Rowlandson’s Depiction of Native Americans in The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

April 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God recounts her experience of being captured by a group of Native Americans. Rowlandson’s description of this trek is highly subjective and reflects her personal beliefs as well as the values of the time period. This is especially clear to the reader in her descriptions of the Native Americans and their practices. Rowlandson portrays the Native Americans as an uncivilized people who have no claim to the land they occupy. She accomplishes this by dehumanizing them through her descriptions and by presenting them as a “savage” and “heathen” people. This is a clear reflection on her religious beliefs and from this one can infer that Rowlandson thought that the Puritan belief system was the only “true” way to live life and that Native Americans had no part in “civil” society. One of the foremost ways that Rowlandson shows her belief that Native Americans are not fit for civil society is by metaphorically casting them as wild animals and thereby dehumanizing them. An example of this comes early in the account (after the initial attack where she is captured) as Rowlandson describes seeing “…so many Christians lying in their blood, some here, and some there, like a company of Sheep torn by Wolves. All of them stript naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out; yet the Lord by his Almighty power preserved a number of us from death…” (70). This passage reflects both Rowlandson’s religious and societal beliefs. It can be inferred from this part of her narrative that she sees herself and other Christian people as a domestic flock of tranquil, peaceful animals or more precisely as God’s flock of chosen people, while the Native Americans are cast as the Wolf destroying these “innocent” sheep. Further on in the quotation she recasts the Native Americans as hell-hounds and presents a chaotic and gruesome picture of the destruction laid upon the village. What is striking about this particular passage is how it dehumanizes the Native Americans while also serving to portray them as ungodly people. It accomplishes this on two different levels; overtly by saying the Indians are like wolves, and more subtly through the use of biblical language emphasizing the fact that Rowlandson and her people are God’s creatures and the Natives are hell hounds. This reinforces the notion throughout the narrative that the Native Americans are not fit for civil society, but are a violent and savage people that would kill members of God’s chosen people. There are numerous examples of Rowlandson’s dehumanization, based in religious beliefs, of the Indians throughout her narrative. Another such example occurs in her description of her first night with the Indians and how the “…singing and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night…made the place a lively resemblance of hell” (71). This passage also illustrates Rowlandson’s ability to portray the natives as wild beasts. The language emphasizes the fact that these people are not practicing civil ceremonies, but rather are acting like savages. What is even more striking, however, is her comparison of the whole scene to hell. She is effectively saying that Native American ceremony is akin to her religions conception of hell. This illustrates Rowlandson’s inability to see beyond her own puritan values and see the tradition at work within the Indian ceremony. She is unable to accept other belief systems and cultures without making comparisons back to her own personal belief system, which affirms not only how important these beliefs were in her society, but also how un-accepting her society was of values different from its own. One might argue that the reason Rowlandson depicts the Natives as such terrible, “savage” people is because they have just destroyed her village and killed many of her friends. Admittedly this is justification for the outrage that she felt. From the description she gives, however, it would seem that there is more than simple anger towards the Indians – there is a belief that they are inherently a lesser people. This is evident in how she not only dehumanizes the Indians but also never fails to note that they are a heathen people. This once again reaffirms the fact that she sees herself on a higher moral platform than the Native Americans. This ingrained belief that her society is God’s chosen one, and therefore morally superior, becomes apparent as she notes “the strange providence of God in preserving the heathen…” (79). She is genuinely amazed that God would preserve a class of people that are in her view “savage,” which is a clear reflection of her beliefs that the Puritan people are the only people with a valid claim to this Earth because they are chosen by God. Rowlandson’s view becomes even more plain as she recounts a few “remarkable passages of providence…” in which she again betrays her disbelief in the fact that “God strengthened [the Indians] to be a scourge to His People” (104-105). Once again we are reminded of the fact that her puritan society is ordained by God, while the Natives are but an affliction to that civil culture. All this betrays the fact that Rowlandson and others in her society believed themselves to be a superior civilization and that those that differed from their beliefs were “heathen” and unfit for civilized society. Furthermore the belief that the Natives were a “scourge” to society emphasizes the point that the Puritans saw them as expendable people with no claim to the land that they lived on. The fact that Rowlandson never stops to examine the idea that perhaps all people are God’s people and have equal right to live on the land, but instead can only see the Indians in a “savage” light, further confirms this idea. One problematic aspect of this account is that it cannot provide any other viewpoint on the matter. Rowlandson is never able to step back and view the capture in the context of other events that were occurring at the time. All she is able to see is the fact that the Natives had committed an atrocity against her people, yet she never considers the atrocities committed by the Europeans against the Natives or even the fact that the Indians inhabited the land before the Puritan settlers did. This perhaps might be explained by the previous discussion of how she is unable to see the Indians on an equal societal platform which leads to her being unable to feel any remorse for their plight – all she is able to see is a “heathen,” “savage” people. Through her narrative we can see that the Native Americans are trying just as hard as her society to prosper and survive, but there is never an objective look at this fact. The only examination of this matter comes through Rowlandson’s religious lens which only suggests that the Indians are struggling because they are not a “civilized” people and furthermore that they are not a Godly people. Another fact that is never considered in the narrative is why the natives attacked her village in the first place. By her account one would think that the natives attacked unprovoked; however, that is not the case. Rowlandson’s goal, it appears, is to portray this as a battle between the “heathen” Native Americans and her religiously pure and civilized society. Ultimately she is able to frame this “battle” as a religious experience testing her and the other colonists’ faith, which is completely ignoring the root of the issue. This reflects again on her and her society’s Puritan beliefs that Europeans were predestined to colonize the land and that they were not at fault for expanding outward. They believed that they had a true right to the land and that the natives would have to move aside (or be forcibly removed) so that the Puritans could develop the land to which they had a God given right. What makes this narrative even more clearly a reflection of Puritan beliefs is in the way that Rowlandson cannot even recognize the native’s benevolence after capturing her. Though a captive, she is relatively well treated. Shortly after being captured she tells how as she cried about her predicament there were Natives who “gave [her] two spoon-fulls of Meal to comfort [her], and another gave [her] half a pint of Pease…” (82). While these are minor comforts to her, they are gestures of generosity and goodwill upon the part of the natives who are in hard times themselves. Unfortunately Rowlandson is never able to look upon these acts of kindness with any objectivity and still cannot see past her belief that the Indians are a lesser, uncivilized people. This is evident when, as she is back with her husband, she notes how glad she is to be no longer “hem’d in with the merciless and cruel Heathen…[but instead] with pitiful, tender-hearted and compassionate Christians” (108). The fact that she was actually relatively well treated is lost on her in her recollection of the account. All she is able to be grateful for is the fact that she is back with Christians. Rowlandson’s narrative is the kind of subjective history that does not always provide us with accurate information. An uncritical reading of this type of history could perpetuate fallacious notions about Native American culture. We must understand the context in which accounts such as Rowlandson’s took place to critically examine the facts presented and begin to appreciate the complexity of the historical moment.

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