Famed explorer detailed Native American languages in 1890

indian language map

John Wesley Powell’s 19th century map of Native American languages, recently highlighted in Slate magazine, was a remarkable achievement that culminated decades of work by the explorer and scientist.

Powell, noted for a three-month expedition in 1869 down the Green and Colorado rivers which included the first known passage by Europeans through the Grand Canyon, produced the map while he was the head of the Bureau of Ethnology, as part of an 1890 annual report.

He stated that the map plotted “linguistic stocks of American Indians,” as they were situated “at the time when the tribes composing them first became known to the European,” according to Slate.

Powell had come into contact with many tribes during his travels throughout the western and midwestern US, enabling him to conduct research and compile information that would go into the making of the above map.

The Bureau of Ethnology was begun in 1879 with Powell as its first director, and the entity worked to build a repository of knowledge regarding Indian languages; this data was later substantially increased through the labors of others.

Powell, unlike many 19th century researchers, remained modest about his accomplishment:

“[The map] is to be regarded as tentative, setting forth in visible form the results of investigation up to the present time, as a guide and aid to future effort,” he stated.

However, historian Donald Worster asserted in his biography of Powell that the linguistic map was a major undertaking: “The classification and map were Powell’s most important achievement as bureau director … and they set the standard for linguists well into the twentieth century.”

The map was publicly displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, as part of a bigger exhibit mounted by the Bureau of Ethnology, according to Slate.

Despite Powell’s efforts and the awareness he might have brought to scholars and possibly a larger audience regarding the depth and breadth of Native American linguistics, it likely did little to improve the plight of the Indian.

The same year that Powell produced his annual report featuring the above map, more than 200 Lakota Sioux, including substantial numbers of women and children, were killed, and another 50 wounded, by US Army troops on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.

(Top: Map of “linguistic stocks of American Indians,” from the annual report of the Bureau of Ethnology, vol. 7, 1890.”

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14 thoughts on “Famed explorer detailed Native American languages in 1890

  1. This is on the subject, but not. We have a woman in our area who compiled a dictionary of their language. NY Times did an article on it. Woodlake recognized her with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

  2. The army rarely take heed of ethnological studies.
    In Scotland I am interested to see a revival of Lallans -the tongue of southern Scotland spoken by my grandparents.

    • I think many of the languages such as Lallans, oppressed for so long, are beginning to make a resurgence. Whether there’s time enough for them to fully rebound remains to be seen. I hope so; the idea of a world where we end up with, say a total of 25 or 50 total languages is a depressing one.

      • I know that many of the Celtic languages are seeing revivals, and, in some cases, they are being propelled by independence movements. The efforts of the Catalonians who want to break away from Spain is helping reinvigorate that language, as well.

        I find it interesting that in so many places the people in power, whether they spoke English, French or Spanish, felt the need to try and stamp out indigenous tongues. They often, unfortunately, succeeded.

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