What’s Pocahontas Got To Do With It?

The subjects of Zabelle Stodola’s talk, “Mary Schwandt and Maggie Brass (Snana): A Minnesota Pocahontas Story?”

Kris Wiley of the Traverse des Sioux Library System has been coordinating a summer-long speaker series on the Dakota War which culminated Friday August 24, 2012, in a day-long Dakota War Symposium sponsored by a consortium of New Ulm-area organizations.

Speakers: Julie Humann Anderson, Zabelle Stodola, Elden Lawrence, Mary Wingerd, Walt Bachman

It was my pleasure to introduce Zabelle, who has made her talk, “Mary Schwandt and Maggie Brass (Snana): A Minnesota Pocahontas Story?” available as a PDF linked below. I made these introductory remarks:

Good morning.  I am Carrie Reber Zeman and it is my pleasure to introduce my co-editor, Zabelle Stodola. Before I list some of the qualifications that bring her here today, I want to very briefly introduce you to her subject. Twice this week people who’ve seen today’s symposium program have asked me, essentially, “If this is a Dakota War symposium, what’s Pocahontas got to do with it?”

Zabelle will acquit herself beautifully on that question in a few moments. But when Alan Woolworth first put Zabelle in contact with me nine years ago, I had similar questions. After all, she proposed writing a new book on the Dakota War via its captivity narratives. I’m a historian and among primary and secondary sources on the Dakota War, the captivity narratives are a little strange: dramatic, emotional, stereotyped. I had a hard time reading them as historical evidence.

Working with Zabelle on The War in Words, I began to appreciate the unique characteristics shared by many Indian captivity narratives (ICNs). Once you know how the wider genre functions, the 1862 ICNs become understandable. But most of us have not made a career of studying them as Zabelle has. So let me establish a bridge via a genre many of us understand.

Raise your hand if you have heard a Garrison Keillor tell a Lake Woebegone story. That’s most of us. Okay: does it bother you that in every single story, the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are… above average? No! In fact, that familiarity is part of theses stories’ charm, right? Keillor is innovative and creative —but within predictable boundaries we’ve come to expect and enjoy.

So a Lake Woebegone story has its own formula and stock characters. Indian captivity narratives do, too –except that they are not written or read much these days so we are unfamiliar with the formula.

Roughly half of the entire body of DW literature written by eyewitnesses is composed in the ICN form, a genre that was wildly popular in the 19th century. So it is high time that we modern consumers understand it.

That’s what Pocahontas has to do with the Dakota War. The 1862 captives and the readers who read their stories knew Pocahontas the way Minnesotans know Lake Woebegone and Paul Bunyan. If Babe the Blue Ox showed up pulling a fleeing settler’s cart in an 1862 story, or a Tupperware bowl of lime Jell-O appeared in Ebell’s famous photo, “Breakfast on the Prairie,” we’d notice! But Pocahontas, to us, today, is little more than a Disney movie. Our relative unfamiliarity with the popular literature of early America means Zabelle has many insights to offer.

That’s one reason why I asked her to be my co-editor on our newly released edition of Mary Butler Renville’s 1862 captivity story, A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity. Zabelle brings three decades of experience as a professor of English at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, has authored or edited six books and a dozen journal articles. Please help me welcome one of my mentors, now a friend and literary partner, Zabelle Stodola.

Zabelle Stodola, August 23, 2012

PDF: Mary Schwandt and Maggie Brass A Minnesota Pocahontas Story ?

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