The Hum of Routine: Issues for the Study of Early American Indian Print Culture: A Response to Phillip H. Round
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The Hum of Routine:
Issues for the Study of Early American Indian Print Culture: A Response to Phillip H. Round

It was good to hear that Phillip Round is writing a history of the book in Indian country, and I am delighted to see this early installment of his project.

Sequoyah's syllabary led to the Cherokee Phoenix in 1828, as Round notes, but the Cherokee Phoenix (in its first version) did not last long, amid the pressure for removal. Indeed, the trajectory of Indian print culture has a good deal to do with land, and the European invasion and the history of treaties intensified the role of land in Indian self-consciousness. Hendrick Aupaumut, for example, a Mahican sachem who served as a captain in the American revolutionary army, led a delegation of Mahicans to the Indiana Territory in 1803 to persuade their Delaware relatives to take up alphabetic literacy and sign a treaty. Through "what our white brothers call A B C," he told the Delawares, "I and my nation have found many advantages; among other things our white brothers cannot so easily cheat us now with regard to our land affairs" (469). Just as many non-Indians used writing and print culture in treaties, legislatures, and courts to swindle Indian people out of their land, so Indians sometimes turned to the same technologies and venues to save their land and, through land, to help sustain their cultures.

In short, to think about early Indian print culture it may help to think about how print culture worked both to colonize and to resist colonization. Still, that is not enough, for life and land are not [End Page 290] all about agency and resistance. If we are to study early Indian print culture, we can also draw on a sense of what Round calls "the everyday" and what I will call the ordinariness of print culture in Indian life, the ways that print culture absorbs and expresses not the exotic or the hybrid but instead the hum of routine.

In this context, I would like to build on the story that Round tells to pose a series of issues for the study of early Indian print culture. To start, we need to think about language. For example, a considerable body of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Indian writing survives in the Massachusett language, mostly about land ownership.1 Farther west, a century or more before Sequoyah, central Algonquin peoples picked up on French writing and developed their own writing systems.2 But without print, their script, like the Massachusett writings, remained exceptional. By 1849, however, there were enough printed works in Indian languages, not counting newspapers, for Henry Schoolcraft, who was sometimes called—with patriarchal exaggeration—the father of American ethnography, to catalog them in a bibliography. No doubt far from complete, his list nevertheless ran to 139 items.3

To study early Indian print culture thus means to consider a good number of issues: Indians' and non-Indians' use of Indian languages; Indians' use of English and other previously non Indian languages; whether people printed the languages they used; how print addressed linguistic variation; how well writers, whatever their race, knew the languages they used (an intriguing question for translators and for David Cusick); Indian dialects of English, including their relation to class; and what power relations Indians' use of language expressed or encouraged. These issues get complicated. For example, when Schoolcraft's brother-in-law George Johnston published a book of Episcopal prayers in 1844, he "calculated to suit both the Chippeway and Ottowa dialects" (26), which could help hold related peoples together through print. To take just one more example, the first known, printed literary writing by an American Indian is a 1679 elegy by a Harvard student known only as Eleazar and written in Latin and Greek.4

Through the mid-nineteenth century, many transcriptions and translations of Indian songs were printed, but rarely with scores and of course never with recorded music. Nor were they accompanied by dance, ritual, or other features of performance that often surround songs. Stories were printed, especially under Schoolcraft's name, with little or no acknowledgement...