Performance vs. Thingification: Linguistic Action and the Indigenous Literatures of Dawnland Voices

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Indigenous writers from New England have always understood that the charge of language goes beyond the parochial and subjugating applications of Euro-centric interpretations; one need look no further than Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Voices from New England to find a divergent conception of language as a performance tool. Nonetheless, in many ways the Schagticoke, Mohegan, and Penobscot people in particular, among many other tribes from the North Eastern United States, fully embrace English philosopher J.L. Austin’s theories of language and performance. Indeed, they have been embracing these ideas for thousands of years via the conduit of oral tradition.

As interpreted by James Loxley, Professor of Literature at the University of Edinburgh, Austin’s theory of language claims, “[our utterances] are actions in themselves, actions of a distinctively linguistic kind. They are ‘performed’ like other actions, or take place, like other worldly events, and thus make a difference in the world” (Loxley 2). As the celebrated writer on performance theory Shannon Jackson puts it, “[Austin] argued that words are not purely reflective…that linguistic acts don’t simply reflect a world but that speech actually has the power to make a world” (Jackson 2). Thus, the delineation of the border between two theories on the connection of language to the world around us becomes visible. On one end, we find the age-old belief of language as signifier, a tool of representation capable of recording and even obfuscating the world around us and our ontological connection to that same world, a perception adopted by the very same European colonists who attempted to subjugate the indigenous people of New England to their collectively indomitable will. This linguistic view of the representational carries the assumption that the purpose of language is reportive or constative and is often termed the descriptive fallacy. On the other end of this theoretical spectrum we find the still-burgeoning ideology adopted by most indigenous people of New England that we can actually make the world through language and act our identities through literature in the form of orally transferred mythologies and creation myths.

Although words are in a sense bonds, they may serve functions of enslavement through directive prescription, or present false claims of representation designed to suppress cultures of people, whether literate or illiterate. For the indigenous peoples of New England, words play an important role in the ongoing drama between communal human beings and the external world to aid them in the worthy undertaking of understanding their relationship to their culture, their identities, and their land. Forming a connection to their cultural heritage improves the strength of Schaghticoke, Penobscot, and Mohegan connections to their lands, in turn shaping and solidifying cultural identities while improving the overall quality of interpersonal relations through action of utterance.

Extending this cultural dichotomy of representation versus performativity to the Mohegan and Schaghticoke sections of Dawnland Voices in order to explore tribal ontologies, we are further exposed to an epistemological divide. Schaghticoke tribal historians and Dawnland Voices co-editors Trudy Lamb Richmond and Rudy Garby Torres note in their Introduction to the Schaghticoke section of the same anthology, “the people strongly believe that our culture is in the land and the land is our culture” (Richmond and Torres 644). Both culture and land are enacted, shaped, and invented through the telling of tales. Through this transformative process, indigenous writers seem particularly equipped with performativity as a form of cultural defense against the hegemonic deployment of the representational functions of language heralded by the white colonists of yesteryear and the mainstream criticism of our current age. Just as discursive practices produce the very “subjects” and “objects” of knowledgeable practice, and history has proven, at least the history of Western civilization, that knowledge is power, indigenous people combat the frightening systems of dominion and codified racism lurking beneath Western systems of attribution through their own performative expressions of the relationship between culture and Earth. This may be a clear reason why indigenous literature is so mythic, so enduring in its exploration of the psyche and the constitution of physical environments.

Richmond and Torres relate notable lawyer and author on indigenous peoples’ rights Robert A. Williams Jr.’s comment that “racism has been codified in our language, even our legal prose… [perpetuating and sanctioning] the language of racism, giving racism an authoritative, binding, legal meaning in our legal system” (Richmond 652). Yet language of performance possesses no apparent authoritative “binding,” instead serving the purpose of forming connections through action. To reference New Materialist Karen Barad’s philosophical inquiry, “Does language accurately represent its referent? Does a given political representative, legal counsel, or piece of legislation accurately represent the interests of the people allegedly represented?” (Barad 804) the answer appears to be a resounding “No.” Nevertheless, many tribes frequently enter into these hierarchies, learning how these political systems function, appropriating these systems to their advantage to affect political change.

Vine Deloria Jr., or Standing Rock Sioux, expresses her belief in the unity of all indigenous tribes and their lands through oral tradition. Deloria states:

People believed that each tribe had its own special relationship to the superior spiritual forces which governed the universe and that the job of each set of tribal beliefs was to fulfill its own tasks without worrying about what others were doing…Tribal knowledge therefore was not fragmented and was valid within the historical and geographical scope of the people’s immediate experience” (Deloria Jr.).

Language is thus a unifying performance—a kaleidoscope refracting the same unified respect for nature in a variety of ways. It becomes clear then why the most celebrated story told by the Wampanoag tribe of Aquinnah, located at the tip of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, centers its oral tale around Moshup, a giant of the Aquinnah cliffs who flung whales against the cliffs to kill them for food. The blood from these whales is said to have stained the clay banks of the Aquinnah cliffs dark red. The land is figuratively brought into existence through oral performance, originating all over again with each oral telling of the myth. Fascinatingly enough, Mashpee Wamapanoag artist Ramona Peters claims “We name ourselves after the land we live with. Because not only are we breathing in, we are also drinking from the water that is flavored by that very land. What is deposited in the soil in that water is in us. We are all one thing, and we name ourselves after the place that is our nurturing. That sustains our life” (Peters 431). By embodying the land through active language that performs rather than represents, land and culture sublimate to form a higher sense of cultural identity.

Presiding mainly on Indian Island across from Old Town, Maine, the Penobscot people exhibit a similar preference for performativity over representational forms. Author of When No One Is Looking, master of the Penobscot language, and member of The Penobscot Nation Cultural and Historic Preservation Department, Carol Dana, otherwise known as Red Hawk or pipikwass, relates the importance of performance over signification in her Introduction to the Penobscot section of Dawnland Voices: “The river is so important to us. It was our highway and our food giver. The river is a part of us. Everything we had came from the land. Sometimes it is hard to put into words. One has to experience it, like getting into a canoe and travelling” (Dana 215). The action of rowing on the water is more important than the name or history of the river. Oral tradition has traditionally been the main method of handing down teachings and values for the Penobscots.

Penobscot culture hero Gluscabe, the protagonist of many Penobscot oral myths, “is said to return if you call on him… [one must] build a fire by the water [to summon him]” (Dana 215). Oral utterance enacted upon the land conveys sacred meaning in lieu of the written word. Dana continues, “We [The Wampanoags] had ways of communicating with each other along the trails. Evidence of this still may be found in the ancient petroglyphs. We etched in stone, left birch-bark maps, and drove sticks into certain areas to show the area was plentiful. We used rocks to indicate direction. We also used mnemonic devices, like wampum belts, to help us in our telling of certain events” (Dana). These petroglyphs serve as directives for actions to be performed. The importance here is not the representational figures or markings, but the deeds they summon into action.

Unfortunately, because of broken treaties between the Penobscot tribe and the United States government, their people have rightfully grown distrustful of the intentions behind written language. As the written word provided a means for the Penobscot people to become inclusive of people outside of the spoken language of the tribe, Carol Dana succinctly states, “There may have been a time when respect for the written word was broken due to the treaties. Native people became exploited for their knowledge by outsiders who wrote this knowledge down” (Dana 216). Nevertheless, in later years, writing was used as a means to preserve their traditional language. Penobscot Joseph Nicolar (1827- 1894), renowned for his book of Penobscot creation and contact stories Life and Traditions of the Red Man, was integral in preserving the oral traditions of the Penobscots. These stories exemplify the importance of the oral telling of creation myths, tales that enact the origin of the Penobscots’ land.

Among other Penobscots who favored performative over representational storytelling is Molly Spotted Elk, one of the most alluring indigenous writers of the 20th century. Dancer in New York nightclubs and Texas vaudeville, and star of the silent film The Silent Enemy (1930) early in life, Molly Spotted Elk was an avid writer of traditional Penobscot stories she heard while growing up on Indian Island. Her lyric poetry evokes the spellbinding dancers she met around the U.S. and in Paris:

“In line” goes the call We drop into place With faces at front And eyes straight ahead It may be a waltz A buck and a wing a Tiller routine Or the latest thing— Whatever the dance is We pupils watch him And soon be all doing That very same thing.

Again and again We’d have to begin From where we just started Beginning to end Essence right and left Then double essence right Reverse the step And give it pep

(Molly Spotted Elk 226).

The heat and motion of the performance is felt through these visceral lines. Elk’s lovely “Untitled” poem bridges the connection between humanity and land: “I’m free in the world of these carpeted hills; / I’m drunk with the scent of cedar and pine. / I revel in scenes of the snow-rocks and rills; / I feast where the gods of the great forest dine” (Molly Spotted Elk 227). Molly Spotted Elk seeks a symbiotic poetic connection to the land that clarifies the relationship between cultural identity and the outside world, enacting a sacred balance.

When asked why he shirked from the opportunity to rectify a white priest’s error as to the meaning of the word “Winnipesaukee,” Penobscot Lobal merely smiled and explained that it was such a beautiful afternoon, and he was enjoying so the singing of the water, that he simply didn’t want to spoil it all by starting an argument over something so inconsequential as the meaning of an indigenous word. Lobal’s viewpoint, shared by many indigenous peoples of New England, seemed to be: “after all, if the white man liked to think that ‘Winnipesaukee’ meant ‘the smile of the Great Spirit,’ what harm did it do? It wouldn’t make or break the world whether ‘Winnipesaukee’ meant that or something more prosaic like, let us say, pork and beans” (Laurent, 296). Like many of the other indigenous voices featured in Dawnland Voices, Lobal assumes a tone of nonchalance in the face of European representational anxieties.

This anxiety on the part of the European is caused by the urge to consolidate systems of power that produce, form, define, and shackle the subjects of representation. Foucault emphasizes the creation of histories made up by representations, a process more recently re-defined by the new materialist thinker Karen Barad as the process of “thingification” (812). Indigenous voices of the Dawnland cannot legitimize the consequences of such representation. Representational anxieties are not as engrained in these traditions as they are in the European cultural tradition. It is exclusively the prerogative of the Europeans to employ language as a form of perverse appropriation, damaging and limiting the cultures of New England’s indigenous people—people accustomed to an opposite ontological reality. In order to understand, and in turn, subjugate these indigenous people, many of these colonists employed the process Karen Barad terms “thingification—the turning of relations into ‘things,’ ‘entities,’ and ‘relata’” (Barad 812).

As evidenced by Wampanoag Frank James, Europeans employed the tyrannical power of representation by rendering “a history that was written by an organized, disciplined people, to expose [Wampanoags] as an unorganized and undisciplined entity. Two distinctly different cultures met. One thought they must control life: the other believed life was to be enjoyed” (James 457). Defining indigenous collectivities as “undisciplined” exposes the white colonists’ strict operation under the rash assumption that “disciplined” can only be attributed to those who believe in the power, and legitimate necessity, of words to truly represent the things they claim to signify.

The indigenous people of New England celebrate matter over representation and life over its documentation. What’s astonishing is that before Fidelia Fielding came along, practice of the Mohegan language itself was down to merely one person. As her descendent Stephanie M. Fielding states in her introduction to the Mohegan section of Dawnland Voices: “The landscapes that these Mohegan writers present in their writings are fascinating, whether they are exploring their own psyches, or their Mohegan parents’, or the actual landscapes of their experiences on land, or water, urban settings, or reservation, or the landscape of the culture. A love for Mohegan shows strongly, as does a compassionate eye for the land and its inhabitants” (Fielding 561). Mohegan writers perform the various physical or metaphysical topics in their writings, as opposed to representing such things. This “compassionate eye” stems from the perspective that a culture must present and enact the forces of our planet in its natural state. Dawnland voices strive towards an ideology of performance to subvert the norms representation. Penobscot writer Nick Bear sums it up in his spoken word piece February weather makes me feel like this: “we should be uniting, untying, chains that are binding, un-writing the lines they are hiding, we need to start living instead of merely surviving” (Bear 268).



Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28 (2003): 801-31.

Jackson, Shannon. Professing Performance: Theatre in the Academy from Philology to Performativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Loxley, James. Performativity: The New Critical Axiom. London: Routledge, 2006.

Richmond, Trudy Lamb, et al. Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England. Ed. Siobhan Senier. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.