In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

96 reviews Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing, and Representation in North American Indian Texts, by David Murray. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1991. $14.50 (paper). Critical theory comes to Indian Country. Not for the first time. Gerald Vizenor's 1989 collection Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literature (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press) includes a number of excellent essays with clear theoretical designs. Murray's book employs Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogics "as an important potential resource in countering the idea of self-sealing discourses in which Said and Foucault might potentially trap us." Murray sets up the main argument of his study, thus: "This book deals with a very wide range of texts each of which raises the question, in its own way, of the representation and expression of Indian difference within the available intellectual and artistic discourse of the time, and my intention is to show the instability of each of these overlapping discourses, and how they can be dialogised by using one discourse against another, or by locating points of contradiction or hesitation in the text" (3). The strength of Forked Tongues lies in the range of Indian texts considered, and the constant attention to the issues of power and language in their cultural contexts. Murray discusses the importance early Christian missionaries placed on learning Indain languages in order to convert them to Christianity, which soon gave way to Indian translators who were effaced into a myth of "transparent intelligibility"—when they weren't being negatively stereotyped for inarticulateness —while in fact demonstrating a linguistic sophistication greater than those whites who patronized them. Murray examines such "texts" as Indian sign languages and pictograms. He extends Derrida's deconstructive reading (in OfGrammatology) of Rousseau's ideas about a "natural language " to nineteenth-century assumptions about the "natural" simplicity and concreteness of Indian sign and pictogram languages in terms of natural vs. conventional, savage vs. civilised; such oppositions simply break down, as does the "us" vs. "them" ideology that gave rise to such categories. Particularly apt in this argument is Murray's discussion of the Cherokee Sequoyah's invention in 182 1 of a written syllabary for the Cherokee language which, in a matter of months, thousands of Cherokees had learned to read and write. So much for the inherent limitations in Indian language and mentality that informed, if this is the correct word, nineteenth-century discussions of these topics. In a chapter on "Indian Speech and Speeches," Murray introduces yet another voice of texts he is developing—the "eloquence" of speeches by Indian chiefs, written by whites usually from translations of effected native translators for a predominantly white audience. The "eloquence" of these printed speeches neatly promoted the front half of the "Noble Savage" stereotype, while at the same time explaining it as poetic compensation for the lack of abstraction in primitive Indian thinking. It was in any case seen in pathetic terms as a "natural eloquence" that was dying off as surely as the Indians themselves. Readers might want to supplement Murray's discussion of this process with Rudolf Kaiser's fascinating account of the transformations of Chief Seattle's speech, first given in the early 1850's, from the Victorian prose of its first transcriber to the ecological manifesto now often printed as Seattle's that was in fact written in 1970-7 1 for a television documentary ("Chief Seattle's Speech(es): American Origins and European Reception," in Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, eds., Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature [Berkeley, 1987], (497-536). reviews 97 Readers interested in the remarkable flourishing of contemporary Native American fiction will be largely disappointed in Murray's discussion of the works of N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and James Welch. These writers are treated in a chapter entitled "Autobiography and Authorship: Identity and Unity," which describes the multi-voiced, hybrid nature of those Indian autobiographies that in fact are collaborative efforts of an Indian subject, white editor or anthropologist, and often another Indian serving as translator. The most well-known is John Neihart's Black Elk Speaks. Murray makes no clear connection between the problematics of these texts and the writings of...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 96-97
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.