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  • Recontextualizing Contact:American Origin Stories
  • Drew Lopenzina (bio)
English Letters and Indian Literacies: Reading, Writing, and New England Missionary Schools, 1750–1830. By Hilary E. Wyss. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 272 pages. $53.96 (cloth).
Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. By Jean M. O’Brien. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 320 pages. $67.50 (cloth). $22.50 (paper).
In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery. By Annette Kolodny. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 448 pages. $80.19 (cloth). $21.49 (paper).
Queequeg’s Coffin: Indigenous Literacies in Early American Literature. By Birgit Brander Rasmussen. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 224 pages. $67.03 (cloth). $21.56 (paper).

Commenting on the presumed origins of writing and language, Jacques Derrida once noted that “it is therefore as if what we call language could have been in its origin and in its end only a moment, an essential but determined mode, a phenomenon, an aspect, a species of writing. And as if it had succeeded in making us forget this, and in willfully misleading us, only in the course of an adventure: as that adventure itself.”1 I am primarily interested in the “as if” qualifier of this passage and its relation to language and writing in America’s colonial period—as if the cultural event we sometimes refer to as “first contact” that seemingly stands at the forefront of the American experience were itself “an essential but determined mode, a phenomenon” and, yes, a “species of writing,” that has willfully misled and enabled us to mistake the archival construction of this adventure for something like the adventure itself.

Despite their ultimate unknowability, the origins to which we assign ultimate value become internalized signposts, shapers of identity, thought, and speech. [End Page 223] But what if the murky beginnings around which we assemble such materials of our understanding have narrowed rather than expanded our engagement with the past? What if they have mapped out instead a kind of palimpsest obscuring other possible and arguably more generative ways to apprehend the world, tracing out artificial lines that fix imagined hierarchies dividing orality from literacy, prehistory from history and, in effect, savagery from civilization?

All the books discussed here, in some fashion, bump up against the tensions created by a series of perceived origins or “firsts,” specifically in relation to the colonial encounter between Europeans and America’s indigenous peoples. These books push against powerful currents of culture and history that have insinuated themselves into the fiber of our national identity, and as such, they collide with not only the fortifications of entrenched belief but the construction of language itself, how we articulate our experience and how such articulations, in turn, continue to define us. The immeasurable damage inflicted by these internalized modes of discourse remains largely invisible to us. We are disinclined to interrogate the conceits that lie behind such normalized concepts as history, contact, civilization, and writing, but as Annette Kolodny asserts in In Search of First Contact, these terms “distort and truncate the long continuum of Native American presence in the Americas” (xv). Or, as the quote at the start of this review suggests, it is almost as if the language Europeans brought to bear on the colonial adventure were a species of writing preceding utterance, a series of ready-made signs, the impressions of which were stamped in indelible ink on the unfolding experiences and orderings of events by which we continue to descry the past.

Removing ourselves from such dominant paradigms has been a key project of indigenous studies for the last two decades—built on an increasing awareness that knowledge itself must undergo decolonization if we are ever to transcend the cultural frameworks that pursue violent legacies of colonialism into our present times. For some recent scholars, this has necessitated a backward glance at origin stories themselves, the many presumed “firsts” that form a kind of bulwark around the dominant psyche, protecting rigid, if subconscious, notions of racial dominance, land tenancy, and cultural legitimacy that collaborate in normalizing troubling violent acts. To break through...


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