Digitally Analyzing the Uneven Ground: Language Borrowing among Indian Treaties

Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:50 AM
Hampton Room (Omni Shoreham)
Joshua Catalano, George Mason University
Word choice and the functioning of language itself has become an important sub-field within indigenous history. Numerous scholars have traced the process of colonization through language in both historical and popular texts, but the words that arguably impact the lives of Native Americans the most are contained within treaties. Numerous scholars have written important and meaningful work concerning the construction, signing, and consequences of these documents, but they have not yet employed digital research methodologies in this process. This can be largely explained by the size of the aggregated corpus of treaties. Many digital practitioners would argue that the corpus of treaties is too small to yield meaningful results from common approaches such as topic modeling or word embedded modeling. This presentation examines the treaties using a more applicable digital approach: text reuse. I argue that treaty authors frequently borrowed both content and language from previous documents but only rarely did this borrowing occur over long periods of time or across geographic regions. Most treaties borrowed from their immediate temporal predecessors and geographic neighbors. This presentation concludes with two brief examples that demonstrate how digitally detecting text reuse can complicate our understanding of the treaty making process. Overall, textual analysis offers scholars a new way to examine the use of language in the process of colonization, and it has the potential to reveal Native agency that might otherwise go unnoticed.