Lydia Marie Child’s story, “The Indian Wife,” was published in 1828 in The Legendary, Consisting of Principle Pieces, Principally Illustrative of American History, Scenery, and Manners, edited by Nathaniel Parker Willis. A well-known abolitionist writer, Child frequently addressed matters of racism and disenfranchisement of Black Americans and slaves in her stories. She also addressed issues of Native Americans (Abenaki and Penobscots, in particular), whom she befriended upon a move to Maine at age 12. This experience alerted her to the difficulties many Native Americans faced at the hand of The United States government, such as colonization, disease, and poverty.
“The Indian Wife,” is a fictional short story about the daughter, Tahmiroo, of a Sioux Chieftan. In the story, Tahmiroo marries a white French man attempting to poach her father’s wealth. He ultimately abandons her with their young son. In her misery and desperation, Tahmiroo puts herself and her son in a boat, and rows them off the edge of a waterfall to their deaths.
The story is tragic. Tahmiroo and her son die in her act of despair, after a marriage where her white husband drained her Sioux family of their finances and land. For most of the story, her French husband is a nefarious, greedy, insolent man; “he assumed an affectionate manner towards his wife; for he knew well that one look or word of kindness would at any time win back all her love,” in order to convince her to sell her lands to increase his own wealth (203).
The Legendary appears to be an anthology of cultural artifacts related to American history. Between the preface and the cover page, there is a sort of legal statement of its nature. It benefitted from “An act supplementary to an act, entitled, “An act for the encouragement of learning, by securing the copies of maps, charts, and books, to the authors and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned; ” and extending the benefits thereof to the arts, designing, engraving, and etching historical and other prints.’” In other words, Nathaniel Parker Willis most likely received government funds for this anthology. In the preface he says, “it is intended as a vehicle for detached passages of history, romance, and vivid description of scenery and manners, materials for which exist so abundantly in our country.” So this book, in some ways, was intended to compile art which displayed the beauty of North America. Willis was not known to have any particularly activist leanings, and his stance on the abolition of slavery was rather ambiguous.
Viewing Child’s story as part of this anthology, the potentially activist nature of her story (in which a white man severely takes advantage of a Native American woman) could be called into question. If The Legendary was part of a political project to showcase American arts, the choice to include a story wherein a Native American family finds itself in ruins suggests conflicting motivations. On the one hand, their inclusion in an American anthology as complex people with emotions, motivation, and heartache is a progressive step towards humanizing a marginalized group. On the other hand, their depiction as helpless in the face of colonialism and the death of Tahmiroo could be seen as an extension of white-savior activism, which often sees marginalized people as helpless and necessarily in need of a white savior. In this case the white-saviors would be Child and Willis, the creators of this story.
Nowadays, “The Indian Wife” may be found in anthologies devoted to the works of Lydia Marie Child, such as A Lydia Marie Child Reader. Published in 1997, this small collection of her short stories contains an introduction with information about the life and works about Lydia Marie Child. It includes highlights of her activism, including her novel Hobomok, in which a white woman marries a Native American man, has a son with him, and ultimately reintegrates into the Puritan community. In a modern collection of Child’s stories, her activism becomes obvious—themes of women’s rights, justice for Native Americans, and the abolition of slavery appear repeatedly. In The Legendary, however, Child’s activism is not quite as visible. In a book devoted to compiling art about North America, activism is not necessarily concerned, especially where the United States government is involved. To compare The Legendary (1828) to A Lydia Marie Child Reader (1997) is to examine the varying motivations to publish an activist female writer. In the former, her inclusion of Native Americans and description of their manner of living possibly appealed to Nathaniel Parker Willis’s goal of creating a collection of American art work, regardless of its activist leanings. The Legendary benefitted from government acts for the creation of American art, suggesting that Child’s descriptions of Native American life were the appeal of her story to the collection, as opposed to her activist status. In A Lydia Marie Child Reader, the context of the Indian wife can be lost—while her intentions may have had activist leanings, its reception by audiences was perhaps a result of its depiction of America.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Lydia Maria Child.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., February 7, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lydia-Maria-Child.
- “Lydia Maria Child.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed May 15, 2020.https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lydia-maria-child.
- “Lydia Maria Child “The Indian Wife,” in The Legendary, Consisting of Original Pieces, Principally Illustrative of American History, Scenery, and Manners edited by NathanielParker Willis. Boston: S.G. Goodrich, 1828. Vol. 1. 197-207.”
- Foreman, P. Gabrielle. Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the NineteenthCentury. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2010. p. 34
- Whipple, John Adams. Portrait of Lydia Maria Child. Photograph. Library of Congress. Boston: Library of Congress, January 1, 1865. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.54178/.
Penobscot Indian Island Reservation. Photograph. Penobscot County, Main, 1919. The Macmillan Company. https://archive.org/stream/whattoseeinameri00john/whattoseeinameri00john#page/2/mode/1up