Indian Captive came out in 1941, with this cover (Lenski did the illustrations, too):
Most people are likely familiar with the more recent cover:
As I write, Indian Captive is ranked at #31 on Amazon's list of paperback biographies for children--and it is ranked at #2 on Kindle biographies for children. Here's the summary, from WorldCat:
Fictionalized account of Mary Jemison. She was captured by the Seneca Indians when she was a child and lived with them all her life.The chances that you read Indian Captive in school are pretty high. These captivity stories--of white girls/women captured by Indians--are very popular. The Newbery Honor adds to its allure.
There was, in fact, a woman named Mary Jemison. She was born in 1742 or 1743 and died in 1833. Before she died, she worked with James E. Seaver on A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, which was published in 1824.
One thing that struck me right away is Lenski's depiction of Jemison's hair. In the original edition, you see that Lenski depicts Jemison as having blonde hair. That is inaccurate. Jemison's hair was, according to Seaver, "a light chestnut brown." My guess is that Lenski changed it to fit the story she was telling.
Part of that story involved the names she uses for Jemison. In chapter one, there's great fear of an "Injun" attack. Pa doesn't seem afraid. Molly (Lenski used that nickname rather than her given name, Mary) asked Pa why he isn't afraid. He says (p. 8):
“Why should I be afeard?” laughed her father. “There’s nothin’ to be scared of. The Injuns’ll never hurt you, Molly-child! Why, if they ever saw your pretty yaller hair, a-shinin’ in the sun, they’d think ’twas only a corn-stalk in tassel and they’d pass you by for certain!”Many works depict Native characters who are fascinated by the hair of white characters. Were they? Maybe. I need to look for evidence of Native fascination with the hair and skin of white people. Certainly we find a lot of that sort of thing in writings of White people who describe skin color in derogatory or exotic ways.
Here's how Lenski depicted the Native women fawning over Molly's hair:
It reminds me of a scene from Game of Thrones (source of photo: http://io9.gizmodo.com/daenerys-whole-storyline-on-game-of-thrones-is-messed-513189766):
Is it fair to compare those two images? Maybe, maybe not. I do think they capture that idea that Whiteness is special.
After Molly is captured, her captors get her ready to be sold. Lenski describes the Indians looking at her teeth, but... (p. 49-50)
...the thing that pleased them most was Molly’s hair— her pale yellow, shining hair, the color of ripened corn. They took it in their hands; they blew upon it and tried to braid it; they let it rest like corn-silk soft upon their palms. They looked at it as if they had never seen such hair before.It is possible that Jemison's hair was blonde during her teens and became darker (the light chestnut brown that Seaver described) as she got older, but I think Lenski's choice was deliberate. She needed Molly to have blonde hair because the name Lenski has the Seneca Indians give her, is Corn Tassel. This happens on page 60 when Molly is adopted to fill the place of a Seneca man who was killed the year before:
They touched her white skin, they stared into her blue eyes, they caressed her soft, silky hair. It was her hair that pleased them most. It made them think of blooming corn-stalks, of soft, fresh corn-silk, of pale yellow ripened corn— the dearest things in life. So when they gave her a name, there was only one that they could think of. They called her Corn Tassel that day and for many a long day thereafter.In fact, the Seneca people who took her in did give her a name, as reported by Seaver, but there's no mention in his book of her hair color or the name, "Corn Tassel." Instead, this is what we read (Seaver, Kindle Locations 394-395):
I was made welcome amongst them as a sister to the two Squaws before mentioned, and was called Dickewamis; which being interpreted, signifies a pretty girl, a handsome girl, or a pleasant, good thing. That is the name by which I have ever since been called by the Indians.
“The Senecas are the richer for having a daughter like you, Corn Tassel,” said the old man. “They have much to learn from the pale-face. Sympathy, love for our brother, is what we all most need. That you can teach us as no one else can, little one. Perhaps that is why the Great Spirit led you to come to us. Perhaps only you, in all the world, could do this for us and that is the reason that you became a captive!”That passage is deeply unsettling. It lets stand the idea that Native peoples were cruel, aggressive, and warlike, and that the White people who attacked them and encroached on their homelands were the ones who can teach love and sympathy.
There is much more to know about Jemison and her role in Seneca history. As I did the background research to write this review, I began reading Mark Rifkin's study of her/depictions of her in When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty. He writes that in white writings of her, the focus is on her Whiteness and the incredible aspects of her capture and life as a White person living with Indians. It is, he writes, a racialized discussion. Far more important, he argues, is her adoption and what it meant to Native Nations and their sovereignty. Through her adoption, she became Seneca. Through her adoption, she owned Seneca land. I'll be studying Rifkin's chapter on her, and looking for others, too.
For certain, Lenski's Indian Captive is flawed. It relies and draws on stereotypes.
Indian Captive was written 75 years ago. It need not be read today by schoolchildren. Doing so, I think, keeps stereotypical ideas of Native people and history intact. Teachers ought to be challenging those stereotypes and bias, rather than affirming them. If you know of a teacher who is using it to teach children about stereotyping and bias, let me know.
Lenski, Lois (2011-12-27). Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison. Open Road Media Teen & Tween. Kindle Edition.