The Fieldwork Encounter and the Colonized Voice of Indigeneity
by Michael Silverstein
The essay begins…
Ethnographic and linguistic fieldwork generates inscriptions of various sorts and, in our contemporary multimedia world, in various modalities as well. A mode of Amerindianist fieldwork rendered canonical by Franz Boas and his students centers on native language texts taken down from dictation-speed informant speech and later translated and published in bilingual editions. In this philological enterprise on behalf of the otherwise unlettered, the goal was to establish through publication a reliable corpus bespeaking a culture’s—not merely an individual’s—cosmogony and reflexive historical consciousness, its members’ view of their sociocultural universe, no less than to provide sufficient primary verbal material for an inductive grammatical analysis of the indigenous language of the corpus of texts.
But of course even such a situation, bringing together a dictating speaker and a transcribing anthropological amanuensis, is a two-party discursive interaction. It is a social event in which individuals inhabit role relationships based on parameters of identity from which they are, as we say, relationally “recruited” to their roles in institutional circumstances that depend on wider background forces of sociohistorical reality. So the dictated material must perforce be read as a text precipitated in and pointing to (“indexing”) a complex and multilayered interactional context, to be treated no differently in this respect from the transcripts we make these days from videotaped interactions for purposes of sociological and anthropological analysis of their dynamics. In such analysis, we understand the self-contextualizing power of discourse to be semiotically parallel to that of pantomime. In both, much of what is interpretable in the interval of multiparty engagement is built up rom individual gestural acts and from the sequencing and chunking, the metricalization, of whole segments of behavior, whether verbal or kinesic, from which an addressee must reconstruct a cultural context in which the textual form—gradually coming, over space-time, to be “entextualized,” that is, rendered coherent as text—comes to make cultural sense (and by making cultural sense, affords one or more interpretations of what is going on). The relationship of any feature of text to its cultural context is, semiotically speaking, dynamically indexical; at every instant, such features of talk or movement point to an already in-play sociocultural frame and to one about-to-come-into-being, the first licensing the “appropriateness” of the occurrence of some textual feature, the second entailed in-and-by its very occurrence. The second is the so-called performative meaningfulness of what speakers do with words (as with kinesic motions), the social acts we understand their performance will have effected as social actors of particular characteristics in particular circumstances. Such indexical reading is central to discerning a generationally new kind of historical consciousness and hence indigenous voice in the long-ago event of fieldwork encounter on which I concentrate.
Peter McGuff, aged about thirty in the summer of 1905 and a speaker of Kiksht, the easternmost Chinookan language along the Columbia River—as well as of Klickitat Sahaptin and English—dictated a short text to the anthropologist Edward Sapir that the latter published in 1909 in Wishram Texts. A doctoral student working under Boas at Columbia University, Sapir published the text along with much other material spoken by far older speakers, principally Louis Simpson, then, in 1905, aged about seventy-five. As someone who has also done fieldwork on the language, in the 1960s and 1970s with a number of Kiksht speakers roughly of Mr. McGuff’s generation and life experiences, I have returned to this text several times in relation to the state of the language as I observed it now forty and more years ago, closer indeed to Mr. McGuff’s usage than to Mr. Simpson’s. I would like here to focus attention upon a grammatical hapax legomenon in Mr. McGuff’s dictation, a unique textual occurrence in the whole Sapir collection in fact, and to contextualize its occurrence in respect of the McGuff-Sapir interaction and what it seems to reveal about Mr. McGuff’s generational experience in the rapidly encroaching colonial context of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Native American reservation life. Continue reading …
This essay follows the indexical (context-indicating) clues of linguistic form in spoken Kiksht (Wasco-Wishram Chinookan) and reconstructs the emerging poetic or metrical structures of a long-ago Kiksht-mediated encounter during anthropological linguistic fieldwork, memorialized in a published text. In this way we can hear something of the voice of a Native American speaker coming to grips with the impact of social and cultural change in the American settler state of the turn of the twentieth century.
MICHAEL SILVERSTEIN serves as Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Psychology at the University of Chicago, where he is also Director of the Center for the Study of Communication and Society. In addition to long-term work on indigenous languages and cultures of northwestern North America and of northwestern Australia, with Michael Lempert he has published Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency (Indiana University Press, 2012).