Clearing the Path: Language Fusion in Early America

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By Heather Hatton

The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, caused a media sensation on the 20th April 2018 due to her choice of attire during the opening of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting. Ardern strode the halls of Buckingham Palace swathed in a traditional Maori feathered cloak usually bestowed on chiefs and dignitaries to convey prestige, respect and power. Ardern’s sartorial choice was no accident; it was, along with her decision to quote a Maori-language proverb during her toast to the Commonwealth leaders, a politically astute move. Ardern’s methods of communication were carefully crafted means of portraying herself, on the world stage, as the leader of all New Zealand, of indigenous and non-indigenous people alike.

However, this instance of ‘cultural borrowing’ in order to communicate is neither modern nor unique to Ardern. Rewind over two hundred years, to colonial North America, and we find Sir William Johnson doing something very similar. In 1746, riding at the head of a Mohawk warrior party, Johnson arrived in Albany dressed and painted in the manner of a Mohawk captain. Again his attire was not coincidental; it was a carefully chosen way of communicating. Johnson’s clothing was a means of visually affirming his and Britain’s allegiance to the Mohawk tribe. Yet it was also a way of illustrating his knowledge of Haudenosaunee culture to a European audience, in order to establish himself as indispensable cultural broker.

Despite their relevance to modern and historical diplomacy methods of intercultural communication, such as the example cited above, are often overlooked by historians. Communication, defined as information desired and spread and the implications of certain messages, has of late garnered significant interest among historians of early America. Alejandra Dubcovsky, Katherine Grandjean and Gregory Dowd are among scholars who have considered early American communication in this manner. However, the methods by which people communicated have, by comparison, received relatively little interest. My research is about addressing this gap. It considers the contrasting methods of communication employed by European go-betweens in order to facilitate intercultural diplomacy and create diplomatic alliances, of various types, with Native people during the eighteenth century.

From preliminary findings it appeared that a ‘hybridised’ language was formed between Native Americans and Europeans in order to facilitate diplomacy. However, upon closer inspection of documents related to my three case studies, the Albany Commissioners of Indian Affairs, Conrad Weiser and Sir William Johnson, this initial hypothesis proved to be somewhat incorrect. It became evident that although the outcome of treaty councils may have been expressed in Western alphabetic form, many of the communication methods used by European go-betweens during intercultural diplomacy adhered to Native American conventions. My research proposes that intercultural diplomatic communication was an unequal fusion, comprising mainly of Native American means of communicating.

Various methods of communication employed by go-betweens during intercultural diplomacy will be considered in my research; here I will give examples of three: the condolence ceremony, metaphorical language and wampum. Using these means of communicating as a point of analysis my research seeks to understand the extent to which go-betweens’ diplomacy represented conformity to existing native communication practices and how far the language go-betweens used represented something new, an unequal diplomatic language fusion.

My initial findings indicate that the most successful European go-betweens frequently performed the condolence ceremony as a means of maintaining peaceful relations and facilitating diplomacy with Native Americans. The condolence ceremony, a ritual used by the Six Nations to mourn deceased chiefs and install successor, is also an important way of assuaging grief and preventing these feelings turning into violence. Successful go-betweens, such as Weiser, understood this. Weiser’s performance of the condolence ceremony, during a diplomatic council with the Six Nations in 1743, prevented violence from erupting between this nation and Virginia settlers. Similarly when considering the diplomacy of the Albany Commissioners of Indian Affairs it becomes apparent that they too frequently performed, and advised the governor of the necessity of performing, the condolence council in order to maintain peaceful relations with the Six Nations.

Another form of diplomatic communication understood and employed by certain European go-betweens was metaphorical language and gesture. Of my three case studies it appears Johnson possessed the most nuanced understanding of Iroquoian metaphor and metaphorical gestures and frequently used them as a means of communicating during diplomacy. For example, Johnson often employed the Great Tree of Peace metaphor in order to express his desire to renew the relationship between the British and the Six Nations. In 1755 for example, upon being made Superintendent of Indian Affairs Johnson used this metaphor to reaffirm his role as protector of the Iroquois and to establish his home as a safe location for all future communication between the British and the Six Nations. Unlike Johnson Weiser appears not to have utilised metaphorical language himself but he certainly understood metaphors used by Native Americans during intercultural diplomacy. For example, Weiser twice had to explain and translate metaphors, related to the Covenant Chain, used by Canassatego during a speech at the Treaty of Lancaster in 1744.

Finally, the most successful go-betweens understood the communicative function of wampum and used this device effectively during intercultural diplomacy. That few Europeans understood the communicative function of wampum is demonstrated by Weiser who rebuked the provincial secretary of Pennsylvania, Richard Peters, in 1744 for failing to provide him with wampum necessary for carrying out a specific diplomatic task assigned to him by the Pennsylvania governor. Johnson however seems to have taken this aspect of diplomatic communication further and adapted it to suit his needs. For example, he had wampum belts custom made, with specific symbol interwoven into the belt’s design in order to enforce certain messages during intercultural diplomacy.

The language of intercultural diplomacy in early America was an unequal fusion, comprising mainly of Native American means of communicating. Europeans who sought to create diplomatic alliances with native people, whether for peace or to enlist military aid, had to understand and adhere to established native diplomatic communication protocol. The most successful European go-betweens were those who adopted, and at times subtly adapted Native American communication methods to achieve personal ambitions. Such political maneuverings are not unknown today. Returning to Jacinda Ardern it is evident that both her decision to wear a Maori feathered cloak, and to recite a Maori-language proverb were considered political moves. Like Maori chiefs and dignitaries, on whom the cloaks are usually bestowed, Ardern wore the cloak to symbolize her status and power. Ardern, like Johnson over two hundred years earlier, clearly understood the political benefits to be obtained from choosing an appropriate method of communication to convey a desired message. Through her outfit she expressed, both to New Zealanders and the rest of the world that her power base encompasses all New Zealanders, that she is the leader of Maori, and all other sections of New Zealand’s population. Her means of visually communicating had the desired effect; her outfit created mainly positive media attention and largely avoided charges of cultural appropriation often leveled at white leaders who don traditional indigenous clothing (consider the criticism that befell Justin Trudeau in February 2018 during his tour of India). What this example illustrates is not only the relevance of communication methods to modern politics but demonstrates how further scholarly attention concerning communication methods in early American diplomacy is warranted.