Elevate Difference

The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman

The Blue Tattoo tells the story of Olive Oatman, a nineteenth century woman with an unusual life. In 1851, Oatman was violently abducted along with her younger sister by Yavapais after watching this group of Native Americans brutally slaughter the rest of her family. What happens after this life-altering event, Mifflin argues, sheds light on American attitudes and treatment toward Native Americans, as well as the role and expectations for women in the 1800s.

It was a blue tattoo on her chin that marked Oatman for the rest of her life and served as a testament to her experience. After her abduction, Oatman was later adopted by the Mohave and assimilated into the tribe. This was evidenced by her tattoo, which Mohave women usually had themselves. Mifflin argues, despite what Oatman and others said later, that the tattoo was one symbol, among others, that she was accepted into the tribe and wanted to be a part of the tribe as well.

Years later, Oatman was “rescued” from the Mohave and had to transition back into White society as an adult. While she was an unusual woman for her time (she was the among the first white women to be tattooed in the United States and went on tour for speaking engagements, another uncommon act for a female to participate in), Oatman allowed her experience with the Mohave to be twisted into one where she was a victim of Native American oppressors. In fact, in subsequent photographs, and at some lectures, Oatman would cover up her chin tattoo with makeup, as if erasing her friendly ties to the Mohave.

Although Oatman’s story on its own is full of intrigue, Mifflin adeptly uses her tale as a springboard for larger issues of the time. Mifflin highlights America’s history of westward expansion through either war or simply seizing new land. The slaughter of Oatman’s family took place as they were heading through what was then Native American territory in the Southwest. While an occasional action by Oatman after her release gave some indication of the affection she felt toward the Mohave, she did not use the spotlight to defend Native American rights or acknowledge the kind treatment she received from the Mohave tribe. After her release, she seemed to bury any of the fondness and goodwill toward the Mohave, and instead, perpetuated the notion that Native Americans were savages.

Mifflin adds that Oatman's tale also reflects upon the unique lifestyle she had as a woman after her release. Oatman, ultimately, had only one immediate family member who survived the massacre and, therefore, little financial support after her release. This was a time when women did not work outside of the home. When faced with being reintroduced into white society, however, Oatman was forced to try to make a living for herself through endeavors like releasing a book about her experience and by attending public speaking events.

In the end, Oatman did what was necessary for her survival in White society. She did what she could to financially support herself by telling the American public what they wanted to hear about her years in captivity. We’ll never know how Oatman really felt about her time with the Mohave, but it is certain that, at the very least, Oatman did push the boundaries of what was thought to be appropriate for women during her time, even if what she did was at the expense of Native Americans.

Written by: Beverly Jenkins-Crockett, November 7th 2009

thanks for the great review! i look forward to reading it! it is too bad that she was bound by white society - i hope that her presentation was a sham, but like you said, we can't be certain.