Alien Abduction & Native American Captivity Tales


Modern fears, modern monsters. Eugene Smith/Creative Commons

My wife audibly rolled her eyes during the trailer for the upcoming "Cowboys & Aliens" sci-fi flick and after reading an essay in Journal of American Culture by Patricia Felisa Barbeito, I have to admit my head's spinning a bit at the way this particular cultural fear loops back to the American West.

As I discuss in the HSW article "What Are UFO's Really" (and this accompanying Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast episode), aliens are ultimately a kind of cultural sock puppet that our mind sheaths over the sort of extraordinary experiences that rock our world views out of whack.

We've been experiencing the same traumas and temporal lobe anomalies throughout human history, but the sock itself changes from fairy to angel and from devil to little grey men.

And the fears that congeal into a culture's monsters? Well those change too.

In "'He's Making Me Feel Things in My Body That I Don't Feel': The Body as Battleground in Accounts of Alien Abduction," Barbeito makes a case (as others, like Michael Sturma have) that the late-20th century alien abduction story is essentially powered by the 17th-19th century American obsession with the Native American captivity narrative. These are of course the tales of Caucasian women abducted and brutalized by Native American tribes and in many cases absorbed irreversibly into their culture. Accounts of these abductions were published in the thousands.

The captive woman in these accounts serves as a kind of physical battleground for the premise of noble white superiority over the dark, savage tribal "others" from beyond the frontier. This racist boundary only exists artificially, of course, and the captivity experience tears apart the fiction in no time. Here's what Barbeito has to say:

But while accounts of alien abduction present us with stark racial, spatial, and cultural differences -- human and alien, earth and outer space, technology and nature -- that are reminiscent of the Indian captivity narrative, they do so only to turn our attention to the way that the captive's body completely fails to impose boundaries between them.

In the modern sense, Barbeito argues, the aliens probe and vivisect a bodily battleground between our sense of biological/historical identity and a dehumanizing, technological future.

Agree or disagree, it's a thought provoking read -- and you can see how the prospect of a fictional Caucasian cowboy and a fictional Native American supermodel standing up against a bunch of abduction-happy aliens stirs some interesting semiotic pondering.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.