Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin

I met Margot Mifflin some months ago at a dinner following a reading by a friend from NYU and was immediately taken by her bright wit and ringing curiosity. We talked about tattoos and I was excited to learn that she was working on a book about a young pioneer woman named Olive Oatman, whom I had never heard of, captured by Indians in 1851 and willingly tattood on the chin.

Mifflin's book is now out in hard cover and I was able to catch her reading here in Brooklyn last Tuesday. Mifflin retells Oatman's story, quite popular throughout the late 1800s, with exhaustive research and masterful storytelling. She works to correct the record about Oatman's tenure with the Mohave, releasing the story from the "savage Indian" rhetoric so prolific at the time, and by calling into question the facts of the story, hitherto unexamined, as well as the implications of Oatman's "marked" status as a woman returned to the white world.

At 14, during a trek West with her Mormon (Brewsterite) family, Oatman and her sister were captured by Yavapai Indians along the Gila River. The rest of the Oatman family were killed except for a brother, Lorenzo, who was left for dead. Olive and Mary Ann spent one year with the Yavapai, serving as slaves, and were then purchased by the Mohave Indians. Mary Ann died during their five year stay with the Mohaves but Olive was ransomed and returned. There is much evidence that Olive did not wish to return to the whites, that she was fully integrated in the soon-to-decline Mohave culture and that she had found there the family that she desired after her own was slaughtered by the Yavapai.

Oatman went on to be a popular subject of a book, ghost written by a controlling preacher with an agenda named Stratton, and a sought-after speaker on both her captivity and on Indian culture. At a time when feminine modesty was culturally dictated, she displayed her chin tattoo to audiences across the United States.

For a host of unfortunate reasons, I have stayed away from Indian and pioneer history and stories - with the necessary exception of Willa Cather. Mifflin's book helped me to see a need for correcting this omission.



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