Book Review

Race, Colonialism, and Language

Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation. By Sean P. Harvey. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2015. 352 pages. $39.95 hardcover.

Book Review by S-USIH Blogger Eran Zelnik

Though we have long known that race is a social construction rather than a fixed universal category, its ubiquity both in American history and in contemporary America often renders race so obvious and immutable in our minds that we forget to appreciate its elasticity. In efforts to highlight the quality of race as historically and socially constituted, in the past few decades American intellectual and cultural historians have returned to the category of race with great results. When in 1968 Winthrop Jordan made a great splash with his magisterial—and exhaustive—work, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro it might have seemed as if there was little else to add on the subject. During the past twenty years or so, however, the waters seemed to have settled a bit and historians have picked things up where Jordan had left them several decades earlier.

In Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation, Sean P. Harvey complements recent scholarship about the historical construction of race in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the North American colonies from a new and refreshing angle—the production of knowledge about languages, and in particular Native American languages. In Harvey’s deft hands contemporary ideas about languages spoken in North America become a fascinating terrain upon which scholars, missionaries, traders, and other cultural brokers—of both European and Native Americans descent—constructed ideas about their identity, their differences, and ultimately about race. Indeed, perhaps the most fascinating quality of this study is its convincing capacity to disentangle race from the biological categories so familiar to us today. For Harvey unveils a period during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in which notions about race stemmed from the study of humans that often employed knowledge about language just as much as it did knowledge of the body. In fact, Native Tongues casts philology, biology, and in later years ethnology as mutually constitutive bodies of knowledge.

As the subtitle suggests, Harvey situates this study of the intersection of language and race within the American colonial project that targeted Native peoples, at first as pursued by European powers, and after the creation of the United States, within its web of imperial and colonial designs, as well. Native Tongues, he stresses, “is a cultural history that demonstrates how genealogical, psychological, and physiological ideas about language not only produced racial notions about Indians but also shaped the administration and experience of colonialism.” (7) Indeed, one of the great strengths of this study is that it incorporates the specific case of North America within a larger body of scholarship regarding the intellectual climate that underscored European colonial efforts. In this fashion it also illuminates the links between the production of knowledge—in this case philology—and power.

Much like the fascinating work on race undertaken in recent years by scholars such as Nancy Shoemaker and John Wood Sweet, Harvey does not merely relate an intellectual history of race, language, and colonialism as a linear declension narrative. Rather, he tethers the production of knowledge and the construction of race to the struggle between a native tonguescolonial impetus and Native acts of resistance. Furthermore, Harvey locates this struggle over knowledge within an intricate web of competing intellectual frameworks and cultural and political agendas. Indeed, though European and Euro-American actors sought to harness knowledge about Native languages for their respective ends, be they scholars, missionaries, or government officials, they required the participation of Native peoples to study their languages. Likewise, as they sought to regulate and compartmentalize Native languages, rendering them more intelligible to Euro-Americans, their efforts could only prove successful in as much as Natives collaborated with such endeavors. Thus Natives always had recourse to strategies that undermined language related colonial projects. In this vein, Harvey casts the most famous linguistic innovation of the period—the Cherokee syllabary invented in 1820 by the Cherokee native Sequoyah—as emblematic of both Native resistance and the “civilization project” promoted by a colonial agenda. “Although some during the removal debates attacked syllabary as Insufficiently Indian because of the role of white influence and intermarriage,” stresses Harvey, “it concerned others because it inhibited the adoption of English, recognized to be crucial to the development of American nationhood.” (144)

Furthermore, as the book makes clear, U.S. colonialism was never a straightforward agenda. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, for instance, as a nascent republic sought to assert its place among the nations, thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin S. Barton undertook to cast Native languages and by implication Native peoples and their environment in positive terms. As environmentalist ideas that associated geography and climate with degrees of civilization and race held the day, Jefferson and Barton had a vested interest in demonstrating the capacity of Natives to embrace civilization. Thus though as Harvey attests “[f]or most citizens of the new nation, the deficiency of Indians, their minds, and their language were a given,” others sought to prove exactly the opposite—studying Native languages for evidence of complexity and even perhaps past greatness. (84) For if Natives had created great civilizations in ages past, then America’s environment could foster great civilizations in the future.

Similarly, several decades later, during the 1820s and 1830s, as debates over Indian removal flared, competing camps employed language knowledge to support their respective agendas. While the most acclaimed philologist working in America, Peter S. Du Ponceau, who sympathized with the plight of Natives, highlighted the beauty, richness, and complexity of Native languages, the Indian superintendent, Lewis Cass, sent his agents to mine Native languages for proof of their savage condition. And though both contributed in their own way to the colonial impetus writ large, they espoused very different ideas regarding Native languages and federal policy.

Such agendas, in turn, were influenced and constrained by competing intellectual frameworks regarding language and race. During the eighteenth century, for instance, the study of etymology stood at the center of theories about language. Thus, scholars sought to trace racial and linguistic genealogies by excavating word origins. During the nineteenth century, by contrast, a growing reliance on grammar transformed the field and with it earlier notions of Indian origins. Furthermore, during these same years ideas regarding the malleability of race and civilization gave way to a more fixed and essentialist theoretical framework, which hardened the equation between language and race as essential and immutable categories. This more modern notion reached its apex during the mid-nineteenth century decades, even as new biological, philological, and ethnological knowledge and Native resistance frustrated attempts to fully institutionalize such knowledge and the policies that they implicated during the second half of the century.

From the perspective of intellectual history this book accomplishes much, but leaves me yearning for more. Indeed, though it links the emerging discipline of philology to broader intellectual trends of the day, it does not fully tether such intellectual activity with the broad epistemological shifts of the early modern period in the context of a transformative Atlantic world. More importantly however, for intellectual historians Native Tongues surely will prove valuable in future attempts to, not only wrestle with race as a social construction, but with our ability to historically evaluate and understand how socially constituted categories underscored oppression and colonialism, more generally.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. In the realms of historiography and the semantics of language: studies on lexicons and syllabaries by scholars such as Philip Round, Joshua David Bellin, and Sarah Rivett (including both their previous and forthcoming books) may or may not elucidate Harvey’s arguments. Rivett, for instance, focused primarily, but not exclusively, on Eastern Woodland Algonquian dialect lexicons. Harvey’s book offered limited comparative assessment between “language branches” and certain dialects of that particular language branch, regardless of a critical examination of lexical or even legible provenance. But again, prospective publications may or may not elaborate on his contentions. Sincerely learned much from the book and review.

  2. Noumenon may or may not transcend nomenclature as a sincere philosophy of the thing, but an accurate spelling of Professor Round’s first name is, in all regards, Phillip. Many apologies.

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