flee from John Van Sice with the aid of the Indians, or “if is [is her] wish, [she] should stay with the tribe as long as [she] is pleased to” (157). In this moment, she is officially no longer a captive, but a full-fledged member of Native American society.
    As Jemison continues to build her life with the Indians, she not only assimilates with them, but receives a place of power within the tribe. She marries an honorable Indian man, and has 5 children to him. Yet still small hints of her first life show through. Her willingness to trust her fraud “cousin” seems to show her subconscious desire for a true family. Time may be a destroyer of some affections, but it seems to strengthen most.

  2. Mary Jemison never seems to truly lose the roots from her white background: though an Indian woman in dress and custom, she still holds onto her true name as Mary, “The binary names of Mary Jemison/Dehgewanus and of the “Two Falling Voices” rhetorically contained within “Dehgewanus” signified that…she could not completely evade her culture of origin and its continued impact on her life.” (119). She also names her children after family members that she lost. Names tell much about people, for instance, last names can usually be identified as Chinese, Irish, etc. First and middle names can also show countries of origin, or other aspects of a person such as which generation he or she is a part of, such as in Korean culture. Jemison also remembers her mother and father’s names, and this gives her a sense of identity in the white world when she does encounter it. Though she grows suspicious of all white people besides one trusted neighbor, Thomas Clute, her connection to the white world is evident through her appearance, “Her complexion is very white….Her eyes are light blue…and naturally brilliant and sparkling…formerly her hair was of a light chesnut brown…” (127) and her “Irish emphasis” (127) in her English. Overall, she is unable to escape her roots, but this does not hinder her in the acceptance into the Seneca culture, nor does it hinder her embrace of the Seneca culture.

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