Sean Harvey is Assistant Professor of History at Seton Hall University. This interview is based on his new book Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation (Harvard University Press, January 2015).
JF: What led you to write Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation?
SH: I started out intending to write an intellectual biography of Albert Gallatin, a figure prominent in the political and diplomatic history of the early republic. Inspired by Drew McCoy’s Last of the Fathers, I chose to begin my research with his retirement, by which time Gallatin had become a prominent ethnologist, so I started with his extensive correspondence with a prominent philologist, Peter S. Du Ponceau. Every letter I read seemed to prompt a dozen new questions, but I was not finding satisfying answers in the existing secondary literature to a couple of the most important ones: what role, if any, did knowledge about Native languages play in U.S. colonialism, and what place, if any, did that knowledge have in developing notions of race. Gallatin quickly became but one part in a study that centered those questions.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation?
SH: Native Tongues argues that knowledge of Native languages played a crucial role in several distinct facets of colonialism, including trade, missionary work, diplomacy, and administration, and that understandings of Native languages—among scholars, missionaries, officials, and the broader public—was central to the construction of savagery as a concept that justified dispossession, removal, confinement, and efforts toward cultural (including linguistic) eradication. Assumptions about language reflecting and perhaps shaping thought and about similarities in sounds, words, and grammatical forms indicating the shared ancestry of speakers, in turn, gave rise after 1820 to a racialized conception of Native languages that fused psychology and descent, but which gradually fragmented in the face of physical ethnologists’ sustained criticisms and philologists’ increasing understanding of the cultural divergence among speakers of related languages.
SH: I think Native Tongues makes three important contributions. First, it adds to our understanding of the ways in which notions of race, especially those directed at Indians, were built upon far more than phenotype. Second, it traces the interconnections between missionaries, private scholars, learned societies, and federal officials and agencies in creating and using knowledge of Native languages for the administration of colonialism. Third, it highlights the centrality of Native people (as tutors and as philologists in their own right) to whites’ knowledge of Native languages and, thus, to the production of knowledge about race.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JF: What is your next project?