March 05, 2010

The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman
by Margot Mifflin | University of Nebraska Press

Review by Spencer Dew

(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 14, Number 3)

In 1682, with a publication based on Mary Rowlandson’s eleven weeks among the Narragansett Indians, a curious and contradictory genre of American literature was born. Women’s captivity narratives offered romance and racism, hints of erotic transgression along with the reinforcement of norms. Rowlandson, a minister’s wife, insisted that in her time among the Indians, “not one of them ever offered the least abuse of unchastity to me, in word or action,” a phrase that would come to be part of the “well-thumbed cultural script” of this genre.

Yet these were stories, too, of women outside of societal boundaries — of, as Margot Mifflin writes, “female protagonists pushed out of their proper sphere and propelled into lives of independence and self-assertion,” all of whom made for a delicate balancing act for those male editors and ghostwriters who helped craft these chronicles for public consumption.

The case Mifflin explores in her latest book, The Blue Tattoo, is particularly complex in this regard. Olive Oatman was captured in 1851 and held for a year by the Yavapais that killed her family before being traded to the Mohaves, with whom she then lived for four more years. She learned the languages of her captors and was given tribal tattoos across her chin and on her arm, becoming part of the Mohave community. Forever marked as “a white savage,” Oatman offers the contemporary reader of history “a poster girl for our inherently split and perpetually multiplying national identity. If her legend once illustrated the dangers of frontier Americans colliding with the ethnic unknown, it is now a parable about what mixed-race America has ineluctably become.”

Mifflin, author of a previous history of women and tattoos, sifts through the “Rashomans of revisionist history and romantic conjecture” that compose the layers of retellings of the Oatman story with both a critical eye and an appreciation for the wonder of the story. This is not dry reading by any means, and while certain angles might suffer from a lack of depth — Mormon history gets a distortingly abbreviated treatment, and even Mohave culture, for all the details offered, comes across as monolithic and idealized — the poetry and passion Mifflin devotes to her subject easily excuses such oversights. Her descriptions of pioneers drinking ox blood to avoid dehydration, bands of deserting soldiers crazed with gold fever, scalp dances, death by starvation, and especially the raiding Yavapais slicing open a duvet and young Olive watching “the feathers float to the ground and blow along the dusty mesa, sticking to the carnage of the family she would leave behind,” speak to why Elmore Leonard (who himself has treated Oatman’s story in fictional form) wrote glowing blurbs for the front and back covers.

Like a true poet, Mifflin’s interest is in the conflicting emotions that most retellings of the Oatman saga have sought to eliminate. (“In the captivity genre,” she wryly reminds us, “ambivalence was not an option.”)

Oatman’s story was first given written form via the hand of a man named Stratton, who infused the tale with his own fantasies of “racial superiority, religious authority, and territorial entitlement.” Stratton, a Methodist minister, added ample racial slurs and a titillating crucifixion scene, while attempting to squelch any question as to whether Oatman stayed on with the Mohaves of her own free will (which she as much told reporters upon her return). He even reused that pivotal line of Rowlandson’s, claiming that the Mohaves “never offered the least unchaste abuse to” Olive — helping, thus, to make the 1857 Life Among the Indians and its embellished second edition, Captivity of the Oatman Girls, popular books that spoke to the desires of the American public.

Oatman’s story was followed, in 1864, by Sarah Wakefield’s Six Weeks in the Sioux Teepees: A Narrative of Indian Captivity, a work which challenged the conventions of the genre by arguing explicitly — “forcefully, unapologetically, and without the interference of a male editor,” Mifflin says — that the Sioux both treated her well and should be recognized for it, including rewards “in heaven.” Oatman would not go so far, although even as she followed Stratton’s script and accused the Mohaves of keeping her as a slave, she was quick to visit New York when their chief made an appearance, going “to shake his hand and speak his language.”

Indeed, Oatman’s acculturation was extreme. The girl’s family was following the rogue Mormon prophet James Colin Brewster, who broke with Joseph Smith by making revelations and — in the case of the westward journey — exceptionally convenient translations of ancient hieroglyphics, all pointing toward a promised land. Oatman, a young Mormon sectarian who eventually earned beads in exchange for sweetly singing church hymns and who discussed her cosmology with the baffled Indians, was given the seemingly loving nickname “Rotten Vagina” after being accepted into the sexually hyper-liberated Mohave culture.

Reintegrating into “civilization” at Fort Yuma, “the worst army post in the west,” where she was kept under the protective wing of the legendary brothel owner Sarah (“The Western”) Bowman, Oatman went into mourning, and there was speculation that she left behind at least a lover, if not also a child. As suddenly and traumatically as her childhood ended with the slaughter of her family, so too her autonomous adult life ceased when she was released. No longer merely a person, Oatman became a cultural phenomenon, “a media darling” as Mifflin calls her. “In the nascent California print world of the 1850s, fed by articles on phrenology and spiritualism, temperance and bloomers, Pacific Coast fog and the legal ‘admissibility of Chinese and Negro testimony’ against whites, Olive presented a human interest epic with legs. She was often called beautiful. In this era before photojournalism, readers relied largely on verbal descriptions for their visual impressions of this white Indian.”

This exotic role was one Oatman played to her advantage, becoming the only white captive to go on a national tour. She was “the first known tattooed white female in the United States” and “the first American woman to show her tattooed body publicly for profit,” a harbinger to a cultural obsession — she was kidnapped just three years after the first professional American tattooist hung his shingle, and, coincidentally, the same year as the publication of a novel in which tattoos play to the American imagination: Moby-Dick.

Yet while Oatman provided ethnographic researchers with detailed information about a tribal culture that would soon be extinct, it was her bizarre facial markings that held myth-making potential, not the reality of her cross-cultural encounter. Indeed, in 1882 an act debuted at a New York dime museum and “Olive’s Indian past was publicly revived, retrofitted, and trivialized” as Nora Hildebrandt, daughter of that first professional American tattooist, displayed her decorated body and offered a scintillating (if fictional) back-story based on Oatman’s experience. Mifflin, whose admirable and enjoyable book offers analysis of both the reality and the mythology of Oatman’s life, shows that there is much beyond the blue tattoo. Surely this volume will lead to many more studies on Oatman and related issues surrounding the allure of the exotic and the dangers and wonders of various cultural frontiers.