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  • Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation by Sean P. Harvey
  • Diane Krumrey
Sean P. Harvey, Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation. Cambridge, ma: Harvard UP, 2015. 338 pp. Cloth, $39.95.

Native Tongues is a cultural history that recounts the impact of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century linguistic theories of Native American languages on the development of European American ideas of race. Sean P. Harvey is at pains to reveal and question colonialist ideas of linguistic determinism. He documents how American philologists studied Native American languages to learn whether Native [End Page 107] peoples and whites shared a common ancestor, whether Native peoples could be civilized, and what could be predicted about the "Indian mind" through Indian languages. Refreshingly, he includes research on the perspective of Native missionaries and translators who attempted to influence the debate. In Native Tongues we see that both Native peoples and European Americans harbored negative impressions of each others' speech and language. Harvey's study of the development of linguistic colonialism through the interaction of Natives and whites underscores the significance of language in the continuing American practices of colonialism from western expansion to today.

Harvey begins with an admirable digest of European American language theory as it evolved from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century and shifted to accommodate the discovery and study of American languages. He contends that it was not until the rise of nineteenth-century philology that the notion of language became racialized. Previously, the languages of America had been seen simply as "savage languages," that is, under a geographic or nationalist light. The interlocking interests of scholarship, missionary imperatives, and congressional oversight influenced each other, however, instantiating colonialist assumptions of the barrenness of Native languages. While other scholars have written about the history of American philology or language-based colonialism, Harvey is the first to clearly map how these intellectual, religious, and government projects interacted and influenced each other over the years. Invariably, theories of linguistic difference enabled the justification of European American beliefs of intellectual superiority. Thus, while the groundbreaking philological work of John G. Heckewelder and Pierre Du Ponceau increased knowledge and respect for Indian languages in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Lewis G. Cass, then governor of Michigan Territory, angrily dismissed their research and insisted that the Native intellect was inferior. This resulted in a furor that absorbed the entire ante-bellum American intellectual community and spilled over into popular journals. Later, as secretary of war, Lewis Cass commissioned and heavily promoted other research, including that of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, to defend government policies of containment and language eradication. Even the popular readership came to believe that [End Page 108] the key to "the Indian mind" lay in Native Americans' language and speech. Ironically, the greatest interest in preserving Native American language and myth occurred at the height of the removals. Research in Native languages was called upon to either attack or buttress Indian removal policy as well as to preserve the disappearing languages. As philologists identified and described the different language groups, administrative agencies used this knowledge to place Indigenous nations on reservations in convenient groups based on language similarities. Even as physical ethnology began to eclipse philology in the latter half of the nineteenth century (in itself a fascinating story that Harvey outlines), a belief that Native languages could not convey civilized ideas drove programs of language eradication.

Native Tongues establishes that the intellectual histories of early America reveal, from the beginning, a preoccupation with language differences in the formation of religious, philosophical, and nationalist discussions, examining the impact of these theories and beliefs on frontier encounters up through the early reservation period. Harvey analyzes the perceived cultural differences in speech performance, rhetorical style, gestures, and sign language, substantiating his thesis with a convincing array of historical and textual evidence in the writings of missionaries, philologists, explorers, and federal officials. Our culture has internalized the belief that language reveals the moral and intellectual characteristics of its speakers.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of this solidly researched and carefully reasoned volume is its ability to trace how a cultural idea such as racial difference is...


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pp. 107-109
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