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Revitalizing culture through the remnants of colonization

In the summer of 1791, Thomas Jefferson sat with three elderly women of the Unkechaug tribe of Long Island. Convinced that these women were among the last living speakers of Unkechaug, Jefferson transliterated a list of Unkechaug words on the back of an envelope alongside the English translation. The words were fairly universal: animals, plants, body parts, colors, simple verbs, and numbers. The list survives under the title of “Vocabulary of the Unkechaug Indians, 1791″ at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. It is part of a fragmentary “American Indian Vocabulary Collection,” also collected by Jefferson. Most of this collection was destroyed in 1809 when a thief threw a pile of Jefferson’s papers into the James River while searching for something more valuable.

1791 marked Jefferson’s foray into a hobby of American Indian Vocabulary collecting that, while lasting the better part of two decades, never amounted to the scientific evidence that he envisioned: irrefutable proof of the origins of North American native populations. After the incident on the James River, Jefferson let this aspiration die. Only a tiny portion – about 6% – of his linguistic papers was salvaged, dried off, and preserved—albeit mud-splattered and torn—in the American Philosophical Society archives. Even so, Jefferson’s efforts to collect and transliterate complex and primarily oral indigenous languages promoted more concerted efforts by the philologist and third president of the American Philosophical Society, Peter Du Ponceau.

These efforts to collect and preserve American Indian languages have been dismissed by scholars as instruments of colonization—agents of evangelization in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and then as a way of archiving the nation’s past as its indigenous inhabitants were being violently destroyed in the nineteenth century. American Indian language texts also present an interpretive problem. Even with language skills, it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern the accuracy of the transliteration, for the missionaries themselves did not have a firm grasp of how to record words phonetically or how to understand different syntaxes and grammars.

Yet, despite the fragmentary, elusive, and illegible qualities attributed to the archive of American Indian language texts, there is much that can be gleaned from them. What knowledge did the three Unkechaug women transmit to Jefferson in the moment of their 1791 encounter? In what form was this knowledge recorded? What if we reversed our perspective on Jefferson’s “Indian Vocabularies” and instead of viewing them as documents of colonization we saw them as evidence of indigenous interlocution or resistance?

 The language revival projects practiced by linguists and indigenous descendants reverse some of the deleterious effects of colonization.

This is precisely how American Indian language texts have come to be viewed by tribal descendants as well as linguists and scholars working on projects of language recovery. Long Island Indians have recovered a language of which there are no recorded speakers since the early nineteenth century from Jefferson’s “Vocabulary of the Unkechaug Indians, 1791.” Many of the eastern Algonquian languages, long declared “extinct” by linguists, have been reconstructed through colonial texts. Using the library of Massachusett texts left by seventeenth-century missionary John Eliot, Jessie Little Doe Baird has restored Wampanoag (or Wôpanâak) to the language’s ancestral home in southeastern New England. She won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010. Daryl Baldwin received the same honor in 2016 for his work restoring the Miami language and culture.

Colonial archives have been re-purposed, salvaged from their historical role in evangelizing, categorizing, and archiving the indigenous inhabitants of North America. The language revival projects practiced by linguists and indigenous descendants reverse some of the deleterious effects of colonization. Learning to speak the language of one’s ancestors produces a form of “rhetorical sovereignty,” said the the Ojibwe scholar Scott Richard Lyons.

In addition to revitalizing culture in the present, the archive of American Indian language texts reveal forms of rhetorical sovereignty at the moment of their creation. When trying to translate the Bible into Massachusett, John Eliot experienced firsthand the challenges of finding words to match Christianity’s purportedly universal truths. Even when a correspondence could be found, the reception of words across distinct cultures could not be controlled. Languages resist translation. Languages carry with them a cosmos that is not easily eradicated or collapsed into another system of belief. Which is why the vast archive of American Indian Language texts that has been passed down to us from the colonial era enjoys a double life. To be sure, the production of these texts worked in the service of colonization, destroying the languages that the missionaries sought to transliterate, and all in the service of evangelizing or enlisting indigenous people in imperial goals. Yet this archive is also the repository of key forms of indigenous knowledge. It records and preserves remnants of native culture and indigenous language encounters that may have otherwise been lost.

In 1792, Congressman William Vans Murray, working for Thomas Jefferson, interviewed a descendent of the Nanticoke tribe who went by the name Mrs. Mulberry. Mrs. Mulberry steadfastly refused to stick to Jefferson’s script. Rather than adhering to Jefferson’s generic list, Mrs. Mulberry ended up creating a list of words distinct to the Maryland countryside: oyster, back creek, shore, perch, crab, eel, honeysuckle, dogwood marsh. After describing the natural world of her ancestral home, she then narrated recent Nanticoke history through a vocabulary of war: blood, arrows, bows, King, Queen, War, peace, warrior. The revised list that Murray sent to Jefferson resisted the categories that Jefferson sought to impose across a vast array of indigenous tribes. In their place, Mrs. Mulberry recorded in the archive of Americana, and preserved at the American Philosophical Society, knowledge of indigenous land as well as the violence done to that land through a history of colonial warfare. In doing so, she participated in the creation of a colonial archive ripe for reappropriation and revitalization.

Featured image credit: Photograph of Washoe women working by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jonathan

    Exactly how is recording languages in an attempt to preserve a culture an evil act of colonialism?

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