Racial Science and Indian Resistance.
Robert Lawrence Gunn's Ethnology and Empire examines the "scenarios of troubled linguistic exchange and communicative misrecognition" that "echo routinely across the shifting borderlands and contact zones of American history" (3). Exploring the emergence of ethnology, and in particular ethnological linguistics, as sciences in the early nineteenth century, Gunn argues that "relays between developing theories of Native American languages, works of fiction, travel and captivity narratives, and the political and communication networks of Native peoples gave imaginative shape to U.S. expansionist activity and federal policy in the western borderlands" (4-5). While Gunn's claim that "the early-nineteenth-century practice of Native linguistic comparison" represents a significant "paradigm for the construction of racial difference" (7) will surprise no one familiar with current trends in American studies, his attempt to situate ethnological linguistics in the emergent spaces of cultural contact offers a valuable addition to the scholarship on nationalism and indigenous resistance.
Gunn's investigation of these issues gets off to a slow start, with a lengthy first chapter that sketches the outlines of early nineteenth-century ethnolinguistics. Covering such pioneers in the field as Albert Gallatin, Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, Alexander von Humboldt, and John Heckewelder, Gunn demonstrates that "the emergence of comparative philology represents a key moment of disciplinary consolidation for the research practices of ethnology in North America in the 1810s and 1820s" (42). Though the historical reconstruction in this chapter is quite exceptional, the conclusions drawn from the source materials are rather predictable, with Gunn insisting that "linguistic questions are, inevitably, racially valenced" (44) and that, in the specific literary example of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking novels, "themes of race" are developed "in light of language, and language in light of race" (49). One fears at this early point that Gunn is merely planning to add to the already overburdened body of American literary scholarship in which anything and everything becomes proof of the rise, growth, and calcification of U.S. internal colonialism.
Thus it is refreshing to find that, in later chapters, Gunn's interest lies less in providing a survey of linguistic imperialism than in isolating unique instances of intercultural encounter that demonstrate the "highly unstable" (43) nature of such contacts. His second chapter, for example, focuses on the Long Expedition of 1819-1821 to suggest how Plains Indian languages, and in particular Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), discomfited "a linguistic model that oscillated in its imagination between orality and print and failed largely to consider the embodied medium of Native expressive culture" (51). In this intriguing chapter, Gunn proposes a "largely uncontemplated truth of the contact scenario: the early American field practice of Indian linguistics is haunted by Indian Sign Language and is significantly complicated by its misrecognition of it" (63). Extending this insight in the following chapters, Gunn seeks to recover a clandestine, coded site of indigenous resistance to U.S. territorial expansion, whereby "the widespread practice of Indian sign language offers a compelling opportunity to reimagine Native political alignments along a shifting international borderland that remained largely opaque to Euro-American eyes in the 1820s" (84). One of the most promising--if necessarily speculative--examples of the role sign language plays in indigenous resistance movements occurs in Gunn's third chapter, which couples the controversial Indian captive John Dunn Hunter with the pan-Indianism of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. Discussing the famous 1810 meeting at Vincennes between Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison, Gunn writes that the Shawnee leader "was almost certainly interjecting" his opposition to Harrison's arguments "in sign language--a choice that ensured his objections could be known by all of those Native Americans present within and out of earshot" (106). As a scholar deeply interested in the multiple means by which a pan-tribal consciousness emerges and spreads in the early nineteenth century, I found this chapter particularly valuable, its insights well worth pursuing in other instances of Native American resistance to Euro-American colonialism. How, one wonders, might our understanding of contact scenarios be challenged and changed by reading them in light of Gunn's arguments? How might such well-known Native American figures as Samson Occom, William Apess, George Copway, Catharine Brown, Elias Boudinot, Sarah Winnemucca (whom Gunn considers in a short concluding chapter), and others be re-envisioned if we entertained the possibility of excavating the many forms of expression, embodied as well as alphabetic, in their lives and works?
While the arguments of Ethnology and Empire give rise to such exciting prospects, I find the book's vitality and viability compromised somewhat by its excessive use of scholarly jargon. It can be funny to watch Gunn chastise fellow borderlands scholar Walter D. Mignolo for overindulging in "theoretical neologisms" just before he himself produces the following clunker: "Mignolo thematizes in his use of critical language a potent decolonizing agenda of hegemonic displacement that anticipates an emergent language of subaltern resistance to legacy forms of colonial and imperial action" (11). More often, however, Gunn's overreliance on disciplinary buzzwords is simply tedious, as in the following breathless and head-scratching utterance:
a 'literary cryptolinguistics' also serves as a fair description of the kind of assemblage I want to sketch here, one that rethinks traditional understandings of the network by resituating literary and manual discourses in reference to emergent philosophies of racial hierarchy and Native systems of communication that encode culturally specific conventions and political histories, along what might be thought of as the hidden grammatical axes of a shifting borderlands. (57)
Such inscrutable locutions showcase the worst excesses of contemporary literary scholarship, which seems at times determined to requite those outside the academy who question its value by specializing itself out of existence. Though it's perhaps unfair to fault any particular book for following a trend that's practically required for publication in the field, one might expect a study of the relationship between language and power to be more sensitive to the relations of power implicit in its own language. Gunn has something very worthwhile--even indispensable--to say, and I wish he had said it in a way that was accessible to a larger pool of potential readers.
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|Author:||Bellin, Joshua David|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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