Mary Jemison's Journey

(Florida State University, Fall, 2004--Dr. Frank Brooks' class; revised slightly 2008)

Between the ages of eleven and fourteen, Mary Jemison, a Pennsylvania farm girl from a Quaker family, was taken captive by French, Shawnee, and perhaps Delaware raiders during the "French and Indian War." A neighbor boy was taken captive with her. Both Jemison's and the boy's family had been killed. Jemison was adopted by two Seneca sisters. The Seneca were sometimes aligned with the French and Shawee, but sometimes acted as brokers between the various Ohio tribes, including the Shawnee, and the English. In the very early history of the U.S. at least, the Seneca were sometimes enemies of the Shawnee. Jemison married a Delaware, whom she grew to love. When he died during "Pontiac's Rebellion" (possibly of smallpox), she opted to marry a Seneca elder rather than return with her half-blood child to live among Whites. Her story was taken down by James Seaver (ed. June Namias, 1995; retrieved online 2005) who found this bit of history worth recording. The book that came out was advertised by Seaver as a 'captivity narrative.' At the time, the captivity narrative was a quite popular form, and very current, because of the French and Indian War, and the various related conflicts over the Ohio Territory. Jemison's became the most popular such 'captivity narrative.' In the essay that follows, I look at Jemison's narrative as a record of her changing language use and changing identity in the light of the various genres relied on by Jemison and co-author Seaver to structure the narrative.

Several researchers have explored the 'narratives' and 'private speech' that second language learners generate. Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000) studied the life narratives of teenaged and adult immigrants who adopted permanently their new identities and who obtained near-native proficiency in their adopted language in spite of their 'advanced' ages. Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000) argue that life narratives changed as a result of these speakers' acquiring new languages and identities. Centeno-Cortes and Jimenez Jimenez (2004) cited Ushalova (1994) who disagrees with Pavlenko and Lantolf. Ushalova claims that:

the private speech [on which life narratives, a form of account making, are presumably based] of a second language learner is founded on the private speech of the L1 [first language] during childhood and therefore they [the L1 and L2 private speech] are not conceptually different . . . According to Ushalova, "The second language is incorporated into the classification system already available in the first language, relies on the previously developed semantic system, and actively deploys first language phonology . . . . To put it figuratively, second language is looking into the windows cut out by the first language. (Ushalova; cited in Centeno-Cortes and Jimenez Jimenez, 2004).

Centeno-Cortes and Jimenez Jimenez (2004), who themselves refrained from deciding to what degree a second language speaker speaking through the 'windows of his or her first language' might have these 'windows' altered by the new language, cite research into adults' and children's 'think-alouds' in a task that required both to narrate a story based on a picture sequence the two groups of language learners were provided with. The adults who were learning a second language were asked to narrate the story in the second language, whereas the children, whose English was still in a very developmental stage, were asked to narrate the story in English, their first language. According to the researchers, the children's think-alouds were concerned with story structure, with getting the story right, while the adults were concerned with understanding their new language in terms of the old, with getting the new language right. The adults apparently worried less about developing a new story structure appropriate to their new language than about developing grammar and vocabulary in the new language: story structure, according to the researchers, seemed to be something that adult second language learners already possessed in their first language.

While Centeno-Cortes and Jimenez Jimenez (2004) did not finally decide whether or not second language learners did or did not modify their existing private verbal though and life narratives to any extent in order to accomodate the story structures proper to their new languages and linguistic identities, they did report that it was possible to modify these and also possible for individuals to exhibit 'resistance' to modifying these. They postulated further that resistance to developing a new identity might be a reason that some individuals appeared to almost never alter their L1 (first language) inner speech and narrative structures, for any reason. Pavlenko and Lantolf cited the case of one apparently 'resistant' individual:

Such a case is reported in Belz's (ms.) analysis of the language-learning memoirs of Werner Lansburgh, a German L1 speaker who did not reconstruct his 'self' in Swedish, and, even though he functioned in Swedish for many years, never developed an inner speech conceptually different from that he used in his L1.

McIntosh, in his critique of Habermas' view of the self as embedded in 'life worlds' (1994; retrieved online 2004), argued that when there are discordances in how a person projects himself or herself (the 'I') and the self that is projected back to that person through his or her various role relationships (the 'me'), it is the material in the 'life worlds' that the self is (or that the selves are) embedded in that is used to reintegrate and reconcile the discordant 'selves'. When these 'life worlds' are changing, the material in them is changing as well, and with it perhaps, in some cases, the concept of story, as has been suggested by Pavlenko and Lantolf's (2000) investigation of the (autobiographical or 'life') narratives of second language learners.

The study of the narratives of language learners is based, in part, on the theories of the Soviet phsychologist Lev Vygotsky. Before looking at Jemison's narrative, I will look at Vygotsky's ideas and what these mean for the study of narratives of language learning and for the study of identity construction and reconstruction as described in narrative or autobiography.

Vygotsky was interested in how language was used to take control of a situation, and hence to enable the user to orient the self to a task, and to grow and learn through discourse, as happens apparently in collaborative dialogue.

Private verbal thought or speech to oneself likewise may be used to get control of a task. Bakhtin (cited in Centeno-Cortes and Jimenez Jimenez, 2004) argued that private verbal thought was not monologic, but dialogic, existing/taking place between the 'I'--the self's projections, and the 'me'-projected back by others or else imagined/created by the 'I' through the dialog. These seem roughly to be the 'I' and the 'me' of Habermas' lifeworlds (described in McIntosh, 1994; retrieved online, 2004; see above).

Differences in cultural constructs may necessitate additional dialogue in collaboration. According to Platt and Brooks (? date), in the collaborative dialogue, the more shared schema, that is, the more shared conceptions of such things as "role relationships," "getting a living," and related cultural constructs, the easier it is for people to work and/or learn together and the less verbal formulation and reformulation of the task that is needed.

Discordances between the self's projection outward, the 'I," and the self-image returned by others through role relationships (or perhaps even returned through dialog with the self), as well as discordances in the various sometimes different 'selves' that are projected back, result in reintegration of the self, according to McIntosh's interpretation of Habermas (1994; retrieved online 2004).

According to Thoits (1983; retrieved online, 2004), the selves projected back through diverse role relationships are intertwined together.

Whether or not the diverse selves must be constantly re-intertwined together and to what extent this is done through inner dialogue with the self or through dialogues with others may require further investigation.

In any case, Mary Jemison's autobiography seems in fact to be an attempt to define an identity, drawing on identities 'thrust' on Mary by others, including her mother, a familiar figure, and her captors, less familiar at least initially, as well as on identities she 'constructs' imaginatively, often in what seems to be an inner dialogue. Unlike the German speaker Werner Lansburgh (see above), Jemison's narrative seems not to simply rely on the windows cut by her first language, English, as she draws on a variety of genre forms, and even, occasionally, on non-English vocabulary, to tell her story.

Although the narrative is constructed in English, and although Jemison shows, according to Seaver, great pleasure in finding opportunities to continue to use her English, and although she, in Seaver's words, speaks it perfectly, with a faint Irish accent, Jemison repeatedly uses a non-English phrase, 'yo-go,' to mean 'get lost,' 'get out of here.' 'Yo go' seems to be a word derived from various Indian terminologies or a mixed (Indian and English) word. Perhaps 'yo go' expresses a concept that cannot be expressed as readily in English; perhaps 'yo go' is used in quotations -- for example, these are the words of Mary's second husband (an Iroquois elder) to a trader neighbor who has threatened his own (the trader's) wife (the couple harbor the wife for a year till the husband returns very apologetic; I note here that this is the only native phrase that is quoted however; it's still interesting to me that Jemison chose to quote the phrase; some other Indian words are used but not apparently in quotations).

Jemison's narrative opens with a brief description of her Quaker upbringing prior to her capture. She describes her families' migration to the tract of land they were settled on at the time of her capture, and describes her father as one she recollects was probably a substantial (well-off) farmer. She then starts the narration of her capture and captivity with the story of a 'vision' she had while on an errand for her family, in which she was 'saved' by a sheet that enveloped her, protecting her:

"I was out of the house in the beginning of the evening and saw a sheet wide spread approaching towards me, in which I was caught (as I ever since believed) and deprived of my senses! The family [that Jemison had been visiting at the time, on an errand] soon found me on the ground, almost lifeless, (as they said), took me in, and made use of every remedy in their power for my recovery, but without effect till day-break, when my senses returned, and I soon found myself in good health, so that I went home with the horse very early in the morning. The appearance of that sheet, I have ever considered as a forerunner of the melancholy catastrophe that so soon afterwards happened to our family: and my being caught in it, I believe, was ominous of my preservation from death at the time we were captured." (Seaver, ed. Namias, 1995; retrieved online 2005: 64-65.)

The vision, she insists, was a vision of her capture and of her being saved, for 'some purpose,' to enjoy her life and adventure, perhaps, to remember her family, or even to act as a broker for the Indians. (NOTE: The Indians, at the time, were in search of both brokers, and of ways of increasing their rapidly declining numbers.)

The 'vision quest' is both an Arthurian and a Native genre, and Jemison may have been familiar with both traditions when she told her story to Seaver. Interestingly, many parts of Jemison's narrative are reminiscent of the vision quest story of "Mature Flowers," the wife of a sky being, who in the Iroquois creation story, falls through the sky and into the world below, from which the sky people had been separated by "a horizontal plane that separates the world above from the world below." "Mature Flowers" is saved in the story because of her powers to create life: "the birds flew up and caught her in their inter-locked wings" much as Mary is caught in the sheet ("What is the Haudenosaunee Concept of Creation?;" retrieved online 2004; "Iroquois Creation Myth 116; retrieved online 2004; and "The Iroquois Creation;" retrieved online, 2004).

When the Indians select Jemison for adoption, her mother and her Indian captors not quite simultaneously bestow different identities on her through different means. The Indians give her a pair of moccasins -- to facilitate the long march through the wilderness to the French fort. The moccasins are a signal to Mary's mother that Mary's life will be spared, and may also indicate that she is now one of the new group, that she will soon be adopted, although they function primarily as a way to insure that Mary can keep up with the tribe. Mary's mother, seeing that Mary has been given the moccasins, knows that Mary will have a new life. Mrs. Jemison gives Mary a brief pep talk, encouraging Mary to go on with her new life, but to not forget her English. These two events -- the presentation of the pair of moccasins and the pep talk -- occur almost simultaneously; and each act in different ways to help broker Mary's future identity.

At the French Fort, Mary is adopted by two Seneca sisters who have lost a brother in the fighting. The Seneca women are her next set of brokers, giving her new clothing, reminiscent of the new pair of moccasins she received from her previous captors. The women also organize an adoption ceremony for her, and set out to teach Mary the Seneca language, which Jemison says that they did with patience and kindness. Although the sisters insist that Mary not speak English, English, which her mother has begged her not to forget, remains a pleasure for her, and she practices it out of the sisters' hearing, thus taking some control of her identity at this point, although her continuing use of English is of course in keeping with the wishes of her dead mother, and so her English identity at this point is, in some sense, negotiated by her dead mother perhaps more than by Jemison herself.

As Mary narrates the story of her first years with the Seneca, she focuses on the Iroquois seasonal relationship with the land, on the Iroquois seasonal cycle. She describes in detail this repeating cycle, and little else. Similarly, the mythical "Mature Flowers," wife of the sky being, when she lands in the new world, walks round and round in a circle that resembles in some ways the seasonal cycle, gradually bringing the land to be cultivated to the turtle's back that she stands on.

Why does Jemison draw on the Iroquois' seasonal relationship with the land? It's worth noting at this point that Mary, like most Iroquois women, will take up farming as her primary means of subsistence, and that her farming will support her family. To what extent is Mary's narrative based on the "Mature Flowers" story? Does it draw on any genres Mary was familiar with as a child or does it draw primarily on newly-learned genres? Is Mary's focus on the seasonal cycle in any way a way to mark a time of transition for Mary? This is certainly a possibility. It may also be that the focus on the land and seasons in Mary's personal life helped at one point at least to prepare Mary for her work on the land and for her new relationship to it with her new Iroquois identity; the narrative of the seasons as Mary experienced them in her transition to an Iroquois identity may also be used in this story to help the reader better understand Mary's new relationship to the land. The narrative ends shortly after Mary gets a plot of land for herself and her children, through the efforts of her adopted brother. (NOTE: this is a plot that she is ultimately cheated of, largely as a result of Whites' moving into the area, and as a result of her own inability to read, because of poor eyesight and years without practice. The result is that Mary is left with no home but the reservation.)

Wiishto, to which Mary journeys one summer, was a location on the seasonal living/migration cycle of the tribe. However, Jemison breaks from these descriptions of the seasonal cycle when describing her period at Wiishto. At Wiishto, the Seneca were joined by the Delaware, who had a number of English living among them. It is there that Jemison meets -- and enjoys talking with -- one Priscilla Ramsey, who has married an Indian as Mary will soon do. It may be that the opportunities to function in an English identity at Wiishto have rendered the seasonal description unecessary.

The seasonal description is also absent from Mary's description of her new life after her marriage to the Delaware she has met at Wiishto. Perhaps, when she becomes a wife and mother, Mary has additional opportunities to restructure her identity -- drawing on both childhood and newly acquired relationships. As a mother, since it is she who names the children according to Seneca and Delaware customs, she is able to recall her own childhood and childhood identity, naming her son Thomas, after her father.

During Pontiac's Rebellion, Mary, her husband, and two of her Seneca brothers travel to what is now Fort Pitt. According to Mary, the purpose of this trip is to trade some furs. At Fort Pitt they meet up with another Seneca brother of Mary who insists that Mary's brothers "go home" at once to their mother in New York. The Seneca had towns in both New York, a location more loyal to the British, and on the Ohio, where the Seneca fraternized with and often allied with or brokered for the various Ohio tribes who had allied with the French in order to oppose the British settlements. The Seneca in New York apparently took part in Pontiac's Rebellion as well, attacking Fort Niagara, but perhaps did not participate in the rebellion to the extent that the Ohio tribes did. (I need to research this some more; just found the interesting link's+Rebellion&source=web&ots=DuAufr2Jt7&sig=aUIGMiqMwcqne25T2s8ueL5-m14&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=6&ct=result which suggests that this is a correct inference.) Mary is persuaded by the brother to make the trip home with them. Her Delaware husband gives her his blessing, but insists himself on remaining at Fort Pitt alone. During his sojourn at Fort Pitt, Fort Pitt is held under seige by the Ohio tribes until the commander of the Fort is persuaded by a superior to pass smallpox-infected blankets to the Indians. News reaches Mary the following spring that Mary's husband, her infant son's father, has died of fever while at Fort Pitt and will not rejoin them. (It's possible thus that the Delaware contracted smallpox during the time he was at Fort Pitt.) It's worth noting here that Seaver never has anything but kind words for the Delaware, who was a gentleman and a man of peace in all regards according to the narrative. I assume however all of Seaver's information about the first husband comes exclusively from Mary, as there are no other white people around to interview who remember the man (Mary was not one to say anything negative about her family; note that Seaver's description of Mary's second [Seneca] husband was less flattering perhaps because there were other whites in the area willing to describe him for Seaver -- see below.)

A second turning point for Mary comes when the King of England offers considerable bounty money for the redemption of captives, and a Dutch man, John Van Sice, living near Mary, determines to collect the bounty for her redemption. However, in her new life with the Seneca, Mary has had to reconstruct her opinions of Whites as well as of Indians, over the course of her daily encounters with Whites and Indians together in her village located more or less on the frontier between Indian and White lands. She has developed a less-than-favorable opinion of Mr. Van Sice, as well as a great deal of fear for how white people might treat her half-blood son should she rejoin their 'civilization.' Her adoptive sister agrees to hide her till the bounty hunt is over -- although it seems to be her brother's opinion that Mary should just go and 'be redeemed' if there is a great search for her. Mary's adoptive mother then redeems some other captives, perhaps in Mary's stead.

At this point, Mary has become a decision maker, and has decided, on her own, to become an Iroquois, rather than to have her 'nation' decided for her by others. In the narrative that follows -- as Mary describes herself raising the half-blood children from her two different husbands, creating a gathering place for the British General during the American Revolution and thus acting as a sort of broker between the British and the Iroquois -- she rationalizes Iroquois behavior for her U.S. audience, and laments the troubles caused by alcohol among the Iroquois, who, according to her narrative, wanted nothing more than to remain neutral and and enjoy a period of peace, but who were coerced into war by rum and the British.

During the Revolution, Mary once again has an opportunity to fraternize with Whites captured by the Iroquois and the Iroquois's European allies (the British this time, not the French), but her commentary on the resulting marriage of one such captive to a British officer is rather 'wry' compared to her earlier assessment of the captives she met during the French and Indian conflict:

"One of the girls just mentioned, was married to a British officer at Fort Niagara, by the name of Johnson, who at the time she was taken, took a ring from her finger, without any compliments or ceremonies. When he saw her at Niagara, he recognized her features, restored the ring that he had so impolitely borrowed, and married her."

I argue that this last and somewhat humorous view of the courtship of a captive serves as a way to look again -- with freshness and lightheartedness -- at Mary's own capture, and at her own youthful courtship with and marriage to the Delaware, which she may still be coming to terms with in spite of her insistence that she loved him (which she no doubt did; but I doubt that, as a Quaker, with her great concerns for her children, and for the good name of her family, she would have readily parted with information about any participation by her first husband in any wars with the whites; the more 'violent' details about Mary's second husband as a man who as a child 'killed squirreles & all sorts of small game,' before becoming an Iroquois hunter and warrior, who then joined the Iroquois in the fight against their traditional enemy, the Cherokee, who was tall, etc., etc., & hence a 'savage,' was not supplied by Mary, but by white settler living in the area). Unlike more formal ceremonial events (gift-giving and the calumet exchange), play and performance, together with humor and humorous language, which are a part of play and performance, seem to provide a not so formal and not so predictable "middle ground" in which two cultures may meet (see Richard White's "The Middle Ground;" cited in Cohen, 2002; retrieved online, 2004). Humor I note is one of the later stages of 'culture shock;' according to Randall's ESL Cyber Listening Lab (2004; retrieved online, 2004), and humor may actually be a necessary precursor of 'integration.'

Humor and play rely on some shared culture; however, the culture that is shared (to be shared if not already shared) is not so formalized in humor/play as it is in ceremonial events. Cohen (2002/2002; retrieved online 2004) describes Indian-White encounters that include contests, riddles, boys' showing off, and one play invitation to soldiers guarding a garrison which served as a mask for an attack on the garrison by the Indians who had given the invitation (the last of these is no longer simply 'play' or 'performance' though it does involve playing the 'trickster').

Lincoln (1993) cites Clyde Kluckhohn's lectures on "Hopi ritual clowns:"

"'For Hopis, making fun is a way of making sense' (96). The clown, the cartoon, the joke hangs between cultures. For a moment we 'permit' some show of disrespect, leaving us 'free' to laugh at our own shortcomings. Humor strengthens clarity beyond ethnocentric blunders, resilience under old scars, or healing beneath present wounds. Our intercultural laughter suggests a better future. (P. 102.)

The Anishaabe Indian 'Earth Divers,' according to Gross (2002/2003; retrieved onine, 2004), who cites Smith (1985) -- move between worlds. According to Smith (1985; cited in Gross, 2002/2003; retrieved online 2004), the "Earth Divers" eventually restore balance to the world. Gross argues that, like Native 'Coyote' stories, the 'Earth Diver' stories are 'trickster stories,' and hence "comic." Gross adds that,

The tales encourage us to live by our wits and not be tied down to any one set way of doing things."

Gross (2002/2003; retrieved online 2004), citing Morreall (1999), delineates the "features of the comic vision," including "tolerance for disorder," "seeking out the unfamiliar," "tolerance for disambiguity," "divergent thinking" (e.g. multiple solutions), "emotional disengagement from problems," "willingness to change one's mind," "pragmatism," "embracing of physical existence," "nonseriousness," and others. Gross (2002/2003' retrieved online 2004) -- in a discussion of the Wenabozho, Paul Bunyan, and Anishinaabe work in and simultaneous resistance to Minnesota logging -- adds that humor might speak to resistance to that which the creators of humor are engaged in, for humor, with its tolerance of disorder, permits such discrepancies.

Ralph Ellison's "Mister Toussan" is another story in which humor is used to bridge discordant barriers and identities that are constructed by others (that is, by Whites or adults, as Ellison tells the story from the point of view of two minority children). In "Mister Toussan," two boys joke about the inability of "grown folks" to "tell a story" straight as the two retell Haitian history from a black perspective, imbuing their retelling with Black verbal style:

"'That teacher said there was really a guy like that what called hisself Sweet Papa Toussan?'
"Riley's voice was unbelieving and there was a wistful expression in his eyes which Buster could not understand. Finally he dropped his head and grinned.
"'Well,' he said, I bet thass what ole Toussan [Toussaint l'Overture]said. You know how grown folks is, they can't tell a story right, 'cepting real old folks like grandma.'
"'They sho cain't,' said Riley. 'They don't know how to put the right stuff to it.'" (P. 232.)

James P. Lantolf and Maria-del-Carmen Yanez (March, 2003), "Talking Yourself Into Spanish: Intrapersonal Communication and Second Language Learning" looked at repetition -- with language play -- as a tool for second language learning. I note that much of the repetition with variation described in Lantolf and Yanez was quite humorous. In one example of language play and repetition, a boy, aged five years and one month, replied to his father's "I'd like to propose a toast," with "I'd like to propose a piece of bread."