Biohistory and American Indigenous Languages in Henry David Thoreau's "Indian Notebooks"

Biohistory and American Indigenous Languages in Henry David Thoreau's "Indian Notebooks"

24 Monday
Mon, 24/04/2023

3:00 pm - 5:00 pm



ENS de Lyon and the IHRIM are pleased to welcome Michael Jonik, Senior Lecturer in English and American Literature at the University of Sussex, for a month as Visiting Academic.

At the end of his Maine Woods, Henry David Thoreau adds a “List of Indian Words” which relates primarily to place names or to botanical, geographical or topographical features of the Penobscot valley. In this talk, I will investigate his increasing intimacy with Native American understandings of the environment, epistemologies, cultures and language, which I argue offers him an eco-poetical and biohistorical mode of thinking outside of received European scientific knowledge structures. He celebrates this new intimacy with the natural world that Native American words offer him in his journal on March 5, 1858: “A dictionary of the Indian Languages reveals another and wholly new life to us.” I will explore Thoreau's intimacy with Indigenous American biohistories  in terms of his extensive writings on North American Indigenous languages and ethnobotany, which are part of his 12-volume unpublished, undigitized, and largely unresearched "Indian Notebooks."  These notebooks contain over 2000 pages of materials related to Native America, and are thus not only a major research resource on Indigenous American cultures, but also hold the potential to fundamentally shift how we understand Thoreau as both canonical American author, and as an ecological thinker in profound dialogue with Native American philosophies of the natural world. In particular, I will investigate his ethnobotanical study of Abenaki/Penobscot word-concepts for animals and plants.