25 November 2010


One of the most exciting new developments of the past few decades is the revival of indigenous cultures and languages, and the struggles for community and political rights.

This is happening even where the indigenous communities barely survived the conquest, as in the United States, where the pre-contact population of perhaps seven million or more was reduced to a few hundred thousand by 1900.

My own department at MIT has played a significant role in the revival, thanks to the extraordinary work of the late Kenneth Hale. Apart from working on human rights issues for indigenous populations in the Americas and Australia, and fundamental contributions to the study of their languages and to linguistic theory, he also brought people from reservations who had had few educational opportunities and devoted great effort to helping them gain doctoral degrees in a very demanding program, with dissertations on their own languages that surpassed anything in the literature in depth and sophistication. They returned to their homes, and have established educational and cultural programs, several of which have flourished, revitalizing marginalized communities and helping them to gain broader rights.

I will mention only one really spectacular achievement. One of the major languages of New England before the conquest was Wampanoag. The people themselves were mostly expelled or murdered, with a bounty offered for their heads, while those who surrendered and did not want to fight were sold into slavery--men, women, and children--by the early English colonists. The last known speaker died a century ago. Hale and some of his students were able to reconstruct the language from textual and comparative evidence. Hale's primary collaborator was a Wampanoag woman, Jesse Little Doe, who helped reconstruct the language and then learned it. At a memorial for Hale, she paid her tribute to him in fluent Wampanoag, and also brought her two-year-old daughter, the first native speaker of the language in a century. There is a good chance that the culture and community will flourish and find a proper place in the larger society, a model for what might be achieved elsewhere.

Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects, pp.5-6

23 November 2010

"By and By"

Avis left the unfinished sketch or painting patiently. She said, "By and by. After a while. I must wait a little." She was still able to allure herself with the melody of this refrain, to which so many hundreds of women's lips have shaped themselves trembling; while the ears of a departing hope or a struggling purpose were bent to hear. Life had become a succession of expectancies....

Women understand--only women altogether--what a dreary will-o'-the-wisp is this old, common, I had almost said commonplace, experience, "When the fall sewing is done," "When the baby can walk," "When house-cleaning is over," "When the company has gone," "When we have got through with the whooping-cough," "When I am a little stronger," then I will write the poem, or learn the language, or study the great charity, or master the symphony; then I will act, dare, dream, become.

Elizabeth Stuart Lyon Phelps, Story of Avis
(quoted in Tillie Olsen, Silences, p.208)

Rebecca Harding Davis

Landmarks, unless they loom large in landscapes often visited, tend to become weed-grown tombstones over the forgotten dead, noticed only by accident.

Even the sense of landmark has been obliterated. Rebecca Harding Davis is a name known today only to a handful of American Studies people and literary historians. Few have read any of her work; fewer still teach any of it.

Myriads of human beings--those who did the necessary industrial work in the last century--lived and died and little remains from which to reconstruct their perished (vanished) lives. About them as about so much else, literature was largely silent, and the charge can be levied: Nowhere am I in it.

"No picture, poem, statement, passing them to the future
Unlimn'd, they disappear."

To those of us, descendants of their class, hungry for any rendering of what our vanished people were like, of how they lived, Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills is immeasurably valuable. Details, questions, Vision, found nowhere else--dignified into literature.

Tillie Olsen, Silences, pp.113-114
(the quotation is from Walt Whitman's "Yonnondio")