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  • Ethnology and Empire: Languages, Literature, and the Making of the North American Borderlands by Robert Lawrence Gunn
  • Daniel Radus (bio)
Key Words

Languages, Borderlands, Ethnology, Native Americans, Native American languages, Ethnolinguistics

Ethnology and Empire: Languages, Literature, and the Making of the North American Borderlands. By Robert Lawrence Gunn. ( New York: New York University Press, 2015. Pp. 304. Paper, $28.00.)

In late 1846, Hector Lewis Garrard traveled west on the Taos Trail, settling for two months with the Cheyennes. "For pastime," Garrard wrote in his 1850 book Wah-To-Yah and the Taos Trail, "I began a glossary of the Cheyenne tongue" (62). He pointed at objects and, inquiring as to their names, recorded the responses of his hosts. When Garrard later recited their replies, his efforts were "greeted with lively sallies of laughter" (62). Garrard's hosts thought him a "mah-son-ne—'a fool'" not only for his mispronunciations, but also, as Garrard implies, for the confidence he placed in his anthropological endeavors (62). [End Page 172] Though Garrard assumed that his efforts would provide a basis for further intercultural exchange, the reaction of his hosts revealed the foolishness of those beliefs. There was, his hosts' laughter indicated, no connection—linguistic or otherwise—between Garrard's written transcription, the sounds he had made, and the language he had attempted to catalog. For the modern reader, if not for Garrard himself, the foolishness of these beliefs are reinforced further when, after this scene, Garrard recounts of the Cheyennes that "so complete and comprehensive is their mode of communication by signs that they can understand each other without a word being said" (62). In his futile attempt to record the language of his hosts, Garrard had failed to even consider—much less comprehend—the full range of their expressive practices, casting into doubt the utility of the ethnolinguistic enterprise in which he played a small, if illustrative, part.

In Ethnology and Empire, Robert Lawrence Gunn explores stories like Garrard's. "Such scenarios of troubled linguistic exchange and communicative misrecognition," he writes, "echo routinely across the shifting borderlands and contact zones of American history" (3). He focuses in particular on the fluid borderlands of western North America in the first half of the nineteenth century, noting that scenarios of linguistic exchange in this period "contextualize the emergence of ethnological linguistics as both a professionalized research discipline and popular imaginative concern of American literary culture" (4). Emergent "theories of Native American languages," Gunn establishes, acted in concert with "works of fiction, travel and captivity narratives, and the political and communication networks of Native peoples" to structure "U.S. expansionist activity and federal policy" (4–5). Of particular importance to Gunn is how "the early-nineteenth-century practice of Native linguistic comparison" justified imperialist expansion by providing a scientific foundation for the "construction of racial difference," what Gunn calls an "emergent philology of race" (7). Though Ethnology and Empire is, as Gunn asserts, "rooted in the interpretive practices of literary studies," such a diverse array of sources requires a similarly diverse array of methods, among them "Native American and indigenous studies, borderlands history, performance studies, and the history of ideas" (7). Gunn, in the originality of this method, the depth of his archival and historical research, and the inventiveness of his arguments, provides in Ethnology and Empire an essential contribution to our understanding of how ethnolinguistics both served U.S. imperialism and, in its contradictions, [End Page 173] instabilities, and lacunae, offered to indigenous peoples an opportunity to resist its progression and thrall.

In his first chapter, Gunn astutely historicizes the disciplinary emergence of ethnolinguistics, concluding that "linguistic questions" in this period were "inevitably, racially valenced" (44). Though some audiences will find this chapter too summative, in his synthesis of the tortuous and often opaque intellectual histories of ethnolinguistics, Gunn offers to readers an invaluable reference for later research. Scholars will have encountered the ideas and figures that populate this deft reconstruction, though likely only at the margins of their research, and without the context and clarity provided here. Most illuminating is Gunn's thorough description of how the racial valences of ethnolinguistics were "informed by the methods of comparative anatomy...


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