The White, by Deborah Larsen

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Like me, you may have heard the stories about the Indian boarding schools that were set up by the federal government in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  The basis for the schools was to take Indian children away from their families and communities and send them to boarding schools, mostly run by religious organizations, for the purpose of "civilizing" them, helping them "find religion", and otherwise causing them to be assimilated into white, Christian culture.  I find this whole episode one of the most shameful things in our history.  Sadly, it was so successful that the Australians did the same thing to aboriginal children in Australia. (As an aside, if you're interested in this topic there is a great movie called Rabbit-Proof Fence that explores the system in Australia).

What I have not heard as much about was the fact that in the early days of America the Indians engaged in similar practices with white children.  Not sending them away to Indian schools en masse, per se, but kidnapping them as retribution for fallen family members.  The White, by Deborah Larsen, is the fictionalized version of the true story of one such child.  During the French and Indian War, Mary Jemison's father moved his family away from the safety of the fortified towns and into the wilderness in Pennsylvania.  An Irishman by birth, prohibited from owning land in his country of origin, Jemison wanted to provide his family with opportunities they would never have had otherwise.  Unfortunately, his zeal for owning his own land came with a steep price.  One day in 1755 a group of Shawnee Indians raided their homestead, killing him, his wife, and most of their children.  The exception was Mary, who at 12 years old was captured by the Indians (and their French brothers in arms).  She was taken away from her family's lands and given to two sisters, members of the Seneca tribe, as restitution for the loss of their brother in battle.  The book chronicles her life from that day until her death in 1833.  During her long life, Mary lived, loved, and worked within the culture of the Seneca Nation.

Larsen does an excellent job of creating a picture of the Seneca culture of that time.  Her writing style is spare, but lyrical.  Alternating between a third person narrator and Mary's own words and thoughts, she provides the reader with an understanding of how Mary, known as Deh-he-wä-mis to the Seneca, came to be a person who walked between two worlds.  Mary married twice, once to a Delaware man and once to another Seneca, and had six children.  She truly was both Seneca and white, traveling between the two worlds with grace.  Throughout it all, she kept her father's dream of owning land alive, finally being granted 10,000 acres along the Genesee River in New York by the government.  While Larsen's writing style may be spare, she did not hold back when it came to describing the good and bad of both the Indians and the whites.  This is no overly sentimental account of the "noble savages"-I came away from this well-researched book feeling as though I had been given a glimpse into the reality that existed as our newly founded country sought to grow.  The truth of it seemed to be that the whites and Indians were able to find ways to coexist peacefully when allowed to do so.  It makes me wonder what would have happened over time if instead of running the Indians off the land we had found a way to work and live with them.

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