Academic journal article Women and Language

We Planted, Tended and Harvested Our Corn: Gender, Ethnicity, and Transculturation in 'A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison.'

Academic journal article Women and Language

We Planted, Tended and Harvested Our Corn: Gender, Ethnicity, and Transculturation in 'A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison.'

Article excerpt

Of the many recently rediscovered voices illustrating the intersections of gender and ethnicity, perhaps none exemplifies better the complex weave of those identities through language than A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. Immensely popular for decades after its original publication in 1824, and framed by its initial editor as a captivity narrative, the text was embroidered by subsequent editors for multiple purposes. Jemison's text details the life of a European American woman who in her early teens was captured by the Shawnee and eventually adopted into Seneca culture; soon afterward, and repeatedly during her life, she had the opportunity to return to "civilization," but she chose to remain with her Native American family.(1) As Annette Kolodny has observed, Jemison's life story, which she related in English at about the age of eighty to European American doctor James Seavet, exceeds the expectations of her editor, "evading the narrative conventions of captivity and sentimental romance alike and becoming, instead, the story of a woman who, in the forested wilderness of upstate New York, knew how to 'take my children and look out for myself.'"(2)

Other contemporary commentators have pointed out, both of the Narrative in particular and of Indian autobiography in general, that such "as-told-to" stories pose complex problems of authorial voice, given their origins in collaborations between European American "authors," "editors," transcribers, translators, and Native American speakers.(3) Nevertheless, as Susan Walsh observes, in spite of the necessarily speculative and problematic nature of any endeavor to separate the voices of speaker and editor, we must attempt to locate moments at which their "perspectives and agendas . . . are in clearest conflict," for not to do so "would be to dismiss the very idea of an Indian subject position, to ignore the possibility of voices, perspectives, and narrative traditions in opposition to the progressivist ideology of well-intentioned white editors" (51).(4) In Jemison's story these moments of clearest conflict often emerge in language that highlights, through both content and structure, the perspective of a specifically female Seneca presence.

Many readers before Walsh, Kolodny included, have focused on Jemison's status as a white woman, even though, according to June Namias, the "Iroquois saw her as one of their own and still do."(5) Namias, an historian, attempts to give readers a perspective of Jemison as an Native American woman, but within the larger Context of her book (significantly entitled White Captives), this emphasis is muted at best.(6) From a literary perspective, Walsh's discussion, which contextualizes the narrative in the tradition of Native American expressive forms as well as Seneca culture, provides a more satisfactory account of Jemison's ethnic self-identification. Nevertheless, while Walsh's account interweaves historical, ethnographic, and literary perspectives in a compelling manner, she does not highlight Jemison's story as a woman's story, nor does she interrogate moments of specifically linguistic (rather than broadly generic) tension. My goal here is to extend this account to emphasize the specifically female perspective, visible through language, of Jemison's self-identification. In the narrative constructed by Seaver, Mary Jemison signifies her gender via her ethnicity and vice versa; these two identities are inseparable, the warp and weft of a whole cloth with its own particular tensions and patterns.

We might take as a starting point for this reading a context that Walsh elides, namely Gretchen Bataille and Kathleen Sands's set of criteria for Native American women's autobiography, although we need to be aware from the outset that such criteria are artificially separated on the page.(7) As Paula Gunn Allen points out about the division of literary works into genres, Native Americans do not value purity as do Westerners, and their art and their lives (again artificially separated) reflect an interwoven, noncategorical perspective. …

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