I came across The Blue Tattoo by chance, when author Peggy Riley tweeted about it (so long ago that I’m afraid I can’t find the original tweet). As soon as I heard about it I knew I wanted to read it.
It was unlike anything I had ever read before, but it instantly appealed to me. My only real ‘knowledge’, if it can be called that, of Native American and Pioneer interactions came from hammy Westerns, The Simpsons, and the terrifying murals in Parks and Recreation. I also knew little about America in general during the 19th century apart from basic facts about western migration and the Civil War – the former being a key factor in The Blue Tattoo.
It is the story of Olive Oatman, someone I will never be able to forget. In 1851 Olive was fourteen years old and on the road to a Mormon utopia in the west. Isolated from the rest of their caravan, her family were attacked by a native tribe. Her brother Lorenzo survived the attack by being so wounded that the tribe thought he was dead; they spared Olive, and her young sister Mary Ann, and took them captive.
The attacking tribe were the Yavapais. They soon traded Olive and Mary Ann to the Mohaves, who were kind and treated them well. The girls stayed with the Mohaves for the best part of five years, though little Mary Ann succumbed to malnutrition during a poor harvest which Olive only just survived. Olive was eventually traded back to ‘her people’ when Lorenzo finally tracked her down.
Olive became a sensation, going on lecture tours and having her story published in a ‘memoir’ heavily ghost-written by a pastor, Royal Stratton, who she and Lorenzo met soon after their reunion. The sections that Mifflin quotes, though written in the first person, are clearly not Olive’s own words – she refers to the Mohaves as savages and low people, despite the fact that she effectively became one of their tribe whilst living with them. The tattoo on her chin, and many other small details in her story, strongly suggest that she was just as much a Mohave as one who been born among them. They did not tattoo slaves or captives – only their own people. It was a hugely meaningful symbol of belonging, that Olive would have submitted to willingly, knowing it was permanent.
Friends and relatives reported that for years, decades, after leaving the Mohaves, Olive spoke of them fondly but seemed troubled by her memories. She paced the floor, was lost in her thoughts, and seemed to keep the truth of her story to herself. Though she spoke publicly about her experiences for years afterwards, we can of course never really know about her experience, her life, with the Mohaves.
Thinking her whole family was dead, it is understandable that she may have wanted to stay with the people who became surrogate parents and relatives for her – she was adopted by the chief and his wife, who seems to have played a significant role as a mother figure. Throughout the book there are countless small details that made me think, quite certainly, that Olive was more or less happy with the Mohaves, and it was not her first choice to leave them. Her life back with white society was at first filled with publicity (from which we have some of the best photographs of her) and public appearances, as well as various rumours, theories, and elaborations that embellished her story and speculated, sometimes damagingly, about her time with the Mohaves.
She often had to state that she had not been ‘violated’ or made ‘unclean’ by the Native Americans, and that she had retained her virtue as a good Christian girl – but Mifflin states it is entirely possible she may have been ‘sexually initiated’ within the tribe. She was a teenager after all, and the Mohaves did not shy away from sex like 19th century American Christians. Whether or not this is true, it is fascinating to consider and demonstrates the depth of mystery within Olive Oatman, and the unknowable nature of other people’s experiences. It is one of many, many things that we can only wonder about Olive.
Aside from Olive’s own story, Mifflin brilliantly pulls together stories similar to Olive’s (such as those of Cynthia Ann Parker and Mary Jemison), and the complicated ways in which she and people like her, different in whatever way, were perceived by society. The book is also an examination of America as a developing nation, with states still forming and national identity still being forged. It is utterly fascinating, almost as much as Olive’s story. There is more than I can really, fairly, convey here.
Olive’s story is unique, but not isolated. Other people were kidnapped by Native Americans, for centuries before her, and during her own time. She however, has stuck in our collective mind, and her inclusion in books, film, TV shows, short stories and more since her time with the Mohaves has meant that she has stayed on the cultural radar in some small way ever since she first became famous in the 1860s. I cannot explain any of this as well as Margot Mifflin, so it is better, of course, to read The Blue Tattoo and delve into this incredible story yourself. I could analyse this book for hours, and it is without a doubt one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.
Published by the University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books in 2009, and reprinted in 2011.