After the Ink Dried but Before History was a Woman’s

After the Ink Dried but Before History was a Woman’s

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 3 Spring 2020

Author(s): Sarah Richardson

Sarah Richardson is a PhD student in the Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design doctoral program at Clemson University. Her research interests are in feminist theory, material rhetorics, death rhetorics, and gendered spaces. Her current work in progress focuses on the rhetorical impact of historical women through material objects.

Abstract: This article adds to the remembrance of women who have made significant contributions to the autonomy of women’s representations of identity. Olive Oatman’s identity was formed through captivity narratives and newspaper articles written about her, removing her voice and opinion, forging an identity that fell into the expectations for women of the time. Drawing from current feminist theory and using Olive Oatman’s lecture notes, I analyze the rhetorical choices Oatman made to re-claim her identity and disrupt patriarchal expectations. This article argues that examining Olive Oatman’s rhetorical choices helps remember and regain authority for women who made significant advances towards liberation of thought and identity.

Tags: , , , , ,

Remembering, Renaming, Rewriting

Woman. Othered. Intelligent. Celebrity. Victim. Survivor: these are all characterizations of how Olive Oatman’s identity has been molded. As a teenager, Olive Oatman was captured by the Apache tribe and then traded to the Mohave tribe where she lived within the Mohave culture for five years. After forcibly being returned to the colonists, a then-illiterate Olive encountered Reverend Royal B. Stratton who agreed to pen her autobiography. Oatman’s words became Stratton’s, and quickly her story became appropriated to fit his professional goals of rising within the religious community. During the nineteenth century, women’s individual identities were forced into gendered spaces where the men controlled the public and women were forced to remain in the private domain.1 Nancy Weitz Miller writes about the seventeenth century, but these problematic spaces have proven to be apparent throughout history and continue to be maintained by the rhetoric employed within this patriarchal culture: the separation between genders “secur[es] authority […] in an effort to keep them in a submissive position” (273). Stratton used this historical silencing to overtake Oatman’s narrative and formulate an identity that would enforce the separation between cultures and continue the religious narrative of pious, white, men. Olive Oatman managed to break through this dominant narrative by refusing to allow her voice to be silenced by the patriarchy. Olive Oatman strategized her resistance by employing several rhetorical strategies to appeal to the audience’s pathos, through her use of ethos, voice, and identity.

Margot Mifflin explains that Oatman’s lectures spanned the locations of Toledo, Ohio, Evansville, New York City, and other locations, and the response to her lectures were all the same:

“The audience listened with breathless interest, and all were deeply affected.” […] She packed the house: “Her pathetic story, surpassing in interest the most thrilling romance, was told with an unaffected simplicity and grace and a touching pathos that went to every heart and drew tears from eyes unused to weep. Miss Oatman evinces much dramatic power in the grouping of incidents”. (169)

She used Stratton’s ethos of the pious, white, male by acting as his tool to support his message. Oatman began her speech by explaining that she is not talking to her audience as a “public lecturer” (1), but instead is standing before the audience as a “narrator of events” (1) where she feels she has a “duty” (18) to present what she “experience[d]” (1) and “observ[ed]” (1) during her captivity. Using the words narrator, duty, and experience provides her connection to the audience, purpose of her speech, and ethos for speaking her own voice instead of continuing to let the public form her identity. In this sense, she simultaneously built her own authority before separating from him and his book tour, and making the public lectures her own. Oatman used the Othered identity the public cast her in as a catalyst for control of her identity and power as a woman. Focusing on the rhetorical aspects of identity employed in her speech, she resisted the public’s assumptions about what it means to be a captive who is Othered and displaced.

Olive Oatman is Othered because of her physical appearance, her lived experiences, and how her celebrity status causes the public to interpret and label her identity. The information regarding Olive Oatman comes from Bowling Green State’s archival collection, which houses her notes outlining her handwritten speech, the newspaper articles, as well as Stratton’s narrative which was reportedly relaying Oatman’s captivity narrative. Books, articles, and movies touch upon the problems Stratton causes to Oatman’s identity and the work she completed during her lifetime, but do not call attention to the rhetorical or feminist impacts that Oatman made. Examining Oatman’s narrative through the lenses of feminism and rhetoric allows the audience to investigate the rhetorical choices surrounding her captivity narrative that she used as a vehicle to employ a multiplicity of identities, which furthers and continues Oatman’s resistance to how the public writes her story within the dominant narrative.

Olive Oatman’s microhistory is a single event that represents how one narrative fits within a genre of forgotten, misrepresented, and Othered women who have contributed to the field. Microhistory, according to Istavan Szijarto and Sigurour Glyfi Magnusson, “giv[es] a completely different picture of the past from investigations about nations, states, or social groupings stretching over decades, centuries, or whatever” (5) by examining a single event in history.2  This allows for an alternative recognition of the impact less recognized figures have made in society and presents other identities for that individual. Additionally, this article demonstrates how one person has the ability to add to the collective of women who have made significant changes to rhetoric and feminism, but have been overshadowed or who are “often dominated by ‘a male approach to the world’” (Myatt 41).3 As rhetorical scholars, women have the opportunity to continue the tradition of unearthing Othered identities.

Othering Olive Oatman: Captivity Narratives as Displacement

Identity and being Othered are terms within the pharmakon that both help the public relate to a group, but also isolate a person if the term does not connect with the majority who have socially constructed the boundaries in which people use to be identified with. Identity can be explained as “something that one does in language; or, more exactly, identity matters as something that one does to the audience through the expression of who or what one is” (Anderson 4).4 The group examining a person or action creates the structure in which a person identifies or does not identify with the collective. When a person does not identity with the majority they become situated on the outside of that society where they are Othered: that the collective “establish[es] a sense of identity and the mode by which they establish a relation to one another” (Davis 126). An identification can indeed cause the separation between the collective and the identified, making that person “Othered.”

Olive Oatman is known as “the girl with the blue tattoo” (see Fig. 1). Mifflin refers to Oatman by this nickname, and titles her book after the tattoo on Oatman’s chin that garnered this identity: The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Oatman’s tale began in 1851 (at the age of fourteen), when she and her family began traveling west with a caravan of Mormons who were following John Brewster to what they believed was the “land of Bashan” in California. During the expedition, the Oatman family separated from the group as they entered into Arizona. Soon after the Oatmans detached from the group, they encountered Native Americans who killed the majority of her family resulting from an altercation over food. After witnessing the murder of her parents and siblings, Oatman and her sister, Mary Ann, were spared but taken as captives by the Yavapai tribe (Olive referred to them as the Apaches) who held them hostage for a year. She and Mary Ann were traded to the Mohaves. Mary Ann eventually died of starvation. After five years of life with the Mohave tribe, Olive returned to Fort Yuma in California when the Commanding Lieutenant Colonial Burke sent a letter to the Mohave, by way of Francisco, a Yuma Indian who was acting as a representative for Fort Yuma. The letter demanded the safe return of Olive Oatman (Mifflin 104). Francisco conveyed the threat that there were “millions of whites lurking in the surrounding mountains [who] would kill them and all the local Indians if they didn’t give her back” (Mifflin 106). After much deliberation among the Mohave, Oatman was returned to the colonists.

A full-length photo of Olive Oatman standing in a floor-length, long-sleeved dark dress. She is posing with one hand resting on a decorative wall. She looks at the camera but isn't smiling. Her face tattoo is visible even from a distance.

Fig. 1. Olive Oatman, c. 1837-20 Mar 1903. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Upon her immediate return, Oatman was interviewed by Col. Burke. She was able to answer him in English. Burke asked Olive: “How did the Mohaves treat you and your sister” (Kroeber 312)? She answered, “‘Very well.’ They had never whipped her but always treated her well” (312). Burke continued, “Did the Mohaves give you plenty to eat” (312)? Oatman again answered “yes” (312).5 From this initial encounter, we can compare how Oatman’s initial reaction to her time with the Mohave followed her general experience explained throughout her speech later in her life despite how the media and Royal B. Stratton decided to narrate her captivity.

During her time with the Mohave, Olive and Mary Ann received face tattoos comprised of “five thick vertical bars that stretched from her jaw line to her lower lip” (Mifflin 79). These tattoos visually marked the girls as outsiders to the colonists. Oatman’s tattoo visually separated her from the public, and was the reason for much of her celebrity status as her tattoo served as a way to Other Oatman; however, this paper is not focused on the transculturation that her tattoo caused, but on the actions after her tattoo gained Oatman notoriety. William B. Rice writes that Olive Oatman’s rescue caused her to be “celebrated” as the “Indian captive” (97). After Oatman’s deliverance from the Mohaves in February 1856, the story of her trials was recounted all over California in “the letters of correspondents and in articles which appeared in many news papers through a cumbersome system of exchange” (97). The Los Angeles Star published several articles updating the public about Oatman’s whereabouts, who visited her, and how she was progressing after being rescued. One article reads, “Miss Oatman is in her sixteenth year, without a relative save a young brother, as poor as herself, without education, and without even a knowledge of her native language” (“Miss Olive Oatman”). Not only is the information inaccurate, but the newspaper paints Olive Oatman as a victim in the eye of the public. Oatman was nineteen when she returned to Fort Yuma, she also did have knowledge of her native language. While she could not write, she was able to converse. The Sacramento Daily Union described Oatman as having her faculties “somewhat impaired by her way of life” (“Olive Oatman”). Again, Olive was portrayed as someone lacking the mental capacity to survive in her native culture, despite proof that she had survived in multiple environments. These newspaper articles, along with her tattoo, displaced Oatman among the public and made her into a celebrity figure where the majority of the population was unable to relate to her experience, and took the word of the media which was generated to the masses.

While Olive Oatman still remembered her native tongue, she possessed no written literacy skills. Unable to write the events that took place during her captivity, until later in her life, meant that someone else needed to record her narrative for her. Royal B. Stratton penned Oatman’s narrative and published a book on her captivity; however, the diction he used to write her story largely conflicted with the diction in the public lectures Oatman gave later in life, as well as the first interview. For example, Stratton quoted Oatman as saying, “‘One little incident took place on the morning of my departure, that clearly reflects the littleness and meanness that inheres in the general character of the Indian […] the son of the chief came and took all my beads, with every woolen shred he could find about me, and quietly told me that I could not take them with me’” (264-5). The attitude of the Mohave portrayed here differed from the answers previously given in the interview by Oatman, and found later throughout this article.

These differences suggest a conflict in Stratton’s views and Oatman’s experiences. Stratton’s views are reflective of dominant power structures which have historically silenced anyone who was not a white, straight, male. In essence, Stratton’s views that were projected in colonial society, represented so few, but were projected onto everyone became a “counterpublic memory that disrupts visions of life as it was, is, and will be” (Enoch 62).6 His use of a captivity narrative follows a structure that presents one perception of events, not even represented by Olive Oatman.

The definition of captivity narratives I am referring to comes from Brian McGinty where he writes that

The Indian captivity narrative was a quintessentially American form, a literary reflection of the long struggle between the European invaders and the Native peoples of North America for control of the continent. The narratives were first-person accounts written by whites who had been snatched away from their homes and families by marauding “savages,” made to endure unimaginable cruelties, and later (as a result of either escape or rescue) “redeemed”—that is, returned to their white families. Although typically attributed to the captives themselves, the narratives were almost always shaped, if not entirely composed, by other writers. (161-2)

Oatman’s captivity narrative is no exception to this form. Her narrative, written by Stratton, is a reflection from an American perspective and presents a power struggle between the Indigenous and colonial people. Stratton wrote from Olive’s voice, and presented the Native Americans as “savages,” but then Olive Oatman was indeed redeemed upon her return to the colonists. The problem lies not only between the power structure of cultures, but the power struggle between the author and subject, man and woman, and victim and survivor duality. When Oatman talks of the chief’s daughter, Topeka, during her speech Oatman declares “may God bless the poor forest girl” (58) following her explanation that Topeka had only wanted Oatman to be happy. On the other hand, Oatman addresses a monument named after Oatman by explaining that the monument is “handing down to posterity a key to the sad remembrances of my life” (58) marking her as “one of the most unfortunate of women” (58). While circumstances had made her a slave, she was treated with kindness by the Mohave, but the media depicted all Native Americans as evil and Oatman as helpful despite her strength in surviving captivity, famine, and language barriers as an adolescent.7 Her graceful attitude when speaking of Topeka implies this behavior. The western community wanting to cement the identity of a victim is what Oatman is remarking as harmful. Oatman’s story is a tragedy filled with loss; however, her narrative is also one filled with a complex identity composed of strength, courage, and survival, and having a monument named after her towards the Mohave tribe only furthers the misrepresentation of her story and the attitude of hate and blame towards the tribe.

Similar to the monument, the genre of captivity narratives comprises the same problematic duality of victim/survivor. This duality possesses reciprocal identities with opposing properties for one individual. On the one hand, the individual has faced a traumatic experience where (s)he was victimized. On the other hand, the victim becomes the survivor by living through and overcoming the traumatic experience. Authors like Malea Powell present impactful captivity narratives; however there is still the potential for problems with employing this genre, i.e., Stratton’s embellishment of Olive Oatman’s account and removal of her voice as a woman, author, and experiencer.

Retelling/creating these narratives becomes problematic with the limited duality of survivor/victim through circulation. Several captivity narratives were written by proxy or years after the captivity had taken place, leaving room for the author to misrepresent, control, or limit the identity of the “captive.” Brian McGinty writes that the formula for not only Oatman’s captivity narrative, but the majority of captivity narratives, follows the formulation of describing

a “brutal” Indian attack on an innocent white family and the forcible capture of two members of the family. It detailed a long list of cruelties that the captives suffered at the hands of the Indians. It related heroic efforts to “rescue” the captives, and it concluded with the “redemption” of one of them. It followed the pattern of many of the narratives in that it was written by a clergyman and adopted a vehemently anti-Indian tone. (164)

Stratton’s intention of writing Oatman’s narrative was in his self interest. Mifflin explains that Stratton’s pursual of Oatman’s story was to “deliver a title that was at once pious and titillating for his publisher, Whitton, Towne and Company, an arm of the Methodist Book Concern, which was trying to boost book sales in order to fund less lucrative church projects” (Mifflin 136-7). In Stratton’s version, Oatman was written with the same duality of victim/survivor that the public used to formulate her identity in a flat two-dimension persona of Otherness instead of the complexity within an identity. Lorryane Carroll’s book, Rhetorical Drag, argues that “In addition to the specific historical contexts that conditioned each narrative, I think this pleasurable position, with its discursive power, accounts for the choices these men made to write in the first person” (188). Carroll presents several narratives, excluding Oatman, that follow the principal of having narratives retold as fiction rather than fact, to fit the agenda of the author rather than retelling the accounts of the captive. Having the choices of the author overshadow the protagonist removes the complex nature of identity and instead writes identity in only the forms in which benefits the author. Carroll’s statement is applicable to Oatman’s narrative as she had her story rewritten by Stratton. For most captivity narratives, this would call into question the authenticity of the text; and Oatman’s narrative is no exception. Oatman herself called into question the authenticity of the text by presenting a dissenting narrative to the public where she was able to reframe her identity through her public lectures. As shown above, Col. Burke’s interview with Oatman contradicts Stratton’s account of Oatman’s experience; Stratton writes a narrative that reflected the public’s popular belief of Native Americans in order to sell a best seller rather than penning Oatman’s actual thoughts about her time with the Mohave tribe.

Since her return to Fort Yuma, Oatman became a public figure because of her circumstances that were visualized through her chin tattoo, marking her as Othered among the people who shared her ethnicity. She was physically and emotionally displaced within each culture.8 Oatman’s chin tattoo initially generated public recognition. Her celebrity status that the public recognition created caused Olive to be cast in different roles that created the identity the public wanted to see her as; she was: a victim, “the girl with the blue tattoo,” a survivor, a Mormon, the sister of Lorenzo Oatman, etc.9 Forcing Oatman into this celebrity role emphasized her displacement as someone who did not fall into the majority population of average citizens, and, therefore, was not part of the collective. Some of these identities were accurate, some were false, and some still remain unknown. The objective of this argument is not to dictate which identity proves to be authentic or inauthentic, but to examine how Oatman took control of her identity by retelling her story in her own voice after the colonial society imposed a displaced identity. Suzanne Bordelon writes that, “although some aspects of ethos are controlled by the rhetor, other elements are shaped by material and social surroundings” (118). This quote is applicable to Oatman’s life because through the disruption of her ethos and appropriation of her identity came her way to alter the disruption and appropriation. Oatman used the social circumstances and material around her to tell her stories, gain back her ethos, pave a space for women in the public, and construct her identity to be dependent on the circumstances.

A Fight for a Voice, the Control of Identification

Olive Oatman’s Voice

Treatment by the Mohave, actions of this tribe, defense of the chief and his family, and seeking out the Mohave after reentering society are four accounts from the lectures Oatman gives where she rewrote the narrative that Stratton gave her, and constructed a new identity that contrasted the image that society and Stratton have forced upon her. Brian McGinty writes about Oatman by describing her as “one of the first women to defy the social stigma attached to women speaking in public. Her personal history was well calculated to attract audiences, and she had the voice, poise, and presence to hold their attention” (McGinty 173). In each account Oatman contrasted the normative captivity narratives and foreshadowed contemporary theories of embodiment, feminism, and identity emphasized in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For instance, Oatman’s rhetorical choice to speak against Stratton’s narrative and the collective’s perspective on her identity embodied the work of Helene Cixous’ twentieth century concept of rewriting the woman to counteract the subversive representation of females in the phallocentric culture10 that affected Oatman from her captivity, removal from captivity, and Stratton’s use of rhetorical drag. While it may have been apparent to Oatman that her life was consumed by the patriarchy of different cultures, it was not until Stratton’s book was released that Oatman began to actively speak against the voices who tried to oppress her.

Four instances of discord between Oatman’s lectures and Stratton’s book will be reviewed, though there are others, in order to provide a chronological variety of Oatman’s experiences throughout her captivity while demonstrating the contradictions between Oatman’s language and Stratton’s diction. Stratton’s narrative was written prior to Oatman’s lectures and constructed through the lens of a patriarchal culture where his words attempted to remove Oatman from her own narrative by replacing her perception of events with how he wanted to view Native Americans. During these instances, we see Oatman posing contemporary questions of feminist rhetoric within her accounts by “Shift[ing] […] attention to the rhetorical work of recovery writ large, investigating the rhetorical work that goes into remembering women, and consequently examining how women’s memories are composed, leveraged, and forgotten, and erased in various contexts and situations” (Enoch 62). Oatman drew attention to the variances in diction, tone, and belief with her refutation of experiences, thereby removing Stratton’s authority and ethos while raising her own.

Friendly is a theme that Oatman presents when describing the actions that the Mohave presented to the Oatman sisters. Mary Ann died from starvation during the drought of 1852 when no substances were able to grow in the valley where they were located. In Oatman’s initial assessment of the Mohave, she recounted that “the chief’s daughter showed some kindness and seemed careful of sister Mary” (36). These thoughts continued to be reflected when “the wife of the chief gave us some wheat and a spot of ground” (37). Despite being a captive, Mary Ann was not the only person who died in this drought. Oatman mentioned on several occasions that the chief’s wife provided them with food while other members of the tribe went without. When Mary Ann died, Olive stated that the “The wife of the chief came and bent over her, the night she [Mary Ann] died, and appeared as did her daughter to weep bitterly” (41). The Mohave displayed actions of consistently caring about the Oatmans’ well-being by feeding the girls before other members of the tribe, allowing her to host a Christian burial, and weeping over Mary Ann after her death. In this example, Oatman is creating a counter public narrative through altering the presentation of memories (Enoch) with her voice. As Cindy Moore writes, the author has the ability to “capture the disruptions, the differences: the textual expressions of female authors intent on shaping their own creative destinies” (193). Oatman is using her voice to share memories that recreate a positive ethos for the Mohave. Oatman shows the empathy and character of the Mohave by sharing how the tribe allowed Oatman to continue with her religious beliefs by burying Mary Ann as she saw fit, and putting the girls’ survival needs before their established members of the tribe.

The Mohave chief continued to protect Oatman after Francisco came to collect Olive Oatman. Once the colonists’ discovered where she was the tribe panicked and “Some were for killing me at once, but the chief forbade it” (49). Oatman was publicly admitting, in a room full of the collective, that the Native Americans’ actions contrasted the typical captivity narrative by not performing “cruelties” towards her, and instead went to great lengths to protect Oatman.11 Oatman was attempting to rewrite the dominant structure by presenting alternative, historical examples while simultaneously demonstrating how a woman could survive and adequately tell her experiences. Britt-Smith’s explanation of individuals creating social change is represented here through Oatman’s protection of the Mohave’s identity as the chief protected her physically. In using her voice and authority as a form of protection, Oatman is implicitly making a rhetorical stance on her ability to control her narrative.

Continuing to form her identity and change public perception, Oatman relayed another instance on how the chief’s family was hospitable during her captivity, and desired that Oatman one day be able to assimilate back into the colonial culture: “The chief’s daughter had always given evidence of a strong attachment to me, and had more than once expressed a desire that I might again enjoy a reunion with the whites. This daughter in accordance with my wishes and greatly to my surprise was sent by her father to accompany me to the Fort” (51). The chief’s daughter, Topeka, was characterized by Oatman as anything other than a “savage.” I might even go as far to describe both of these women as warriors. Two women who protected each other during a journey through the “Wild West” leaving both of their homes to enter unknown territory and not only surviving, but setting a precedent for women who speak up for each other and support each other. Topeka by helping Oatman escape the Yavapai and being part of her Mohave family, and Oatman for telling her experience of how kind Topeka was to Oatman in a room full of colonists who as a society had been known for demonizing Native Americans: both acted as fierce warriors of oppression towards normative narratives. Through this example, Oatman presented, in the nineteenth century, an alternative way to represent women: brave, fierce, supportive people who spoke out against what they perceived as unjust.

Well into her return, and after Stratton’s book was published, Oatman “heard that among the number [of Mohaves coming to negotiate with the Government], was the chief. I sought an interview with him and found that it was not the same chief that reigned when I was among them, but his brother” (56-7). She willingly chose to seek out the man that was responsible for four years of her captivity.12 Upon discovering that the representative was not the same chief, she still went to meet with him: “We met as friends giving the left hand in friendship, which is held as a sacred pledge among some tribes. I conversed with him in his own language, making many inquiries about the tribe” (57). Again, meeting as friends, speaking in their language, demonstrated Oatman’s willingness to challenge social constructions of gender and identity. Oatman did not hesitate when scheduling or discussing her meeting with one of her captors, and referring to him as a friend. Oatman was challenging the Indigenous narrative, while disavowing the victim/survivor duality of a captivity narrative, and presenting herself as a strong woman who challenged counterpublic memories in order to (re)present spaces that women could control, who women could meet with, and how women could refer to different spaces, places, and people.

Stratton’s Appropriation of Oatman’s Identity

Oatman’s public lectures began during the book tour for Stratton’s biography of Oatman’s life; however, her word choices varied dramatically from the language Stratton used in the captivity narrative. Stratton was a minister who citizens looked up to because of his identification as a white, heterosexual man, in a position of power. No one would question the ethos of a man of God speaking to his audience in a masculine, pious, space. Being able to read and write gave him all the opportunities that Olive Oatman did not possess, and Stratton used this to his advantage. Stratton “marked” her by physically inscribing his own voice over what Oatman had to say, and by publishing this rhetorical drag, he implicitly told the world that he (as a Caucasian, heterosexual, male, minister) had the authority to tell Olive Oatman’s story as he saw fit, allowing Stratton to narrate the dominant cultural and gendered identity stories that he found appropriate for the collective.13

One example where Stratton’s book contrasted Oatman’s public recollection took place when Olive connected Mary Ann’s death with the drought and famine that plagued the valley, but Stratton wrote that Oatman claimed “‘The last of our family dead, and all of them by tortures inflicted by Indian savages’” (196). Clearly opposed Stratton’s recount of events, Oatman spoke of Mary Ann’s death lacking torture, and instead listed what the Mohave did to help Olive Oatman with her grief, while the tribe grieved as well. The difference in tone and attitude between Stratton’s text and the opposing belief that Oatman directly relates to the public, questions Stratton’s narrative as a whole. Lorryane Carroll categorizes this behavior when she writes that “By impersonating captive women, male writers recognized and appropriated this experiential credential while retaining their own positions of patriarchal and often institutional privilege” (8). Carroll is not directly referencing Oatman’s experience, but the quote demonstrates how Oatman was performing her identity and denying Stratton’s construction of the typical captivity narrative where the “savage” is responsible for the helpless female’s death.

Another example is when Stratton’s account argued that Francisco was the reason that Oatman survived, not the chief. Stratton wrote that Francisco, fearing that the Mohave would kill her, refused to return to the Fort without her. Again, Stratton writes as if Oatman stated the following beliefs:

She began to fear for her life, especially as she saw the marked changes in the conduct of the Indians toward her. The wife of the chief seemed to feel kind still toward her; but yet she plainly evinced that the doings of the last few days had compelled her to disguise her real feelings. The chief was changed from a pleasant don’t-care spectator of Olive’s situation, to a sullen, haughty, overbearing tyrant and oppressor. (253)

The concept of redemption for women is apparent in Stratton’s text where he portrayed the Mohave as wanting to commit unspeakable acts to the captive, and she is sent a savior by the colonists. In Stratton’s version, we can see him “leveraging” his views to hyperbolize the role of the Native Americans as dangerous outsiders, with Oatman as a victim who needed savin, and protection. This portrayal subsequently writes women as weak and submissive who are props for the male agenda. These depictions help further the normative power constructions of violence toward the identification of minorities.

Stratton embodied the latter sentiments of misrepresentation, in this last example, when he wrote that Topeka, and her mother, the chief’s wife “‘seemed not wholly insensible to my condition, these were the wife and daughter of the chief. They manifested a sympathy that had not gathered about me since the first closing in of the night of my captivity upon me'” (197). “Not wholly indispensable” and “not gathered about me since” are contradictory to Oatman’s use of the words “had always” and sentiments that the chief’s family had always done what was in the best interest of Oatman’s survival. Stratton’s portrayal represented hatred toward the Native Americans that caused an inability to generate acceptance of accounts that went against the collective views of Native Americans.14 Stratton failed to observe the “various contexts and situations” that made Oatman’s experience, and allowed the audience to initially understand the complexity within her identity. The parts of her stories that did not fit into Stratton’s initiative and the collective’s colonialism became erasures, and Oatman’s identity was forced into a two-dimensional character where the woman was subservient to the patriarchal hierarchy. Oatman’s made the decision to overcome the displaced identities the colonists used to define Oatman: the image of her tattoo, the fact that she was held captive, the place of a woman within the colonist settlement, and instead, reclaim her authority by creating her own disruption to reclaim what she lost: her voice and identity.

The colonial views refused to integrate different societal mindsets into the collective view until Oatman’s defiance forced the public to consider the implications of forcing an individual into an identity that follows the cultural and historical beliefs of the collective. Once again Stratton attempted to revise Oatman’s voice to fit into the collective view by combining Oatman’s contrasting words with the collective tone: “‘I learned to chide my hasty judgment against All the Indian race, and also, that kindness is not always a stranger to the untutored and untamed bosom. I saw in this that their savageness is as much a fruit of their ignorance as of any want of a susceptibility to feel the throbbings of true humanity, if they could be properly appealed to’” (200). The characterization of the Mohave as a tribe that had no sympathy and had no regard for the lives of captives because they themselves admitted to their barbaric characterizations goes against the actions that Oatman described in her lectures. This narrative paints Oatman as a victim who is subject to everyone’s will for her life—which goes against the actions of her public speaking. The accounts that Olive Oatman presented are clearly contradictory to the writing of Stratton. The Othered identity that Stratton and the public cloak Oatman with prove to be the exigence she needed to reclaim her narrative and identity.

Oatman’s public discord with the previously published “autobiography” allowed her to (re)present her identity. Her actions not only presented a contrast with Stratton, but the normative behavior for women of the nineteenth century who were typically excluded. This residual behavior has led twenty-first century women to be celebrated for finding their voices because they have been silent for so long. The fact that Oatman had so much going against her, and yet still had the courage to find her voice, is an example to everyone who has ever been oppressed. In addition to finding her voice, she spoke it in a social construction where the audience established a general consensus of a belief system that represented the collective view in which she had to contend. Oatman’s courageous acts reflect disruption to the constructed norms of society imposed by history and continuously restored by institutions of power.15

By using Stratton in the same way as he used her, Oatman was able to break through the social barrier of the time to present alternative views, and have society begin to question the ethos behind captivity narratives. Oatman’s public resistance through her lectures were not only presented as contentious to Stratton’s word, but to the collective belief. She, an Othered woman, offered alternative perspectives to understand cultural and gendered identities. Oatman was not arguing for one identity or belief, but attempting to cultivate a discussion and challenge the normative constructions: “‘The goal of feminine rhetoric is not to achieve a sense of victory over the audience, to persuade them that one’s position is the correct one, but rather to empower the audience—to inspire it to believe that it has a credible voice and thus to negate that insecurity that allows the status quo to operate unchallenged’” (213).16 By posing continual examples that deny the normative narratives of the Native Americans, Oatman allowed for the collective to begin to create a social circulation of her version of events, and opening alternative beliefs for the audience on identity, power, and current constructions.

Rhetorical Identities: The Importance of Being Woman

When Oatman returned to Fort Yuma, her tattoo made her “Othered,” her initial inability to write made her vulnerable, allowing for Stratton and the collective to mark her as the Other. We have discussed how Oatman used her otherness to transform her identity from a negative displacement into positive différance. All of these factors made her what Luce Irigaray describes as the “scape goat” where “woman will therefore constitute the target, the object, the stake, of a masculine discourse, of a debate among men, which would not consult her, would not concern her. Which, ultimately, she is not supposed to know anything about” (13). There was a high potential for Oatman to fall into the dominant narrative where the women faced rhetorical drag and continued to be forgotten in the captivity narrative, but again we see that Oatman used what seemingly condemned her into rhetoric that overpowered the phallocentrism.

Oatman’s speech ends with her addressing the women in the audience: “allow me to address a few words to the young ladies of this audience” (Oatman 59). By making this statement, Oatman was drawing attention to the importance of women in society and the future. She went on to explain her hardships and alluded to the conclusion that she overcame every obstacle and young women have the possibility to do the same. Her recognition also allowed for the platform for more women to “talk back.”17 Speaking the events that transpired could not have been an easy task; she was talking about a culture that has historically been despised and oppressed by the colonists, and yet she spoke of the intimate details surrounding her relationship with the Native Americans. Oatman set out to not let the opinions of the collective dictate her history. bell hooks talks about the courage that speaking up takes, especially as women who are viewed as Othered, oppressed, and lack power:

True speaking is not solely an expression of creative power, it is an act of resistance, a political gesture that challenges the politics of domination that would render us nameless and voiceless. As such is a courageous act; as such it represents a threat. To those who wield oppressive power that which is threatening must necessarily be wiped out, annihilated, silenced. (126)

The act of speaking reclaims the power that the public intended to take away from women. Oatman’s speech implicitly addressed what a woman could do as much as her identity or relationships to varying cultures. Oatman’s reframing of her identity through the speech she continued to give highlights the ways in which she endeavored to control the narrative of her captivity and present alternative ways to view her identity as a positive image as a survivor, woman, and celebrity. She achieves this by dismantling gendered spaces and challenging normative, social constructions.

“The girl with the blue tattoo” may have gained infamy because of her tattoo, that set her apart from other captivity narratives, but the importance and relevance of her speech, the reason her lectures went on for years was because of her ability to wield rhetoric so effectively that she was able to talk back in a way that used the dominant narrative to dismantle the hierarchy, and  therefore removing the identity forced upon her in the dominant narrative. Oatman was able to shift the attention from the object (her victimhood) to the subject (her malleable identity within cultures): “It is that act of speech, ‘talking back’ that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of moving from object to subject, that is the liberated voice” (hooks 128). Oatman had something to say, and she said it, both through words and silence. What she did not say was represented through her performance: the act of feminism and the roles of cultures.

Olive Oatman clearly made important leaps and bounds in rhetorical and feminist practices, but why have her actions not been given the credit? Karlyn Kohrs Campbell attributes the lack of acknowledgment as a problem that we still have as a society by failing to recognize the women who have altered history: “One important but difficult aim is to identify the rhetorical theories that informed the practices of women activists in the past” […She continues:] “Another is to identify the distinctive characteristics of early women’s rhetorical practices, including the strategies they preferred and the representations of themselves as rhetors and of others as audiences that emerge out of these practices” (125). While Kohrs Campbell does not specifically reference Olive Oatman’s life, the exigencies Campbell is establishing can be applied to Oatman’s life as a microhistory within the larger context of women’s roles.

A woman claiming her role, denying the victim identification, and choosing to be an inspiration of rhetorical womanhood are just a few examples of the many ways Olive Oatman can be identified, as she demonstrated to us. She took back her voice, she re-wrote her narrative, and reclaimed what it meant to be an Othered woman, a rhetorical woman. Olive Oatman rose above the challenges and spoke up for herself as well as for the other women and young girls of the time. The problem with forgetting who Olive Oatman was, what she did for her societ(ies) and with her identities, cannot continue if progress is to be made. This is the argument that Oatman’s actions were making in the nineteenth century! And yet where are they today? Why do we not hear of Oatman or speak of her work?

Olive Oatman’s actions were before her time and yet painfully imperative to the collective of her time. The choice to use her displacement as a tool, to “talk back,” to use her “Othered” identity in order to demonstrate how identity is malleable, to be a woman in a place of authority during the nineteenth century was revolutionary. Seemingly, Oatman had everything going against her. She was captured as a child, lived among Native Americans for five years, and was an uneducated woman whose past was unknown to the colonists, leading to her displacement; her voice was taken from her by Stratton who used his power to construct his identity of how he wanted her to be perceived, along with the news outlets and the public, and yet she resisted it all. Oatman took control, molded her identity from a negative perception of Othered (victim, etc.) into a positive perception of survivor, woman, author, lecturer, and more. Oatman’s actions continue to be lessons from both rhetorical and feminist perspectives. She taught us that boundaries should not exist, and that flexibility is a necessity to survival. Our identities change based on our experiences and surroundings, our Kairos.18

Oatman’s work pre-dated work with rhetoric and feminism which forced the public to re-evaluate the socially constructed identity forced upon Oatman, the voice of women, and the ethos of captivity narratives. Through Oatman’s speech, she reclaimed her identity and challenged the public’s conceptions of culture, gender, and power by using rhetorical thinking to inform social change. She put into practices theories that were not yet written by demonstrating how identity is a multifaceted tool that can be used to resist structures and challenge gendered roles. These assertions are grounded in Oatman’s language and use of spatial temporality which helped build her malleable identity that functioned as a medium to speak back to others’ conjectures of her identity. Alice Johnston Myatt (and others) call to challenge dominant narratives so that our society can continue to evolve, by sharing Olive Oatman’s rhetorical resistance where she pushed back against her socially constructed identification, the acknowledgement and recollection of resistance work can continue.19

Women’s opinions are alterations of the phallocentric discourse. They offer multiple perspectives that have the possibility to add to the thought process and expand the mind into a “new consciousness”; but how can we do so without microhistories of the past? As I write this version of Olive Oatman’s history and contribution, I am reflecting on the contribution I am making by not letting the ink dry, making sure women of the past do not become erasures, and adding to the collection of women’s rhetorical history.20 Rebecca Solnit avows, “I’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope they will get to say it” (10). There has always been and will always be a need for questioning, disrupting, and resisting dominance as it continues to emerge in socially constructed spaces. Oatman’s microhistory is just one example of where and how a woman refused to accept the categorization of her identity within the dominant structure. Olive Oatman’s choice to not accept the identity created by others, her determination to retell her story, and reclaim her voice to forge an alternative identity encourages us to rethink the role women have had in rhetorical history as we continue writing, rewriting, speaking, and talking back with the women of the past, future, and present.


  1. Gendered spaces is referencing Nancy Weitz Miller’s work in “Ethos, Authority, and Virtue for Seventeenth-century Women Writers.”
  2. Laurie A. Britt-Smith follws a similar assertion when she references Dorothy Day’s beliefss, “The locus of social change is found not in institutional or legislative mandate but within the heart of the individual (Britt-Smith 208).
  3. Myatt is quoting Sue Rosser.
  4. Dana Anderson is elaborating on Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification.
  5. These questions are taken from A.L. and Clifton B. Kroeber’s article “Olive Oatman’s First Account of Her Captivity Among the Mohave.”
  6. Enoch is drawing from Carole Blair.
  7. “Slave” is how she is referenced according to the captivity narratives and how she referred to herself within the speech at times.
  8. Katrina Powell explains that “Displacement narratives do not merely reflect the material conditions of a person’s forced removal or dislocation” (3).
  9. David Blakesley uses Kenneth Burke’s theory on identification: “We have bodies and experiences and a common language, each of which can help us identify with each other. Yet we also have unique experiences that we may interpret differently from others, keeping us divided” (15).
  10. Cixous writes that “I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man” (Cixous 877).
  11. Reference to Brian McGinty’s wording in the structure of a captivity narrative.
  12. Oatman used the word “captivity” within her speech.
  13. See page 879 of “Laugh of Medusa” for Cixous’ twentieth century thoughts on “marked” writing.
  14. Stratton continues with this theme when he writes that Oatman voiced, “‘Every day brought to their ears expressions, casually dropped, showing their spite and hate to the white race. […] They taunted them, in a less ferocious manner than the Apaches, but with every evidence of an equal hate, about the good-for-nothing whites’” (Stratton 1740).
  15. Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch explain disruption as a “social circulation, our move is to also disrupt the public-private divide by suggesting a more fully textured sense of what it means to place these women in a social space, rather than a private space or public space” (24).
  16. Britt-Smith is referencing Karlyn Kohrs Campbell.
  17. Referring to bell hooks’ “Talking Back.”
  18. The definition of Kairos employed here comes from Thomas Rickert where he acknowledges that the tradition comes from the Ancient Greeks and is “a timely or appropriate moment for rhetorical action” (74).
  19. “Refutation often takes the form of resistance or pushback against a particular aspect of an individual’s character or contribution or role in history” (Myatt 49).
  20. Men Explain Things to Me is where Rebecca Solnit discusses how women have been erasures: “Thus coherence—of patriarchy, of ancestry, of narrative—is made by erasure and exclusion” (65).

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Dana. Identity’s Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversion. The University of South Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Blakesley, David. The Elements of Dramatism. Pearson Education, 2002.
  • Bordelon, Suzanne. “’Please cherish my own ideal and dreams about the School of Expression’ The Erasure of Anna Bright Curry.’” Remembering Women Differently Refiguring Rhetorical Work. Edited by Lynée Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey. University of South Carolina Press, 2019.
  • Britt-Smith, Laurie A. “Not So Easily Dismissed The Intellectual Influences and Rhetorical Voice of Dorothy Day—‘Servant of God.’” Remembering Women Differently Refiguring Rhetorical Work. Edited by Lynée Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey. University of South Carolina Press, 2019.
  • Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press. 1969.
  • Campbell, Kohrs, Karlyn. “Theory Emergent from Practice.” Rhetorical Women: Roles and Representations. Ed. Mildy Miller and Lillian Bridwell-Bowles. The University of Alabama Press. 2005. Pp. 125-141.
  • Carroll, Lorrayne. Rhetorical Drag. The Kent State University Press, 2007, pp. 1-251.
  • Cixous, Helene. “Laugh of Medusa.” Signs, vol.1, no.4, 1976, Pp. 875-893.
  • Davis, Diane. “Identification: Burke and Freud on Who You Are.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2, 2008, pp. 123-147.
  • Enoch, Jessica. “Releasing Hold: Feminist Historiography Without the Tradition.” Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric. Southern Illinois University Press, 2013.
  • hooks, bell. “Talking Back.” Discourse, vol 8, Fall-Winter 86-87, pp. 123-128.
  • Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by Gillian C. Gill, Cornell University Press. 1985.
  • Kroeber, A.L. and Clifton B. Kroeber. “Olive Oatman’s First Account of Her Captivity Among the Mohave.” California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4, 1962, Pp. 309-317.  
  • McGinty, Brian. The Oatman Massacre a Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. University of Oklahoma, 2005. Kindle file.
  • Mifflin, Margot. The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Nebraska University Press, 2011. Kindle.
  • Miller, Nancy Weitz. “Ethos, Authority, and Virtue for Seventeenth-century Women Writers.” Listening to Their Voices The Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women Edited by Molly Meijer Wertheimer. University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
  • Miss Olive Oatman.” Los Angeles Star. Vol. 5, no. 47, April 5, 1856. California Digital Newspaper Collection.  
  • Monroe, M. H. Olive Oatman, c. 1837-20 Mar 1903National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Moore, Cindy. “Why Feminists Can’t Stop Talking about Voice.” Rhetorical Women: Roles and Representations. Ed. Hildy Miller and Lillian Bridwell-Bowles. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005. pp. 191-205.
  • Myatt, Alice Johnston. “From Erasure to Restoration Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of the DNA Structure.” Remembering Women Differently Refiguring Rhetorical Work. Edited by Lynée Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey. University of South Carolina Press, 2019.
  • Oatman, Olive. “Handwritten Narrative of Olive Oatman’s Captivity by the Apache and Mohave Indians, Passes Issued to the Yuma Indian who Affected Her Release, a Photograph, and Published Accounts of Her Captivity, as Presented on the Chautauqua Circuit.” 1856-1927. MMS 566 Olive Ann Oatman (1837-1903). Women’s Study Bibliography Manuscript Collections in the Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. 16 October 2017.
  • Olive Oatman, The Apache Captive.” Sacramento Daily Union. Vol. 11, no. 15 1586, April 25, 1856. California Digital Newspaper Collection.
  • Powell, Katrina M. Identity and Power in Narratives of Displacement. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2015.
  • Rice, William B. “The Captivity of Olive Oatman: A Newspaper Account.” California Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, 1942, pp. 97–106. JSTOR.
  • Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being (Composition, Literacy, and Culture). University of Pittsburgh Press. 2013.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois University Press. 2012.
  • Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Haymarket Books, 2014.
  • Stratton, Royal B. Captivity of the Oatman Girls: Being an Interesting Narrative of Life Among the Apache and Mohave Indians. Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.
  • Szijarto, Istavan, and Sigurour Glyfi Magnusson. What is Microhistory? Routledge, 2013.