After a 25-year career as a naturalist at the St. Louis Zoo, Dianne Moran decided it was time to take on a new challenge and become a full-time living history performer. Since then, Dianne has created programs featuring twelve fascinating chautauqua characters from a variety of periods of American history. In 2011, audiences across the state were mesmerized by her performance as the Southern abolitionist Mary Chesnut in Ohio Chautauqua: The Civil War.
This summer, Dianne will portray Olive Ann Oatman, whose family joined a wagon train headed west in search of religious freedom. After the Oatmans began traveling alone through what today is known as Arizona, a Native American tribe (probably the Tolkepayas) massacred the family. Olive and her sister were captured and treated brutally by the tribe. They were later sold to the Mohave people, who nurtured the Oatman girls. Olive was returned to the white world at about the age of 19. She wrote a book about her experiences and later traveled the nation on a lecture tour. Her story was retold for many years, probably in large part because of the noticeable blue facial tattoo given to her by the Mohave, making her as the first tattooed white woman in American history.
Ohio Chautauqua Coordinator Fran Tiburzio recently spoke with Dianne Moran to learn more about her thoughts on Olive Oatman and the chautauqua experience.
FT: How did working as a naturalist at the St. Louis Zoo lead you to become a living history performer?
DM: The Zoo asked naturalists and instructors to develop new methods of reaching the public about environmental awareness. We had previously offered only structured classroom programs using scientific facts and live animals. The education curator asked if I would incorporate storytelling into my programs. I grew up listening to the incredible stories of my father and uncle, so I welcomed the chance to follow their lead. This soon grew to historically correct ‘period’ programs. Living history programs were a natural for me because I had moved to the deep woods to immerse myself in nature. Soon it was not only the animals that influenced me, but the generations of people who had lived before. I developed numerous historic characters and finally decided that I could offer my own nature classes and historic activities without traveling more than 120 miles to and from the zoo every day.
Do you remember the first chautauqua style program you saw? What impressed you most about it?
I will never forget it! It was a local chautauqua here in Missouri with the theme of Civil War. I was there as a storyteller before the performance began. When I finished, “Mary Todd and Abraham” met me as I exited the tent. I was overwhelmed by their costumed grandeur, but most impressed by their presentation…flawless, mesmerizing, and emotional. I knew at that moment that I, too, could accomplish what they had done. At least, I knew that I was going to try my very best!
How did you learn about it, and what really piqued your interest in Olive Ann Oatman’s story?
I was looking for a new character to portray and was researching wagon train stories when up pops Olive’s tattooed face. This child’s horrific story of family slaughter, capture by Tolkepaya Indians, and eventual rescue left me with no need to look further. With the latest available knowledge about her (including the book The Blue Tattoo), I felt there was enough of the historical record to present her as the older woman she became. Her obvious facial tattoo created a pathway to understanding her as a reclusive adult.
Olive’s story also offered documented fact of why Native peoples made war upon the settlers, something that requires our understanding and attention. In addition, there is the unspoken love and affection Olive felt for the Mohave. This spoke volumes to me and was something I wanted to share.
Why do you think so many people today idolize the Native American cultures? What was so different that made 19th century people condemn those same cultures?
In a word: NATURE. By inescapable demands of survival, Native peoples have historically lived from what was available to them, edible wild plants, wild animals, and the crops they later learned to cultivate. Today, so-called civilized society realizes the deadly impact of the chemicals we have developed, and there is a “Green” movement throughout the world. The Native people have become a metaphor for the return to natural living. Native spiritualism is also draws people in. The simple act of people gathering and dancing to the beat of a drum is magical. Could there also be a degree of guilt for what was done historically that changed the lives of native peoples, the effects of which are still seen today? A question, I think, each of us answers within ourselves.
19th century people seemed to be xenophobic, anything or anyone different from themselves was to be feared, then destroyed before it could do harm to their own. Those people had not learned that the beauty of the world lies in our differences. Lofty words in 2014, but life was brutal on every level in the 1800s. It is interesting to note that during the Lewis and Clark expedition the Native people thought the Captains were savages because they disciplined their soldiers so harshly…100 lashes for disobeying orders. The Indians never punished their children, let alone adults, instead sending them to the storyteller for a moralistic lesson.
She seemed to have a love/hate relationship with the Native Americans. What do you think Olive admired most about her captors? Aside from the obvious – the massacre of her family – there must have been other aspects of her captors’ culture that were anathema to her. Do we know her feelings on the positive and the negative sides of life with the Native Americans?
Olive leaves us no doubt as to her feelings about the Tolkepayas who brutally murdered most of her family before her eyes. They kept her and her little sister Mary Ann for a year of starvation, slavery, and uncommon cruelty. She tells us nothing that could have been considered redeeming about them.
The Mohave were entirely different. The Oatman girls were welcomed and protected by the tribe. Olive and Mary Ann were taken into one of the chief’s homes to live. They had an Indian mother, Aespaneo, a father, Chief Espaniol, and a sister, Topeka. Clearly, there were negatives about living with the Mohave. Even though they were treated well, given their own garden and were free to move about the village, there were things Olive could not accept. For example, the Mohave didn’t seem to want to learn how to grow better crops. Olive tried to explain an irrigation plan; they dismissed her as crazy. If they had listened to her, perhaps the terrible famine of 1855 would not have killed so many, including her sister Mary Ann. However, Olive could not help but enjoy the Mohave lifestyle. They were very accepting of her, and she noted what a fine sense of humor they all seemed to possess.
An incident that confirms Olive’s warm feeling for the Mohave occurred in 1865 after she had been lecturing for a number of years about her life among the savages (all of the lectures espoused an anti-Indian theme.) Iritaba, a Mohave chief Olive had known, was himself on a lecture tour when Olive bought a ticket to see him. Following the lecture, she asked to meet with him. They shook hands in the warm way known only to the Mohave, and they talked together for a long time and with obvious affection.
What might our Ohio Chautauqua audiences gain from hearing Olive’s story?
I think it is important to appreciate this as a message of hope. At some point, there must come an end to despair. Differences among people cause hurt feelings, sometimes escalating into physical violence. Not respecting differences can cause a whole other list of degradations upon the human spirit and body. At the center of Olive’s story, we cannot fail to note that even among the Mohave, who were so different from Olive, there was a commonality. Family and love – these know no differences and see only that we all belong to the family of human kind. Olive was loved by her Indian family; we would like to believe she loved them as well.
Be sure to join us under the tent this summer to experience the amazing journey story of Olive Ann Oatman!