Story of the 2012 Edition

On October 15, 2011,  Zabelle and I were on a panel on discussing the challenges and rewards of interdisciplinary work on Indian captivity narratives at the Western History Association annual meeting in Oakland, California. This is the story we shared.


“A Literary Scholar and a Historian Co-Edit A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity by Mary A. and John B. Renville (1863)”  Western History Association, October 15, 2011.

Zabelle Stodola’s Comments:

“In 1989, I began work on a book called The War in Words: Reading the Dakota Conflict through the Captivity Literature which was published ten years later by the University of Nebraska Press. My idea was simple: as a way of charting changes in the captivity narrative genre, I would focus on the captivity narratives generated by a single US-Indian war. I was familiar with a few narratives from the US-Dakota War of 1862, a bitter and brutal six-week war fought in Minnesota during the early days of the larger Civil War, and I knew that the people involved interpreted and remembered the war very differently. So I liked the fact that I would not produce a master narrative, but rather analyze a series of competing but, I would argue, equally valid perspectives. I was also interested that some of these captivity narratives were by and about mixed and full blood Dakota as well as by and about European Americans.

But as I quickly discovered when I visited first the Newberry Library and then the Minnesota Historical Society to do archival research, if my idea was simple, the US-Dakota War was and is both complicated and (still) contested, almost 150 years later. As a literary scholar, I am used to working with historical data, but I am proud of the fact I am not a historian and that I am quite comfortable with ambiguity! Actually, I relish it. However, in this instance, I realized I had better get my history right, or at least, as right as it could be, partly because so much misinformation about this war has been bandied about and exploited for propaganda.

Enter Carrie Zeman, an independent historian working on aspects of the Dakota War, to whom I was introduced by then resident historian at the Minnesota Historical Society, Alan Woolworth.  Carrie helped me with details and data, and in the course of our discussions, she mentioned an obscure but interesting captivity narrative she had recovered by a biracial couple, Mary Butler Renville and John Baptiste Renville. Interesting for a number of reasons: for example, because Mary was white and John was Dakota, and because it told the story from the point of view of the Peace Party, i.e. the (many) Dakota who were pacifist but still tied to a greater or lesser extent to traditional Dakota culture. I was grateful to Carrie for drawing my attention to this narrative, and I discussed it in the conclusion to The War in Words.

The Renvilles’ narrative first appeared serially in 1862-1863 in a small-town Wisconsin newspaper under the title The Indian Captives: Leaves from a Journal. Later in 1863 it was published as a pamphlet and retitled A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity. It has not been republished since 1863. Carrie had always intended to produce a new edition of this account with an extensive historical introduction reassessing the role of the Peace Party. In fact, in a note in The War in Words, I indicated that Carrie was preparing an edition. But eventually she asked me if I might be interested in co-editing it with her, and I agreed. We contracted the book with the University of Nebraska Press, and it will appear in 2012, the sesquicentennial of the US-Dakota War.

Some things are just meant to be, and I think this co-editing venture is one of them because it has allowed Carrie and me to contribute our distinctive strengths to the project. But first, let me point out some differences between us. Carrie is an independent historian living in Minnesota who is immersed in the context and politics of the Dakota War. I am a literary scholar working within the academy who has no other connection with Minnesota and its history than the cabin in the North Woods that my husband’s family has owned for fifty years and that is now ours. Carrie is a scholar close to the beginning of her career. I am a scholar who will be retiring from full-time teaching in 2012.  I have published extensively but mostly for an academic readership; she has not (yet) published a great deal and is interested in making her knowledge accessible to a wider group. I have been able to network for this project nationally (e.g. with scholars and at conferences) while Carrie has networked widely within Minnesota and the surrounding states.

Sometimes this has resulted in wonderful coincidences and contacts: e.g. my attendance at the 2010 Native American Literature Symposium, organized by Dakota scholar Gwen Westerman, who teaches at Minnesota State University, Mankato. At the symposium I spoke with Gwen about this project and put Carrie and her in contact. Gwen and Carrie have met several times, Gwen became one of our Dakota advisors,  Gwen has written a foreword to our edition, and she and her husband provided Dakota translations. We are so very grateful for their participation.

But what Carrie and I share, rather than how we differ, has meant that we were able to work in a surprisingly complementary way, considering that this conference is only the third time we have physically met: we are disciplined, we use our time   efficiently, we share information, we plan way in advance (we began working on this presentation back in January!), and we listen to and learn from each other.  In short, we have worked collaboratively not competitively.  And now to Carrie’s perspective.”

Carrie Zeman’s Comments:

“My research colleagues were surprised when I announced that I had asked and Zabelle had agreed to collaborate with me to bring the Renville narrative back into print. Why, they asked, would I collaborate on a project I could do on my own? Only half-joking, one pressed, didn’t I realize how paltry are royalties on history books? There’d be practically nothing left after Zabelle and I split the check!

As this project has come together, I’ve only become more convinced that my original intuition was right. Briefly, my answer to “Why collaborate?” is threefold: for my own good, for the good of the text, and for the good of history.

My first reason was selfish. I had several projects to choose among for a book for the 1862 sesquicentennial and might have chosen one with less potential for controversy. A Thrilling Narrative may pass itself off modestly as leaves from a lady’s captivity journal. But I have used my Introduction and the annotations to highlight the story of the Peace Coalition –a group of Dakota opposed to the war we’ve historically dubbed “the Peace Party.” The idea that Dakota people actively worked to thwart a war started by Dakota people is controversial and I felt the project might be better received by a publisher outside Minnesota. While I was certain that the quality of my work is competitive, with publishers acquiring fewer books, I wasn’t sure my proposal would be taken seriously by an editor who did not know me. So I was pleased when Zabelle was willing to contribute to the project and to bring it to the attention of Matt Bokovoy, her (now, our) editor at Nebraska. It worked out as I hoped; we didn’t need to shop for a publisher.

However, I was even happier with Zabelle’s assent for the sake of the text itself.  It’s a complex little book and very few historians have picked it up as a source. I can hardly blame them. The first time I read it, I could not make it past the second paragraph in which Mary confides to her journal, “Time hastens, night is coming on, and it may be the night of death to us all; in view of which we will say goodbye to the joys and sorrows of this life…” –not exactly the tone historians usually credit. I pegged A Thrilling Narrative as being another Viola or an Anne Coleson – period fiction posing as a first-person Dakota War narrative.  So I returned the Renville book to the stacks unread. A few years later, I called it again, looking for something specific which required me to read more carefully. That time I was so impressed that I spent a month transcribing it for my own use.

Then I met Zabelle. It wasn’t until we sat down to talk through her ideas for The War in Words that I really appreciated that literary analysis has been a key missing piece to  understanding the Dakota War literature.  For example, we’ve uncritically accepted atrocity stories like crucifixion and burning and gang rape that have no precedent in Dakota ethnography, without understanding that many of the narrators of Midwestern and western Indian Wars had been raised on cradle stories of Indian barbarities. So they were not simply reporting what they saw and heard during a war, they were interpreting it for their audience in keeping with their beliefs about Native Americans. In the same way, we’ve not understood that narrators like Mary Butler Renville, who was a middle class white woman before her marriage to John, were consumers of literature who brought literary sensibilities to their war stories. So understanding the popular literature of a narrator’s day —which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries included Indian captivity narratives –helps us interpret their historical stories. Over the course of consulting with Zabelle on The War in Words, I came to appreciate just how much the literary field has to offer us historians with texts like A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity.

Further, I believed that the product of our joint effort would be historically significant. To date, the story of the Dakota War of 1862 has been treated primarily as a war story. That’s a major reason that the captivity narratives from 1862 –of which there are more than one hundred –have not been widely used, aside as a source of atrocity stories. Captive-narrators rarely offer eye-witness testimony about the battles that form the chronological spine of Dakota War histories. But the Renvilles’ book is a lovely case in counter-point: a war story that is not a war story. In it we see that those six weeks in 1862 were so much more complex than the familiar tale of Little Crow’s battles with Henry Sibley. History needs narrators like Mary and John Renville to take us backstage where we can understand that the majority of Dakota people spent the war, not fighting, but simply trying to survive a hell brought down upon them as unexpectedly as it was brought down upon settlers.

Stories like these resonate far beyond the six-week span of the war. If we hope to help repair the grave injustices inflicted upon Dakota people after the war, we need to understand that the vast majority of those subject to internment and deportation were not militant. If we care to understand the way the war lives on among Dakota today we need to appreciate the cost of being descended from ancestors who opposed a currently-popular war—or being descended from Dakotas on both sides. Or in the case of the Renvilles, the cost of devoting the rest of their lives to a people who white culture at best pitied and at worst despised for surviving 1862.

One of those costs was obscurity for John and Mary Renville and for their Dakota-sympathetic book, a story few in their own day were interested in reading. Nearly a century and a half later, Zabelle and I hope this new edition signals a new day not only for their story, but also in the way scholars work together to interpret texts and history.”

1 Response to Story of the 2012 Edition

  1. Pingback: It Started with The War in Words | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

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