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Reviewed by:
  • Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing & Representation in North American Indian Texts
  • M.e. Sokolik
Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing & Representation in North American Indian Texts, by David Murray. Indiana UP, 1991.

The Dictionary of Americanisms states that the phrase “forked tongue” is “used in imitation of Indian speech, to mean a lying tongue, a false tongue.” Thus, the choice of Forked Tongues as a title for this volume is particularly apt, as the author examines the Native American “voice” as it is represented and misrepresented in various texts.

Each chapter reads as a fairly autonomous essay, and treats a specific question. Chapter 1, “Translation,” briefly addresses some of the perceptions and problems with the task of translation. Also illustrated are the ideologies inherent in the various attitudes towards translation, within their historical settings. The author argues that the power relationships that existed at different points in time between white and Native are borne out in these changing attitudes toward translation. Picking up this thread of reasoning, Chapter 2, “Language,” examines several discussions of Native American language, in particular the nineteenth century beliefs about “primitive” languages.

The third chapter, “Indian Speech and Speeches,” shows how the beliefs of various times influenced the representation of Native American speeches. Foremost is the concept of the “Noble Savage,” and the popularity of “surrender and protest speeches” by Native Americans. For example, Murray points out that in Robert Rogers’ Ponteach: or The Savages of America (1766), when Pontiac is “confronted by swindling whites, he asserts his independence and nobility in iambic pentameters” (37).

The next chapter, “Christian Indians: Samson Occom and William Apes,” discusses primarily the letters of these two men, and their relationships with their white benefactors, as well as their Native and white audiences. Murray here resumes a piece of his earlier argument regarding power relationships between Natives and whites. Rather than seeing these Native-authored letters as more “authentic” expressions of the individual voice, he points out that anything published at the time (or even now?) was “likely to reflect the tastes of a white audience, and conform to a large extent to what at least some of them thought . . . was appropriate for an Indian to write” (57).

The fifth chapter, “Autobiography and Authorship: Identity and Unity,” points out that most early autobiographies written by natives were typically collaborations, rather than a solo work of self-expression. This collaboration involved the subject, the editor or anthropologist, and often another Native American acting as translator. The result then, he argues, is a multi-voiced product. Although the anthropologist typically has tried to play down his or her own role in the transmission of the text, it is here that we are faced with the eternal paradox of objectivity in reporting. He also examines several more modern autobiographies, and how they fit into various social and political “movements,” for example, the reprinting of Black Elk Speaks in the 1960s, in response to “the growing counter-cultural predilection for the irrational, supernatural and primitive [which] led to an increasing interest in, and idealisation of, Indian culture. Black Elk Speaks seemed to offer ecological awareness, mind- expanding visions and an indictment of white American civilisation. . . .” (72).

The next chapter, “Grizzly Woman and her Interpreters,” looks at the representation of myth within ethnography by focusing on the myth of Grizzly Woman. Murray here examines the various analyses done by Boas, Levi-Strauss, Hymes, and so forth, and how they fit into a “model of cultural and interpretive totality, and of rhetorical strategies in the making of ethnographic texts” (4). In this chapter as well, the author looks at, from various points of view, the methodologies of collecting and reporting field data and how they were shaped by ideology. On the one hand is Melville Jacobs’ criticism of his mentor, Boas. Jacobs felt that because Boas did not pursue theory, he had failed to collect “many necessary things” from the field, due to a “lack of concern with devising fresh scientific procedures. . . .” (110). On the other hand, we have James Clifford presenting Levi-Strauss’ impulse with collecting and translating as “a way of rediscovering a lost totality” (123).

Finally, in “Dialogues and Dialogics,” the author examines the potential...

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