Casual Racism Never Ends

Olive Oatman Wikimedia Commons

Olive Oatman
Wikimedia Commons

There’s a fairly popular Western show called Hell on Wheels on AMC. I’ve no cable, so I haven’t seen it, but I saw an advertisement for its having won several awards for hairdressing and makeup. One of the characters, called Eva Toole, has facial tattoos. Her character is loosely based on the story of Olive Oatman, who was captured by Yavapais in about 1851. They eventually sold her to the Mohave. It was during her time with the Mohave Olive acquired the facial tattoos.

The Hell on Wheels shows character bio says that the tattoo represents her sale price as a slave. In real life, these Mohave facial tattoos were commonly worn by both men and women– not as a mark of servitude but as a coming of age mark. Mohave women wore all kinds of colorful facial markings — the chin mark and other face paint marked Olive Oatman and her fictional counterpart Eva as family, not as slave.

Olive Oatman was eventually repatriated into Anglo society, and went on tour telling the story of her captivity. At first her stories of life among the Mohave were favorable. Over time, her stories became more lurid, probably to please her Anglo audiences.  It’s likely that like Cynthia Ann Parker, Olive Oatman didn’t wish to be rescued, and spent the rest of her life missing her Mohave adopted family. Neither Oatman or Parker lived happily in Anglo society after their repatriation.  Parker was repatriated against her will, and spent the rest of her days mourning her separation from her husband and sons. Oatman was never well or seemingly happy after her repatriation, even though she later married a Texas rancher.

In none of this do I mean to excuse the actions of people who murdered others. This is of course despicable. That they didn’t kill children but instead captured them is a matter of some ambiguity. What happened to those captive children was a mixed bag. Some indeed lived in terrible conditions as badly treated slaves. Some became deeply attached to their new families. Some longed fiercely to return to their former homes and way of life.  It was a time of conflict, where people from all sides did good and bad things.  Only a few decades later, all Mohave children would be taken into residential boarding school and forced to assimilate into Anglo culture. The thing that’s most frustrating to me about this changing up of facts to match the writer’s desired fiction is that the reality is much more interesting, and is perhaps an even more tragic tale.  When writing Historic fiction, even for TV, I think we have a responsibility to the reality from which our fiction is borne.

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