In 1851, Olive Oatman was a thirteen-year-old pioneer traveling west toward Zion with her Mormon family. Within a decade, she was a white Indian with a chin tattoo, caught between two cultures. The Blue Tattoo tells the harrowing story of this forgotten heroine of frontier America. Margot Mifflin shares her process of researching and writing this book with The Writer’s Life.
Q: What kind of research does a richly detailed work such as The Blue Tattoo require? How do you approach a project of this scope—synthesize and organize the research and work it into a readable order?
A: I did research in most of the places Oatman lived: Fulton, Illinois, where she spent her early childhood and where some of her descendants still live; the various regions of Arizona and California where she was captured and lived with the Yavapai and then the Mohave Indians; Albany, New York, where she lived for a few years after her ransom. I did research in libraries in California, Illinois, Arizona and New York. And I interviewed Oatman descendants all over the country as well as some experts on Mohave culture and the Mohave language.
But the most interesting interviews I conducted were with Mohave elders Llewellyn and Betty Barrackman, shortly before they both died. I met them at the Mohave cultural center, which is in a trailer on the Mohave reservation in Needles, CA. Mr. Barrackman was the chairperson of the tribe and its unofficial historian—as I understand it, their last. The information they gave me was critical to the evolution of my theory that Oatman didn’t want to leave the Mohave when she was ransomed in 1856, and that she didn’t have a Mohave husband or children. Mrs. Barrackman also clarified the meaning of the word “Spantsa,” her thoroughly obscene Mohave nickname.
Because her story is very linear, it wasn’t hard to organize the information—the trick was to integrate the historical context into it without losing sight of her place in it.
Q: This isn’t your only book about women and tattoo. What brought you to this topic?
A: I’ve written a lot about women, visual art, and the body. Tattooing is a subculture that’s rich with symbolism involving all three. My first book, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo (a third edition of which will be published next fall), is a feminist history of tattoo art going back to circus women of the 1880s. I wrote it partly because I was interested in self-taught, outsider and folk artists whose work was more accessible to the public than the high end artists I had written about for magazines like ARTnews and Elle in the 1990s. I was also noticing more and more women getting tattooed at that time, which turned out to be a watershed period for tattooed women: this is when tattoos fully entered the middle class and, interestingly, segued with other women’s body issues and practices emerging in the media during this period, from cosmetic surgery to bulimia to breast implants to breast cancer to abortion. As I say in Bodies, on some level, tattoo artists became soul doctors to a generation of women obsessed, for better or worse, with asserting control over their own bodies.
Q: In your vast research of the history of tattoo, what has been the most fascinating aspect?
A: What stands out as the most interesting piece of my Oatman research is the Mohaves and their history—not so much for their tattoo practices as their culture in general. They were incredibly funny, social, adventurous and physical people.They loved sex, practiced serial monogamy and raised their children communally. They were great runners and swimmers who spent much of their time in the Colorado River. I had no idea what a rich culture they had, how isolated they were in the mid-19th century when Oatman joined them (compared to many other California tribes), how high-profile they became soon after Oatman left them (less because of her than because of subsequent white incursions into their valley) and then how quickly they were pushed off their land and utterly forgotten. They were once the largest tribe in California. Now they have nothing. A Mohave emailed me after the book came out to tell me she wanted to buy a copy for her son in prison so she he could know “what we used to be.”
Q: How do you think Olive fits into the larger landscape of history—as woman, pioneer and what she meant to white expansion and Native extermination?
A: She was taken at a pivotal point in American History, just a few years after the end of the Mexican American War. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, yielded 50% of Mexico to the U.S. and expanded our national boundaries by 66%, adding territory from Texas west to California. The notion of manifest destiny—going west and taking land Americans believed was theirs—got rolling during this period. The only problem was that Indians were all over this land. So Oatman was with the Mohaves spanning a period (1852-1856) when they had had almost no contact with whites (and certainly no sustained contact) to a time when the first major exploring party came through in 1854, which marked the beginning of the end of their culture.
Because the Mohave language is only oral, Oatman’s recorded memories stand among the few written records of Mohave life in the 1850s—hers is the only account by someone who was actually a member of the tribe (as opposed to emigrants and surveyors who traversed their valley and traded with them). Her impressions of them offer an important historical snapshot of how they lived during the last days of their sovereignty.
As a piece of literature, her story (first told as a pseudo-biography by Royal B. Stratton in 1857) stands in a unique spot on a continuum of captivity narratives, nearly 2000 of which had been published by the time hers appeared. These stories were appealing to the growing number of middle class women readers in a way fiction wasn’t: they were true stories about women in the wild. The American novel, even though it sometimes incorporated captivity plots, didn’t feature physically adventurous female characters. So women who were confined to lives of domesticity could identify with these protagonists, who were forced to do exciting things normally forbidden to women. And unlike most women’s captivity stories, in which the women were mothers protecting or trying to get back to their children or families, Olive was on her own, with (she thought) no family to return to. Hers was much more like a male adventure story, so it was that much more exciting.
Q: You speak to Stratton’s (Olive’s original biographer) manipulation of Olive’s history. What do you think is the writer’s responsibility in documenting history?
A: This depends on the writer’s intention, especially in writing a biography. Stratton’s goal was to communicate his own racist religious agenda by manipulating Olive’s story, which is just about the least responsible way of approaching a biography I can think of. My intention was to nail down all the verifiable information I could, make sense of what was unverifiable as best I could, and clearly specify what’s missing from the story, in an effort to articulate my own understanding of her experience without forcing conclusions. And I wanted to analyze her story historically since it was originally misrepresented (by Stratton) and because its retellings over the years so often reflect the values of the periods in which it was retold. I think at the very least it’s important to gather accounts of her life from as many relevant players in it as possible, and I was amazed to discover that in all the versions of her story that have appeared over the past century and half—fictionalized or not—none really bothered to explore the Mohaves’ take on her, or even to investigate their culture, which was ultimately her culture.
Q: When you write about history, how do you both narrow the focus on the individual while explicating his/her significance in the larger fabric of history?
A: I had to hold fast to a sort of cinematic narrative thread by asking myself, “How does this relate to what just happened to her and how will it connect to what will happen next?” The historical background had to contextualize her journey. I often fell too far into background research and discovered I’d lost sight of her and had to cut back. I also didn’t provide that much information on her forbears, as some biographers do, because I didn’t feel it contributed that much to her story. My research was often driven by the question of whether she was typical or not in whatever historical period/situation I was describing. Was she just like other pioneers girls? Was she treated like other Mohave captives? Was her story like other captivity stories? Was it told the same way? Is she a unique figure in American history? And even, Is she like anyone today?
Q: What makes Olive significant? And what is her legacy?
A: She’s significant, if not iconic, on many levels. She’s the first documented tattooed woman in the country, and the first to exhibit her tattoo publicly for profit. Her legacy in that area lies with the first tattooed circus ladies who invented stories like hers to justify their own public appearances in the 1880s, and by extension, the tattooed women you see on reality t.v. shows today. But that’s probably her least significant legacy. More important, to my mind, is the way her story has served—for over a century—as a vehicle for writers and filmmakers (and there have been many) interested in sexual themes relating to race, captivity, savagery, civilization, and feminine propriety. Her ordeal has been used as a parable about national boundaries and anxieties about their violation and protection, and her marked body can be seen as a metaphor for those issues. She’s also a heroine who survived dual traumas—she saw her birth family massacred when she was a young teen, then five years later was ripped away from the Mohaves who had adopted and raised her, and was returned to white culture when she no longer even spoke English. Her story is monumentally tragic, but it’s also redemptive—with her husband and adopted daughter, she ultimately found the kind of domestic stability she’d never known as a child. But most significantly, she stood as a witness at a crossroads in American history, when the west was taken. She’s a uniquely bicultural American in that she wears the symbol of her adopted nation on her face, emblematizing the kind of cultural collisions and adaptations and subjugation this country is built on. Especially at this historical moment, when we’ve elected our first biracial president and our population is increasingly diverse, Olive’s story is a touchstone tale about the patchwork nature of American identity, and the violence that produced it.
A copy of Margot Mifflin’s book, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman will be given to a Her Circle Ezine reader!
Read the book review of The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman on October 1st and leave a comment for a chance to win!
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Margot Mifflin is an author and journalist who writes about women, art, and contemporary culture. She is the author of The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman (Bison Books, 2011) and Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo (Powerhouse Books 2001). An associate professor at The City University of New York, she teaches English and journalism.
Ms. Mifflin will be talking about Olive at the Tucson Festival of Books in March, on a panel called “Forgotten Lives.”