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Book Review: The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman by Margot Miffin

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Olive Oatman was the oldest daughter of a  rather well-off Mormon family.  Born in Illinois in 1839, her well-ordered, and happy life was turned upside down when her father Royce Oatman decided to uproot his family and followed James C. Brewster, who had views that differed from Brigham Young.  Royce, something of a narcissist, pushed his family into one of those selfishly tragic crusades, that resulted in the eventual demise of his entire family save for Olive and her brother Lorenzo.

In 1851, the family, struggling against starvation, was not far from Maricopa Wells.  They were attacked by  either Tolkepayas or Wester Yavapais. Lorenzo was left for dead.  Olive and her younger sister, Mary Ann, were captured and taken into slavery.  Eventually the girls were “sold” to a group of Mohave, who took them into their “tribe” and treated the girls as their own.  Mary Ann, quite frail, did not survive.  When Olive was about 16, she was found “alive” and taken to Fort Yuma, where she was reunited with Lorenzo.  Olive’s story would go on to inspire dime novels, a rather lurid biography, and made both she and Lorenzo household names and celebrities.  Olive married, moved to Texas and melted into the western landscape, succumbing to a heart attack in 1903.

The above information, alone, should be enough to inspire a good modern biography.  When one adds the additional information that Oatman’s chin was tattooed with blue lines in a traditional Mohave fashion, the story becomes even more allegedly “romantic”. The tattoos, given to young women of the tribe, implied that the young woman was ready to embark in “adult” tribal life that resembled something closely akin to a weekend at Woodstock in 1969.

Fortunately, or unfortunately for the young woman, this information had already begun to circulate throughout the nation, due to the diligent anthropological meanderings of several documentarian who had visited the various Mohave groups around the same time as Oatman’s captivity.  By the time the teenager, clad in the typical Mojave costume for women, a short skirt and nothing else, reached the outskirts of Fort Yuma, her plight, and the logical possibility that she had actively participated in some interesting nocturnal meanderings, arrived with her. 

Once she arrived at Fort Yuma, Oatman stayed away from the fort, hidden, her face covered with her hands, until an officer’s wife sent a calico dress out for her.  Once fully clad, she marched, boldly, into her new life, never looking back – or did she?

Author Margot Mifflin is an expert in the tattooed female body.  She learned of the Oatman story after a student, listening to a lecture about the female tattooed body, told her about Oatman’s facial tattoo.  Armed with that information, and little else, Mifflin began researching Oatman’s story.

One of the problems with the Eastern intelligentsia who write about the American west is that oftentimes they have absolutely no understanding of the subject.  Mifflin is case in point.  In her introduction, she shows her ignorance by writing the following:

Oatman’s story reflects the crossed boundaries and trampled frontiers that marked this transaction.  She survived the botched pursuit of the American Dream, arrived at a geographical and utopian terminus – California – where, as Joan Didion famously put it, “we have run out of continent,”….Her blue tattoo became a poignant, permanent, ethnic marker, invoking both the cultural imprint of her Mohave past and the lingering scars of westward expansion. 

She concludes the book with the following:  “…Oatman is a poster girl for our inherently split and perpetually multiplying national identity….She is a white woman of color, a foreigner in her own country, a beautiful freak whose blue tattoo denotes the shaky fault lines between civilization and savagery…”

Mifflin makes the mistake that many writers before and many after will do.  She is so self-involved with her own little world that, in taking a step outside of it, she cannot comprehend her subject.  That is the real problem here.  Mifflin is no historian.  While using some of the older sources about the west, and making some of the “usual” archival rounds in the southwest, she draws on sources that are not what a western historian would use.  Relying on ethnographers is nice, but if someone is writing about Arizona, one of the first sources should be Marshall Trimble, the “official” Arizona State Historian. 

Historians, writers, and researchers like Trimble, who actually ‘knows his stuff,’ are nowhere to be found. Mifflin relies on rather modern sources and resources for her sociological interpretations of the role of women in the Wild West.  She uses the latest information about women and tattoos.  The real problem, though, is her sourcing for the “Wild West” is woefully out of date. 

Oatman was a fascinating woman.  After her arrival at Fort Yuma, she began relearning English.  She thirsted for knowledge, eventually even going to a “seminary” that would be much the same as a junior college today.  She read books.  She wrote poetry.  She learned how to speak in public, and quickly mastered the fine art of the newspaper interview.  She  reveled in the fact that she was a celebrity and made the most of it the rest of her life.

From the moment of her arrival back in “civilization” Oatman developed an affinity for beautiful, stylish clothes, and was always photographed in the latest fashion.  She learned to set a fine table.  Her manners were excellent. She married quite well and had a beautiful home.  She hosted lavish garden parties.  She traveled from California, to Oregon, to Manhattan, back to Chicago, settled in Texas, and to health spas in Canada. 

One of the greatest mistakes a biographer or writer of  history can make is the failure to put their subject in historical context.  The next great mistake is looking at and reading “modern” actions and sensibilities into their characters.  Mifflin does this with Olive Oatman.  Like so many of her contemporaries, Oatman showed the intellectual curiosity and a fascination with the world around her that is a hallmark attribute in the “winning of the west.”  They were remarkably up to date in manners, politics, news of the day, and the very latest fashions, far more, perhaps, than their counterparts in the “states.” 

Mifflin simply does not understand this aspect of life in the west.  By not understanding that and the late Victorian culture in the U.S., she fails to understand her subject.  Oatman did not see herself as a victim.  She probably did not even see herself as a survivor, but just a woman trying to live a normal life. Mifflin never bothers to get beyond the fact that Oatman had a blue tattoo on her face.

Mifflin ignores that the obvious post-traumatic stress Oatman experienced later in life when her beloved adopted daughter, Mamie, approached the age Oatman was when she was captured.  Here again Mifflin chooses not to pay attention to the fact that Oatman’s “depression” and the need for a prolonged “spa” visit in Canada were obviously the result of the traumatic experiences of Oatman’s captivity.  Mifflin is thus able to hold on to her own personal myth that the years Oatman spent in captivity were not suffused with horror. 

Mifflin holds dearly to those highly sophisticated and patronizing theories, now debunked, of the evil “white” man who intrudes upon the noble savage, who is at one with his world and with nature.  The white interloper forces the noble savage to do vile and corrupt things he would never consider if left alone  to commune with nature.  The problem with this prejudiced and intolerant world view is wholesale ignorance and abject blind stupidity when it comes to the actual role the settlers played in the story of the American West.

Oatman was part of this history, part of the settling of the American West.  She experienced horrors we will never know because she never really spoke of them.  We will never know if she was forced into a tribal marriage, raped, or even if she bore a child in captivity, only to be forced to leave that child behind when she was “rescued.”

My patron ancestress, Hannah Dustin, paid a very high personal and social price in the late 1690s in Massachusetts when it was learned that she was raped during her captivity.  She was ostracized from both polite society and her church for the remainder of her life.  Mifflin is so woefully ignorant of American history and sociology that she does not even comprehend the fact that the world has changed to the point where the sexual implication of Oatman’s captivity are never even mentioned. In many ways the simple fact that Oatman is not ostracized and not forced to endure Dustin’s social isolation is a remarkable commentary on the sophistication and tolerance of the late Victorian American.

Oatman left a rich cultural and literary legacy, complete with enough remaining letters and newspaper articles.  For researchers, writers, and biographers of all things “Wild West,” those primary sources are a treasure. Mifflin basically glosses over them, molding a biography of Oatman that reflects Mifflin’s own view of life.

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