About two thirds of the way through Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees, Sarah F. Wakefield's moving account of her ordeal as a captive on the 19th-century Minnesota frontier, Wakefield's young boy wails out: "Oh, dear me! mamma what do you suppose God made Indians for? I wish they were all dead, don't you mamma?"
By the time you finish the book, you might find yourself asking a similar question--though it likely won't be the Indians' right to exist that you'll be mulling.
For her part, Wakefield never responds directly to her boy's anguished utterance. But her sympathies couldn't be plainer. Yes, as a white American woman of the 1860s she holds some of the common prejudices of the day. She routinely refers to "half-breeds" and declares that she "could never love a savage." Yet, in more important regards, Wakefield is decidedly liberal in outlook.
The wife of a doctor at the Upper Indian Agency at Yellow Medicine, she lived in close proximity to the Sioux (more properly referred to as Dakota). She considered many Indians friends and was outraged by their horrific mistreatment. "I often wonder," she writes, "how these poor deceived creatures bore so much and so long without retaliation." As Wakefield learned firsthand, the Sioux's patience was not without limits. In 1862, as the great Sioux uprising spread across the Minnesota River valley, Wakefield and her children were taken captive.
The spell of time that follows often fills Wakefield with despair. She is convinced that her husband has been killed (wrongly, it turns out). More immediately, she fears that a liquored-up badass named Hapa has designs on her for slaughter or marriage. As the physical and emotional ordeal of captivity wears on her, Wakefield loses weight. Her hair goes white. She considers killing her children out of mercy.
Wakefield does not die, nor do her children. She owes this to the well-timed interventions of a sympathetic "friendly" called Chaska. But while Chaska protects Wakefield from his fellow Indians during her captivity, Wakefield is unable to return the favor when troops squelch the uprising.
In the tribunals that followed, Wakefield relates, some former female captives made up tales of suffering at the hands of the Indians--lying brazenly to "excite the sympathies of soldiers" and playing to the rankest prejudices. Still grateful to Chaska, Wakefield refused to participate in such hypocrisy. This gave rise to some nasty gossip, including what Wakefield labels "horrid abominable reports" that she'd had a sexual relationship with her Indian protector. Wakefield denies the charge, a refutation that is one of her stated reasons for writing the book. Whether anyone believed her is hard to know, though the book was a bestseller in 1864.
By the time Six Weeks was published, the Indian captivity narrative had already been a staple of American literature for more than two centuries. To the Puritans, the genre was a vehicle for examining religious fortitude and virtue--especially sexual virtue. As the historian Richard Slotkin wrote in his seminal study of American mythology, Regeneration Through Violence, "in the Indian's devilish clutches, the captive had to meet and reject the temptation of Indian marriage and/or the Indian's 'cannibal' Eucharist."
Wakefield is less concerned with passing moral judgments on her heathen captors, however, than on the society that is her own. In the end, the judgment is not positive. The story concludes on an especially wrenching note: Chaska, along with 37 other Dakota men, was hanged at Mankato in what became the largest mass execution in American history.
Afterward, Wakefield was told that Chaska's execution was a mistake--that he had been confused with another Indian named Chaskadon who was responsible for a genuine atrocity. Wakefield doesn't buy the explanation. In the afterlife, Wakefield writes bitterly, Chaska's killer "will meet that murdered man, and then he will find the poor Indian's place is far better than his own."