The captivity narrative is a particularly American genre, thanks to the expansionist interests and conquest on which this country was founded. The Oxford University Press defines it thus: “an ideologically charged [narrative] relating the ordeal of a colonial Euro-American woman who is taken captive by mercilessly predatory Indian “savages” assailing the virtuous frontier family; […] the author relates her trials of captivity, escape or rescue, and, in some cases, her assimilation into a Native community.”
By this definition, Sarah Wakefield’s Six Weeks in the Sioux Teepees, relating the experiences of this 33-year old wife of a military doctor during the Dakota War of 1862, is a classic captivity narrative. The story of Sarah’s relatively brief abduction (compared with the 18 months spent by pilgrim Mary Rowlandson among the Narragansett and Wampanoag – the defining work of the genre) is rife with bloodthirsty captors, endless ruses to avoid being murdered, near-constant fear for the safety of herself and her small children and episodes displaying her eventual acceptance amongst the Sioux/Dakota. Her ideological leanings are also in plain sight throughout her tale, except that these lean always – and sometimes fiercely – towards sympathy with the Sioux.
That is only one of the startling features of Saved Again And By Him, a monologue of Wakefield’s memoirs by the actress and filmmaker Erica Fae, in collaboration with Tlingit/Unangax̂ artist Nicholas Galanin. Fae gives a powerful physical performance of survival and independence, delivering Wakefield as a fascinatingly woke frontierswoman who nevertheless feels in the core of her being every terror and injustice she endures on the burned and starved prairie. And while these are great trials (at one point, in order to escape a posse sent to execute her, she has to crouch motionless in a haystack for 18 hours holding her infant, an episode Fae makes us feel viscerally also), Fae layers Wakefield’s understanding of the Dakota with a modern sensibility for cultural differences, seeing in these alternative ways of being in the world rather than transgressions of European norms of faith or morality.
At the same time, Fae keeps Wakefield grounded in her context, giving her the mannered gestures, haughty composure and careful elocution of a white lady of education and breeding of her day. We don’t learn how or why Wakefield mastered the Dakota language or came to be “friends” with members of the tribe before the conflict (skills and relationships that certainly helped in her survival); Fae’s Sarah retains an intriguing complexity.
However, by far the most heinous crime Wakefield observes during her ordeal is the treatment reserved for Chaska, her protector among the Sioux. Due to either a case of mistaken identity or revulsion on the part of the US Army officers to whom Wakefield was eventually released (and who suspected her of engaging in a love affair with Chaska while still married to her doctor-husband), Chaska was one of 38 Sioux executed under the orders of President Abraham Lincoln at the close of the conflict (among over 400 arrested). What at first seems to be another episode in the centuries-long pursuit and extermination of Native Americans by ruthless and mercenary Army forces and regional militias, turns out to have a footnote in the US Civil War (the Dakota conflict was running at the same time as the battles of Bull Run and Antietam), while implicating The Great Emancipator in an avoidable mass hanging that killed at least one innocent man.
Wakefield decided to write Six Weeks in the Sioux Teepees to clear Chaska’s name, even though it threatened to dishonor her own, since she knew her story would be read by her white peers as a traitorous changing of camps: she not only defends her protector but also the cultural and moral beliefs of the Sioux, whom she depicts generally as “poor deceived creatures [who] bore so much and for so long” at the hands of the US government (the uprising resulted after the government neglected to pay the Sioux their annual allowance of food and money, leaving them to starve).
But Fae’s title for this gripping hour of theater is also startlingly enigmatic, and not helpfully so. “Saved Again”: Is the salvation referenced a nod to Wakefield’s rebirth into an enlightened position on Native American rights and sovereignty? “And by Him”: Suddenly the platonic relationship between Wakefield and Chaska seems to posit a mysterious male figure and an illicit liaison that cannot be named. This could be an attempt to write a new narrative for Wakefield, as sexually as well as culturally enlightened, but neither the text nor the performance backs up such an interpretation.
Nicholas Galanin’s video projection of a chair being hatcheted to pieces ( meant to represent “the continuing strength and persistence required to unseat power over land, water and Indigenous people”) injects a contemporary aesthetic and modern reading of Native American history into the performance’s final section, which relates Chaska’s arrest and hanging, but only if you have read the program notes ahead of time.
Wakefield’s pragmatism and openmindedness in her relations with the Sioux seem pioneering in more ways than one, and her story can inspire us to stand up for the oppressed and the marginalized, a message that certainly has its applications in the US today. But it comes with the troubling realization that the captivity narrative continues to titillate readers: Wakefield’s memoirs were made into impressionistic fiction in 2017, and Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir of her nearly seven-year ordeal among the FARC in the Colombian jungle was an international best-seller (and was also adapted for the theater in 2017).
Fae’s title could be an attempt to give Chaska equal billing in Wakefield’s story, acknowledging his lesser renown compared to hers, while avoiding mentioning her by name. Still, this is her memoir, not his, and while Fae evidently wants to elevate Wakefield’s story from a captivity narrative to a crusader’s tale, even her absorbing, nuanced performance cannot separate her adaptation of that story from the conventions and themes of a genre we might all do well to escape.
Saved Again And By Him runs to June 3, 2018. More production info can be found here.