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  • Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation by Sean P. Harvey
  • Phillip Round (bio)

Native American language, Race, Philology, Linguistics, Ethnology

Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation. By Sean P. Harvey. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. 338. Cloth, $39.95.)

Writing in the early decades of the twentieth century, eminent linguist Edward Sapir observed, ‘‘if we can once thoroughly convince ourselves that race . . . is supremely indifferent to the history of languages . . . we shall have gained a viewpoint . . . that quite refuses to be taken in by . . . Anglo-Saxondom, Teutonism and the Latin genius.’’1 Sapir could speak with such authority because he enjoyed a unique perspective on the subject. His view was born of thirty-five years of field work in Native American languages and a healthy skepticism derived from living through the late nineteenth century’s morass of racialist nationalisms—both in his native Germany and his adopted country, the United States.

Native Tongues examines the nineteenth-century American context for the racialization of linguistics Sapir describes, pointing to the rise of the ‘‘New Philology’’—a methodology in language study that moved beyond word lists and etymologies to examine deep grammatical structures—as a potent force in an emergent nationalist discourse that sought to forge a link between Native Americans and the European settler state though recourse to histories of the origins and development of Indian languages.

Over the course of six chapters, Sean P. Harvey fruitfully broadens previous historiography on the creation of race-based nationalisms in America by pointing out that linguistic approaches to the issue were at the center of most debates about race, and that philology supported [End Page 187] contradictory claims about the antiquity of Native peoples, their origins, and their moral characters. Harvey casts his net widely and brings sometimes-overlooked figures into the mix with the more usual suspects. Along with John Eliot, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Smith Barton, Albert Gallatin, and Pierre Du Ponceau, Harvey usefully considers Native conceptions of language origin. In Native Tongues, we hear what Mohawks like John Norton felt about linguistic affinities between different tribal communities, and what Tuscarora writer David Cusick thought about Iroquois stories of the origin of language.

In Harvey’s reading of the role that New Philology played in nation formation and westward expansion, linguistic theories that elevated Indian eloquence to ‘‘nobility’’ and sought thereby to derive benefit for Europeans living in the Americas (think Jefferson’s defense of the Delaware leader, Logan) ebbed at times of border conflict and national growing pains. Thus the War of 1812 coincided with a turning away from etymology in favor of language theories that justified U.S. expansion as civilizing the savagery inherent in Native languages. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Harvey explains, Du Ponceau’s celebration of the complexity of Native language grammars did battle with such opposing views during times of shifts in Indian policy and land-grabbing. If Du Ponceau’s grammar-based philology offered a more sophisticated and nuanced view of Native peoples than did the etymological studies of the past, it did so in a polarized cultural field where would-be philanthropists seized on it as proof of the Indians’ civilizing potential, while apologists for Indian removal embraced it as evidence of the indigenous communities’ fundamental and alien ‘‘difference.’’

After the Civil War, Native American linguistic studies moved increasingly toward professionalization and popularization—all with the support of the federal government. Between 1865 and 1893, Harvey contends, an ever-growing pressure from physical ethnographers pushed linguists to face the fact that ‘‘understanding of language as a crucial component in an expansive, extra-biological understanding of race’’ (222). In this context, John Wesley Powell’s successful lobbying of Congress for the establishment of the Bureau of Ethnology in 1879 represents a critical turning point in American efforts to use knowledge of Indian languages to construct a more efficient system of colonialism and to clarify the relationship between racial difference and language, genealogy, and linguistic change. Harvey’s illuminating discussion of how Powell’s sixteen-by-twelve-foot ‘‘Map of the Linguistic Stocks of the American Indians’’ [End Page 188...


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pp. 187-189
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