Archiving American diversity

Remarks concluding the smallpox series

The last post in the Smallpox series. Read other posts in the series at this link.

Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis also included the observation and recording of material remains and accounts of those Indigenous nations that could be considered rare or extinct.[1] The task of systematically collecting information on aspects of the physiology, culture, organisation, religion, social, political and medical practices of the groups encountered, illustrated by Jefferson in his instructions, was at the crossroads of multiple time perspectives and multiple purposes. Subject of many historiographical debates, Jefferson’s complex relationship with indigenous people was distinguished by the presence of different and contradictory attitudes in successive moments, between philanthropy, assimilation and removal.[2] Within this path, the very horizon of the Louisiana Purchase has been identified as a turning point in the submission of previous idealistic instances to an idea of removal informed by pragmatic needs, functional to the expansion of the republic.[3]

The compilation of vocabularies of indigenous languages , which correspondents and administrators were asked to collect according to a pre-established form, made the lexicographic and grammatical fact a linguistic pendant of the construction of a Euro-American identity in response to the buffoonish denigrations of the “New World”, which on the one hand also passed through the appropriation and mythographic transposition of indigenous cultures and on the other used the linguistic element as a function of racial hierarchy.[4]

The creation of an archive of knowledge about the past and present of indigenous nations was intended to benefit future memory and studies.[5] Tomorrow’s scientific curiosity would have been able to ascertain the origin of these peoples if sufficient samples were collected to allow comparative analysis.[6]

I have long believed we can never get any information of the ancient history of the Indians, of their descent and filiation, but from a knowledge and comparative view of their languages:[7]

for the study of peoples who do not have alphabetical writing systems and systems of documentation of the past similar to the European one, the recording of oral language production became an essential tool also for the reconstruction of genealogical relationships between groups.

This projection forward in time derived from a clear awareness of the demographic decimation to which many groups had already been subjected, as well as from a process of absorption into Euro-American civilisation seen as ineluctable.[8] Moreover, the very proto-ethnographic curiosity and the desire to compose a picture of the forms and hierarchies of socio-political organisation were clearly functional to this process, “as it may better enable those who may endeavour to civilise and instruct them, to adapt their measures to the existing notions and practices of those on whom they are to operate”.[9] The expedition commanders adopted this perspective, both by comparing different groups along an ideal civilisation scale, and by referring to the completion of that process.[10] The urgent need to document American socio-cultural and linguistic variety takes shape within a scenario in which the possible extinction of real-life speakers could otherwise jeopardise knowledge forever:

It is to be lamented then, very much to be lamented, that we have suffered so many of the Indian tribes already to extinguish […] it would furnish opportunities to those skilled in the languages of the old world to compare them with these, now, or at a future time, and hence to construct the best evidence of the derivation of this part of the human race. [11]

The study itself was reserved for posterity, so that this function of the archive was configured as a scientific practice constitutively halfway between the past of which it intended to collect traces and a future time in which the progress of studies would have brought this systematisation of knowledge to the fulfilment of its raison d’être. A movement of temporal hierarchization was therefore present in a double direction: aimed at the reconstruction of an already unattainable past – surrogate for unavailable historical evidence, and programmatic – projecting its documentation projects into the future.


Notes

[1] T. Jefferson, Life of Captain Lewis, in [Lewis and Clark], History of the expedition, I, pp. vii-xxiii, cit. xvi and xvii.

[2] Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction; Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians; P. S. Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, Charlottesville and London, University Press of Virginia 2000, pp. 28-37.

[3] C. B. Keller, Philanthropy Betrayed: Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Origins of Federal Indian Removal Policy, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 144, 1, 2000, pp. 39-66, especially pp. 41-42, 58-59.

[4] S. P. Harvey, “Must not their languages be savage and barbarous like them?” Philology, Indian removal, and race science, Journal of the Early Republic, 30, 4, 2010, pp. 505-532;.

[5] G. M. Sayre, Jefferson and Native Americans: Policy and Archive, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson, ed. by F. Shuffelton, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2009, pp. 61-72.

[6] Harvey, “Must not their languages”.

[7] Jefferson to Hawkins, Philadelphia, March 14, 1800, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private, ed. by H. A. Washington, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2011, pp. 325-327, cit. 326.

[8] Possible examples from the expedition period include Jefferson’s words about the Cherokee in the 1970s: ‘The chastisement they then received closed the history of their wars, and prepared them for receiving the elements of civilisation, which, zealously inculcated by the present government of the United States, have rendered them an industrious, peaceable, and happy people’, Jefferson, Life of Captain Lewis, viii.

[9] Jefferson, Life of Captain Lewis, xv.

[10] E.g. ‘This chief possesses more firmness, intelligence, and integrity, than any Indian of this country, and he might be rendered highly serviceable in our attempts to civilise the nation’, History of the expedition, I, 159.

[11] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the state of Virginia (1783), Edited and with an Introduction and Notes by William Peden (1954), Chapel Hill and London, University of North Carolina Press 1982, p. 101, italics added. In this sense, the documentation of linguistic evidence, even if it does not significantly act as a corrective or barrier to the process of extinction that it outlines, presents elements of contiguity with practices of ethno-conservationism, trophies and the exhibition of human specimens in the flesh. G. Abbattista, Trophying human ‘otherness’. From Christopher Columbus to contemporary ethno-ecology (fifteenth-twenty first centuries), in Encountering Otherness: Diversities and Transcultural Experiences in Early Modern European Culture, ed. by Abbattista, Trieste, EUT 2011, pp. 19-42.

This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “in the raging time of the small pox”: Il vaiolo e la documentazione dell’alterità americana tra fine Settecento e primo Ottocento, Diciottesimo Secolo, 6 (2021): 67-82, doi: 10.36253/ds-12544; ISSN: 2531-4165. This article is available in full green open access:

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Archiving American diversity," in Geographies of Time, 01/12/2022, https://ian.hypotheses.org/2415.

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

Epidemics, extinctions, Europeans

A new post in the smallpox and American otherness series.

In 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the remains of an Omaha (Mahar) village. Here they learned that four hundred inhabitants, together with the chief Blackbird, were wiped out by smallpox four years earlier.[1] A small hill-like grave site remained, on which the expedition erected a flag.[2] What remained of the Omaha village presented a desolate landscape. Clark noted how the community never recovered; a sign of this was the return to a pre-agricultural subsistence. Here and below, we quote while maintaining the linguistic peculiarities of the handwritten “field notes”, which, especially in Clark’s case, often present peculiarities in the handwriting (we limit the squares to the transcription of those editorial interventions that the editor of the edition in use, Moulton, considered indispensable to the understanding of today’s reader): “The Situation of this Village, now in ruins Siround by enunbl. [innumerable] hosts of grave[s] the ravages of the Small Pox (4 years ago) they follow the Buf: and tend no Corn”,[3]

the ravages of the Small Pox […] has reduced this Nation not exceeding 300 men and left them to the insults of their weaker neighbours which before was glad to be on friendly turms with them – I am told whin this fatal malady was among them they Carried ther franzey to verry extroadinary length, not only of burning their Village, but they put their wives & Children to D[e]ath with a view of their all going together to Some better Countrey – They burry their Dead on the tops of high hills and rais mounds on the top of them, – The cause or way those people took the Small Pox is uncertain, the most Probable from Some other Nation by means of a warparty.[4]

Continue reading “Epidemics, extinctions, Europeans”

Vocabularies, Accounts, (Hi)Stories

Remarks on linguistic historicisation, concluding the Languages and/in time series

By paying close attention to the relationship between the vocabularies and the narrative accounts in travel journals, it is possible to trace the subtle changes gradually taking place in the relationship between the use of written sources and the value placed on direct observation. Writings such as Sagard and Carver’s represent different stages in a process of complex negotiation between first-hand experience as a validating factor of knowledge and pre-existing cultural notions. Far from being a linear process, this negotiation produced different outcomes in each case, making it necessary for an in-depth analysis of each source within its specific cultural and historical context. These early vocabularies are a fascinating example of the thematisation of issues connected to how orality is documented, and of the axiological and temporal hierarchisation of linguistic forms and media, as the Dixon-Beresford account makes particularly evident. Vocabularies also reflect the gradual definition of a system of scientific disciplines from which indigenous American forms of knowledge are excluded. As made plain by Colden and Carver’s reluctant use of French sources, this, in turn, helped to consolidate the idea of a distinct European – and, later, Euro-American – cultural identity and civilisation, notwithstanding the existence of competing imperial projects.

Continue reading “Vocabularies, Accounts, (Hi)Stories”

Lewis and Clark’s Lost Vocabularies

The temporal hierarchisation of the indigenous American other and the Lewis and Clark expedition: a new post in the Languages and/in time series

The endpoint of this survey is one of the most significant collections of indigenous American languages made at the end of the long eighteenth century: it was also the prelude to a whole series of systematic studies, grammars, and dictionaries that would go hand in hand with the establishment of linguistics and lexicography as autonomous academic-scientific disciplines in the nineteenth century. This endpoint was the collection of vocabularies prepared as part of the expedition west of the Mississippi led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark between 1804 and 1806. Promoted by Thomas Jefferson immediately after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the symbolic significance of the Lewis and Clark expedition in North American history can hardly be overestimated.[1]

Continue reading “Lewis and Clark’s Lost Vocabularies”

Qu’il est question d’une langue sauvage

Phrasebooks for European travellers in eighteenth-century North America and the cultural construction of a global Europeanness.

This article explores the vocabularies of Native American languages published as part of the travel accounts written by explorers, traders and colonial policymakers in North America over the eighteenth century. Starting with the renowned Voyages by the Baron de Lahontan, the analysis takes as its endpoint the journals of the famous expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The aim of this study is to foreground what these lexicographic compilations reveal about European encounters with societies categorised as radically different from – and less civilised than – the traveller’s own: an ‘otherness’ sometimes exploited as a mirror and term of comparison that challenged the observer’s ethnocentrism. Drawing on existing scholarship about the cultural history of Euro-American encounters in the modern age, this study puts forward an original analysis of the temporal conceptualisations underpinning vocabularies of ‘savage languages’, in terms of both historical diachronicity and time as a culturally constructed frame of human experience.

This focus on the lists of words and phrases included in travel accounts, journals and relations makes it possible to question the relationship between the recording of linguistic evidence and travel narratives, and explore the complex negotiations between empirical observation and pre-existing cultural categories and stereotypes. A close reading of these often-neglected primary sources helps us to identify recurrent conceptual tropes and assign a central role to the historicisation of the Amerindian within wider processes of cultural construction of a global Europeanness.

Giulia Iannuzzi, “‘Qu’il est question d’une langue sauvage’: Phrasebooks for European Travellers in Eighteenth-Century North America”, History (2021). https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-229X.13138.

Access the full text in open access on the publisher’s website: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1468-229X.13138

Contact me if you wish to receive a pdf.

Lawson, A New Voyage (1709), page 225
John Lawson, A New Voyage North Carolina: Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of that Country (London, 1709), 225. In his Voyage, Lawson inserted a brief vocabulary giving the English translation of words in Tuskeruro (Tuscarora), Pampticough (Pamlico) and Woccon. Copy at John Carter Brown Library.
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