- Colonialism, Literacies, and Languages
In the last decade or so, historians have produced remarkable and varied scholarship on the Native peoples of North America in the first centuries of colonization. Among the most important historiographic themes has been the increasing prominence of linguistic issues. An excellent anthology edited by Edward G. Gray and Norman Fiering brought together an interdisciplinary survey of language encounters throughout the continent. James H. Merrell has focused our attention on multilingual go-betweens who knit together Native and colonial communities in the mid-Atlantic, and done much to illuminate diplomatic interpretation and recording in Native-white treaties, while Alejandra Dubcovsky, focusing on the Southeast, has demonstrated the extent to which Native communication networks functioned autonomously from Euro-Americans. Examining religious translation, David J. Silverman and Tracy Neal Leavelle have explained how Native people used their languages to mediate adaptation of Protestant and Catholic varieties of Christianity, allowing the religiously interested to make sense of new ideas through associations with traditional beliefs and practices. Language learning, however, could produce deepening lines of difference as much as the possibility of accommodation, as the work of Merrell and Robert Michael Morrissey has suggested. Such work has increased our understanding of communication, interpretation, and translation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and provided new ways to examine varied Native responses to political, economic, and cultural pressures that echoed across time and place.1
Providing ways to understand Native writing, especially from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, however, has been a particular contribution of literary critics. Leading the way have been Native scholars who have called [End Page 583] attention to the role of language, literacy, and literary practices in longstanding Native efforts to achieve aspects of cultural and political self-determination. Two such authors, Robert Allen Warrior (Osage) and Scott Richard Lyons (Leech Lake Ojibwe), describe that, respectively, as “intellectual sovereignty” and “rhetorical sovereignty.”2 Whereas earlier work, including Hilary Wyss’ first book, frequently focused on questions of culture and identity, newer work has highlighted Native writing that aimed to maintain control of lands and resources by challenging white ideas and by utilizing Native networks, as the respective work of Maureen Konkle and Lisa Brooks (Abenaki) has explained. This approach has emerged just as several scholars—including the team of Wyss and Kristina Bross—have dramatically expanded the accessibility of Native texts from early America, and as increasing numbers of scholars have elucidated the diverse Native graphic systems and communicative practices that preceded colonization. These “literacies,” as they are increasingly identified to convey their semantic capabilities and to undo an old, powerful, colonialist binary, shaped Native adaptations of alphabetic and syllabic literacy. Native reading and writing took place, in Matt Cohen’s evocative phrase, in a “networked wilderness” in the early phases of intercultural communication; but by the second half of the nineteenth century, the U.S. government sought to eliminate Native languages and impose English (“America’s Second Tongue,” in the words of Ruth Spack) through compulsory and abusive boarding schools. Native language revitalization efforts today confront that legacy and continuing assimilationist pressures.3
The books under review situate themselves in these histories and historiographies while blending the close readings commonly associated with literary criticism and insights from history-of-the-book scholarship that stress reading practices. Each demonstrate the importance of literacies for battling Euro-American racial ideologies and legal systems, with Removable Type most concerned with reading and publishing in Native and European languages as assertions of autonomy, and with English Letters and Indian Literacies focusing on English-literate Native peoples’ use of writing at the intersection of faith and power. Both books are very good, alert to Native attempts to harness innovation for preservation and sensitive to the physical and cultural violence that shaped individuals’ and...