Recording the Native Americas


“Recording the Native Americas: Indigenous Rhetorics and the Politics of Language.”
Graduate Student Summer Institute, Newberry Consortium in American Indian Studies
(Team-taught with Ellen Cushman, Professor of English and American Indian Studies, Michigan State University)

Seminar Description
From textile designs, to wampum, tocapus, quipus, glyphs, and other expressions of writing, indigenous peoples have long recorded their lives and ways using material, performative and symbolic systems. This month-long seminar focuses on the visual and linguistic expressions of indigenous symbolic systems as a key to unlocking their lasting cultural, historical, and social impact. How do these systems do their representational work? What impact did/do these have for the peoples who use(d) them? How do these communication systems mitigate the influence of the written letter and pressure the (Latin)American Indians to become “civilized others” through the use of the Roman alphabet?

Departing from typical constructions of systems of communication and the notions of “literacy” at large, this seminar examines the relationship between Indigenous languages of the Americas and the politics of their writing before and after the arrival of the Europeans in 1492. This seminar explores scholarship in native American, indigenous language, and studies of colonialism with three questions in mind: (a) how has the acquisition of alphabetic script impacted (Latin) American indigenous communities, primarily its effects on identities, languages, and cultural institutions;(b) what knowledge is produced today about these communities and their changing responses to what they consider local and global languages and identities; and (c) how have indigenous communities used global networks to advance their own ideas regarding cultural maintenance and language preservation?

Framed in ongoing discussions of decolonizing thought, we discuss several forms of writing, record keeping and representational systems, tracing the long history of meaning making in the Americas. We pay special attention to Andean and Iroquoian systems of representation as examples of key moments of resistance to the alphabetic influence and the civilizing force of the letter. Along the way, we highlight the methodological difficulties of removing an alphabetic lens to see writing systems in their own right.

While primarily drawing upon the Newberry’s extensive collections, especially the Edward Ayer and the Everett Graff collections, we visit the Field Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, to contextualize Americas Indigenous writing and literacy in the larger America and global contexts of the history of writing.

We encourage applicants interested in indigenous meaning making practices no matter the discipline: Humanities students can find ample opportunity to study visual, material, and symbolic representations; History students can explore the tensions of colonial and indigenous struggles for making and disseminating knowledge; and archeology and Anthropology students will be introduced to a wide range of material forms of representation and will explore their value; students of English, Linguistics, American Studies, and Latin American Studies will have the opportunity to study visual and written rhetorical expression of Indigenous authors across the hemisphere and find overlooked links among their works.

The politics of language recording: preservation, extinction and transformation
Oral versus written (hi)stories
Indigenous systems of communication: glyphs, textiles and letters
Indigenous mediators: translators, interpreters, mixed-blood and ladino
Writing, power and resistance: Indigenous genealogies
Indian languages, alphabetic script and digital media

Learning Goals
At the end of this seminar the students should be able to:
 Survey the disciplinary conversations related to theories and scholarship of indigenous representational systems
2. Consider the cultural, historical, and ideological nature of representational systems in the Americas
3. Develop data set, analysis, and methods for archival study

Institute Objectives
 Work in collaboration to forward and develop our research goals
 Discuss and reflect on scholarly conversations on the theme
 Apply methods of archival research to projects
 Produce an original scholarly work of publishable quality
 Share project findings in light of the theme of the institute and respective disciplinary conversations