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Sarah Winnemucca’s Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims as Captivity Narrative

From: CEA Critic
Volume 75, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 79-92 | 10.1353/cea.2013.0019

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Critics of Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins’s 1882 work Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims have frequently noted the difficulty of situating her text within traditional genre frameworks. While Arnold Krupat includes Winnemucca’s narrative in his book Native American Autobiography without qualification, Margo Lukens notes the problems that occur when attempting to categorize this text as a traditional autobiography and labels Winnemucca’s text as a “picaresque narrative” instead (93). She explains, “Past efforts to understand Life Among the Piutes in the context of European and Native American autobiographical traditions have created conflicting views of the text’s value, ‘reliability,’ and authenticity” (93). Kathleen Sands posits Winnemucca’s text as an ethnographic document yet finds it suspect because Winnemucca uses details from her life story to establish her own personal integrity.

While critics have positioned Winnemucca’s narrative as either an ethnographic document or a Native American autobiography, I believe that readers can gain textual insight by using a less-considered perspective: reading Winnemucca’s text as a captivity narrative. Applying the theories, analogies, and parameters typically associated with the captivity genre to Winnemucca’s narrative allows us to view her text not only as an ethno-graphic or autobiographical account but as a record of captivity. Although David Brumble acknowledges that Winnemucca’s narrative might be understood “in light of contemporary trends and types” such as “captivity narratives and . . . slave narratives” (61), he maintains that this is an inaccurate association because “it is unlikely that Winnemucca herself was familiar with such literature” (62). However, I believe that Winnemucca’s lack of familiarity with captivity narratives would not have prevented her from writing a text that records her own captivity experience and possesses many of the traits associated with this genre.

Winnemucca’s text has much in common with captivity narratives. She documents her tribe’s extended suffering at the hands of captors of another ethnicity and culture, their exile from their homeland, and their separation from their own cultural social norms and way of life. Like a traditional captivity narrative, Winnemucca’s text posits women as powerful and strong survivors even while detailing their victimization. Also, just as the captivity experience centers on an encounter or intersection between cultures, her work serves as the written documentation or interpretation of a physical and metaphorical “contact zone” between whites and Native Americans where, as Mary Louise Pratt suggests, “disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination” (4). Finally, like a traditional captive, Winnemucca is immersed in her experience with the land, and her progression through a physical landscape both facilitates and parallels her learning process in her interactions with white culture.

Although Winnemucca’s text resonates with the genre of captivity narrative in all these categories, the term “Indian captivity narrative” traditionally refers to stories of non-Indians captured by Native Americans (Derounian-Stodola xi), and Winnemucca’s narrative is told from a Native American point of view rather than the more familiar white perspective. In this narrative, the whites serve as captors, and thus Winnemucca is able to incorporate, address, and reverse the tropes of savagery and brutality—usually attributed to Native Americans—and apply these characteristics to whites. Conceiving of Winnemucca’s text in this way reveals the “other side” of traditional captivity narratives, which tend to glorify whites and demonize Native Americans. Understanding Winnemucca’s text as a captivity narrative gives readers insight into how effectively she uses rhetoric to undermine socially accepted stereotypes and provide an alternate perspective of both Native Americans and whites, even if she was not deliberately subverting the genre.

Winnemucca’s narrative both subverts predominant white stereotypes and strategically employs rhetorical techniques that reverse stereotypical depictions of Native Americans as violent and savage. As June Namias explains, at the time Winnemucca’s narrative was published, “white women suffering from Indian male brutality were commonly depicted in popular culture” (102). Traditional captivity narratives, in which white women were abused by their male Native captors, adhere to these conventions. Kathryn Derounian-Stodola and James Levernier explain that “anti-Indian propaganda became a major motivation for writing and publishing captivities” (30). In her own...



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