A few years ago at the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association, I asked a question about how Mormons viewed Native American polygamy and sexuality. The answer from the panel was that very little work had been done on that area. I meant to answer that question in my dissertation but ended up shelving it. This semester, as I was revising my dissertation into a book manuscript, I decided to spend a significant amount of time reading nineteenth-century Utah newspapers in order to determine whether or not the practice of Mormon polygamy changed how Mormons viewed Native American sexuality.
I’m not done with that bit of research yet, but as I was working on it, I came upon this fascinating piece of evidence.
On May 9, 1884, The Salt Lake City Herald published an article called Beaver Kittens, which spent a great deal of time discussing the lives and habits of baby beavers. Contained with the article was the following paragraph, which accuses Native American women of breastfeeding beavers:
“When taken at an early age [beavers] are easily domesticated and are so esteemed as pets in the far west and fur countries that almost every trading post or camp can exhibit three or four. It is no uncommon occurrence to see one running about an Indian lodge, submitting patiently to the wiles and caprices of the little savages, or joining in their sports, and frequently receiving with the papoose the nourishment from the maternal breast.”
I blinked when I first read that paragraph. Did it really accuse Native American women of breastfeeding beavers? Wouldn’t that hurt? How would they ever latch on?
In another paragraph, the same article collapsed the distance between Native American children and beavers:
“’He cry all same as papoose,’ remarked the squaw, as she brought the little fellow forward, at the same time giving him an unmerciful pinch that caused him to set up a doleful little wail that, had I not been forewarned, I should certainly have believed to proceed from a minute, black-eyed specimen of an aboriginal infant that, swathed in cloth, beads, and bark, and bound fast, mummy-like, to a board, stood leaned up against the wall. By the way, do Indian babies ever cry or laugh? I suppose they do, occasional, though I do not remember ever hearing one.”
It was credited to a Dr. G.A. Stockwell [non-Mormon, I assume] who had originally published it in Popular Science Monthly.
After reading it, I began to wonder how common the image of Native American women breastfeeding beavers was. Through the power of Google Book Search, I found more a few more references to breastfed beavers that I would have suspected. The number I would have expected was zero.
Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round described a beaver that had nursed at an Indian woman’s breast and followed the woman’s son – a sort-of “half-blood” brother – throughout the camp. The description seems to have been drawn from Lewis Henry Morgan. Several modern writers have taken up this theme, claiming that Indian woman would sometimes suckle beavers at their breast. An English aristocrat who had lived among the Ojibwe published a story in the 1930s in which he claimed that Indian women whose babies had died frequently adopted–and “suckled”–beaver kittens. Likewise, the Pennsylvania Game News reported in 1950 that it “was not uncommon for an Indian squaw to nurse a tiny beaver at her breast along with her own baby.”
Even after reading these references, I am left with the question of why? Why would these authors describe Indian women breastfeeding beavers? As someone who has breastfed an infant, I am reluctant to accept that beavers could actually breastfeed from a human breast. Although I don’t have any definitive answers, I wonder if part of the reason is the exotic motherhood that it creates. In the nineteenth century, breastfeeding and child rearing were a part of a cult of domesticity that emphasized the naturally caring nature of women. The image of Native American women nursing beavers plays into this maternal image, but it does in a way that distances Native women from white women and emphasizes their exoticism and proximity to nature. Native women—and as the original story suggests—their children become almost indistinguishable from the animals of the forest. This image has continued into the twentieth century because of our association of Native American women with the forest and our willingness to continue seeing them as slightly strange creatures.