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

By Gordon M. Sayre | Go to book overview

Preface

Names

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,

-ix-

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