Exhume the Stories: Women Captives in the American West

The struggles between the Native Americans and white settlers is an iconic view in the movie, Dancing With Wolves, that creates a simplistic view of the separation and violence that is associated with Native Americans in the West. The movie portrays the capture and treatment of  white women among the Native Americans as a cause of a radical change in the woman’s identity. The myth behind the interactions between white women captives and Native Americans is nonexistent. The role these women play in the history of Great American West is an important but unnoticed interaction that shows a different side of Native American and white settler relationships. The interactions that occur between the individuals involved are all based individually on the context of the situation and the outcome. Each narrative or portrayal is a unique definition of the myth.

A pop culture identity of this myth can be seen through the movie Dancing with Wolves. This movie depicts an epic love story of the romanticized view of a white women captive in the Lakota tribe. The movie illustrates an accurate view of the involvement a white woman captive would have with a Native American tribe in this particular context. The woman, Stands With A Fist, becomes a part of the tribe and fully views herself as a Native American woman. Stands With a Fist works with the other native women, she is fluent in the language, and she participates within the tribe as a part of the community. However, the main plot of the movie focus on the violence between the white settlers and the Lakota tribe. There is very little about the role and experiences Stands With a Fist has as a captive in the Lakota tribe.  The two sides of her identity clash to show how truly she changed to become a part of the tribe. As a captive from a young age, Stands With A Fist, became completely integrated into the culture of the Lakota Indians. This portrayal of how a women could become a part of a tribe, matches closely to other captive narratives. Even with the elements of Hollywood, Dancing with Wolves renders a real life situation that could have occurred between the Native Americans and a white woman captive that shows the middle ground that existed between white settlers and the Native Americans.

The real life counterpart to Stands With a Fist is Eunice Williams. As a young girl, Eunice Williams was captured by the Mohawk Indians. As a captive, she slowly grew to be a part of the tribe and the culture that was  superimposed on her by the social aspects of her surroundings. Eunice thrived in the tribe that became her home. The narrative “Captivity Narrative, Native American” by Daniel Hutchins describes Eunice’s connection to the white community as minimal to nonexistent. The narrative provides information that Eunice only returned back to the white society once to visit her family. Eunice’s identity is not congruent with that of a white woman in society but matches that of a Native American woman. Eunice Williams’ story is a defining part of the misunderstood changes that took place within the women like Stands With a Fist and Eunice. They were changed in a deep fundamental way that was reflected by the choices they made to remain within the Native American communities that they had become a part of.

Stands With a Fist and Eunice are representative of the non-violent and cohesive interaction that the Native Americans had with settlers. The transition from white society to Native American society happens at such a young age for both that when there is white interference later in their lives, both women show reluctance to return to white society. The woman from Dancing with Wolves expresses fear and anxiety when she first encounters John Dunbar. Which is not the expected reaction that most people would foresee. This was very similar to the reaction Eunice had when she was asked by her family to return to their community. In Eunice’s situation she refused to return and stayed with her Native American husband and children. The conclusion to these women’s stories is not the trendy ending that most would expect at the end of a Western film. The favorable myth of the American West barely touches the idea of people who would rather live in harmony with the Native American’s than against them, nonetheless, there were women who chose to identify with the Native American instead of their own people.

A radically different situation was that of the capture of Hannah Dustan. This white woman told her story through a narrative that told of her escape and slaughter of her captors. Hannah Dustan was taken captive in a brutal raid that left her with no humanity towards her Native American captors. In reaction to her capture, Hannah was able to escape and scalp her captors. Hannah Dustan saved herself and returned to white society as a respectable icon of a white woman. This again is an extreme situation that is a very minimal part of the myth of the Great Western Frontier. The popular myths of the West all examine men and the violence roles they played in the conquering of the Native Americans. However, Hannah Dustan was a brutal as any man. In the days of the West, this woman impacted both communities with her actions but today there are no old Western films telling the story of the heroic Hannah Dustan.

In reality, the interactions between the Native American and white people varied from each interaction. Another story of a white woman captive returning to white society is Olive Oatman. This narrative by Richard Dillion recounts Ms. Oatman captivity in the Yavapai and the Mohave people. During the five years that Olive was held captive, she was used to do labor and menial jobs within the tribe. She was considered more a slave until the passing of her sister. After her sister’s death, Olive was accepted by the Mohave and given physical markings on her face and arms to signify her role in the tribe. Olive Oatman only returned to white society after her brother ransomed her release from the tribe. Olive did not become wild and savage during her time in the tribe and returned to white society with only the physical reminders of her time among the Native Americans. Olive is a perfect example of the middle ground that existed between the Native Americans and settlers.  Olive Oatman’s return exhibit the flip side to the popular myths of the West. The interaction had minimal bloodshed and showed the mingling of the cultures literally on Olive’s physical body.

Captivity among the Native Americans was a real part of the Great American West that affected the lives of both the Native Americans and the white communities, however, it is an underlying layer that goes unnoticed in today’s ideals about the American West. This part of the West is hidden behind the violence and complete separation of the two communities that most Hollywood and historians focus on. The reality behind the interactions between the settlers and the Native Americans is there was not a battle every time a white settler came into contact with a Native American. Even though this view is popular among most who view the West as a raging storm of violence and battle cries, there was a intermediate state that existed. The stories of the white woman captives are a minority of the myth of the great American West that adds color to the somewhat black and white image that American views of the Wild West.

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