Laurie McCants

Laurie McCants
2019 Baron Fellow
Bloomsburg, PA

Native American man running with a small blonde girl over his shoulderthree Native American men fleeing a house with captives- an African American woman and a young white boy and girlsketch of Mahkoonsahkwa from 1839

From left to right:
Illustrated cover from Frances Slocum, the Lost Sister of Wyoming, which was written by her great niece, on the Slocum side, Martha Bennett Phelps in 1905.

An etching from the 1858 book by George Peck, Wyoming: Its History, Stirring Incidents, and Romantic Adventures

This is a sketch of Mahkoonsahkwa drawn in 1839 by George Winter, a British artist who had moved to Indiana, and had set out drawing and painting the Indians and their habitat, out of “…the desire,” he said, “to preserve from obliteration the likenesses, habits and customs of some at least, of the unfortunate race of red men whom I have seen and known personally, and who alas! are fast fading away from earthly existence without the natural sympathy for their sad and inevitable extinction.” While his drawings and paintings are more sympathetic than most depictions of this period, his stated desire is problematic, as you can probably hear. There’s almost an embedded wish that the Indians would disappear, just to give his art an added pathos.


Research at AAS

My performance-in-progress is based on the story of Frances Slocum, a 5-year-old Quaker girl, kidnapped in 1778 by the Lenape, married into the Miami in 1795, and in 1837, reunited with her Slocum siblings, who found her in Indiana, the revered widow of a chief. They entreated her to return to Pennsylvania and “civilization.” She refused, living out the rest of her life with her people. Her story was popularized through epic poems, ballads, family memoirs, historical studies, children’s books, melodramas, and public pageants. At AAS, I focused on what I could learn about the true story of Frances Slocum/Mahkoonsahkwa (her Miami name) and what the many tellings of that story over many decades reveal about how we Americans tell stories about ourselves.

My research revealed that the story has been mostly told through the “white” lens, which dominates the historical, literary, and pop culture archives. The story Frances actually told her relatives was one of kindness from her captors and eventual prosperity as a tribal elder. And yet a book about this mostly happy tale, written in 1906 by one of her Slocum descendants, is titled History of Frances Slocum, The captive: A Civilized Heredity Vs; A Savage, and Later Barbarous, Environment.. I learned a useful phrase from my fellow Fellow Elspeth Martini:

“Empirical evidence never dislodges his imperialistic views.”

At first, I felt (foolishly) intimidated by the scholars in the reading room, but that quickly vanished when they invited me to join them for their weekly RuPaul’s Drag Race watch party. My time at AAS was greatly enriched by my conversations/breaking bread/sharing drinks/telling stories with my fellow Fellows.

I sort my research into the Pot of Troubles and the Pot of Possibilities. The Frances Slocum story proved enthralling (“enthralling”!) for decades. What is so captivating about this captivity story? The answer, I think, lies at the bottom of that Pot of Troubles. The Pot of Possibilities contains staging ideas, the figurative and literal threads I want to weave together in the telling. Literal: I will do the Miami traditional craft of ribbon work as I perform. In my AAS research, I found what struck me as theatrical– those moments that ask to be performed, to be embodied (like this– Mahkoonsahkwa had an old scar from a wound received while dancing in her youth, and she was dancing when she caught a cold that took her to her death bed; so yes, this goes into the Pot of Possibilities! I will dance!). I also know that my own process must be a slow, cautious, eyes open, ears open, mind and heart open dance as I make my way through many cultural tripwires. I must be wary of what seems “theatrical,” lest I repeat the errors of my other white chroniclers—sensationalizing, sentimentalizing, obscuring with overly-dramatic flash. I think I can do it. I hope I can do it. I hope I can honor the truly human moments, the moments of real rage, confoundment, sorrow, and joy.

I made this "crankie" in a workshop at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina in the fall, 2019. It's my interpretation of a Miami Indian song. I don't speak Miami (yet; I hope to learn), so I'm doing my best to mirror the pronunciations from a recording. It is my hope that I may be able to deliver some of my Frances Slocum/Mahkoonsahkwa performance in her language.

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