Les Sauvages Américains: Representations of Native Americans in French and English Colonial Literature

Les Sauvages Américains: Representations of Native Americans in French and English Colonial Literature

Les Sauvages Américains: Representations of Native Americans in French and English Colonial Literature

Les Sauvages Américains: Representations of Native Americans in French and English Colonial Literature

Synopsis

Brings French colonial literature into a common context with that from Virginia and New England colonies

Algonquin and Iroquois natives of the American Northeast were described in great detail by colonial explorers who ventured into the region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Beginning with the writings of John Smith and Samuel de Champlain, Gordon Sayre analyzes French and English accounts of Native Americans to reveal the rhetorical codes by which their cultures were represented and the influence that these images of Indians had on colonial and modern American society. By emphasizing the work of Pierre Francois-Xavier Charlevoix, Joseph-Francois Lafitau, and Baron de Lahontan, among others, Sayre highlights the important contribution that French explorers and ethnographers made to colonial literature.

Sayre's interdisciplinary approach draws on anthropology, cultural studies, and literary methodologies. He cautions against dismissing these colonial texts as purveyors of ethnocentric stereotypes, asserting that they offer insights into Native American cultures. Furthermore, early accounts of American Indians reveal Europeans' serious examination of their own customs and values: Sayre demonstrates how encounters with natives' wampum belts, tattoos, and pelt garments, for example, forced colonists to question the nature of money, writing, and clothing; and how the Indians' techniques of warfare and practice of adopting prisoners led to new concepts of cultural identity and inspired key themes in the European enlightenment and American individualism.

Excerpt

In Genesis 2:19, God delegates to Adam the task of naming the animals, and Adam names them not as the animals call one another, but simply as he sees fit: "And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof." Early European travelers to America frequently imagined that they were visiting ancient or biblical times, and a race of people descended from the Hebrews or Scythians. In effect, they exercised the same power as Adam to name the groups they encountered, for these names have acquired an irrevocable referentiality in Western languages and culture, even if many are absurd accidents. "America" was coined by adding a feminine ending to the first name of Amerigo Vespucci (or Americ Vespuce, as his name is rendered in French) despite the fact that he was just one of many explorers who journeyed across the Atlantic shortly after Christopher Columbus. The "Indians" have been so called ever since Columbus and other explorers thought they had landed in the East Indies.

In the narratives of exploration the power of language and reference seems obvious. The ethnocentrism of Adam and of European explorers imposes names on unfamiliar people and places, refuses to recognize the Others' names for themselves, and forces them into the history and geography of the known or "Old World." The monopoly on printed discourse held by the Europeans then enforces this act of dispossession by spreading it in print to all European and colonial markets. However, it is not always so simple. As Harold Jantz and others have argued . . .

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