Céline Carayon: Legible Signs and Symbolic Violence: Communicating Nonverbally, Then and Now

Today we welcome a guest post from Céline Carayon, author of Eloquence Embodied: Nonverbal Communication among French and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, out now from UNC Press and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

Taking a fresh look at the first two centuries of French colonialism in the Americas, this book answers the long-standing question of how and how well Indigenous Americans and the Europeans who arrived on their shores communicated with each other. French explorers and colonists in the sixteenth century noticed that Indigenous peoples from Brazil to Canada used signs to communicate. The French, in response, quickly embraced the nonverbal as a means to overcome cultural and language barriers. Céline Carayon’s close examination of their accounts enables her to recover these sophisticated Native practices of embodied expressions.

Eloquence Embodied is now available in print and ebook editions.


Legible Signs and Symbolic Violence: Communicating Nonverbally, Then and Now

On July 26th, 2019, a federal judge in Kentucky dismissed the $250 million defamation lawsuit filed by Nicholas Sandmann against the Washington Post.[1] The lawsuit targeted the newspaper’s coverage of a tense encounter between Sandmann and a Native American (Omaha) elder, Nathan Phillips, at the March for Life in Washington D.C. last January, as it appeared in a viral video that sparked outrage on social and national media. The dismissal of the lawsuit validates the Washington Post’s statement that its journalists had “sought to report fairly and accurately the facts that could be established from available evidence,” but it does little to end the controversy. Despite the availability of several pieces of footage and interviews with the participants, determining “what really happened” is proving hard to do. That is because conflicting interpretations of the event essentially hinge on the fluid meaning of nonverbal signals. It is not the visual evidence itself (Sandmann’s smirk, his stillness and closeness to Phillips, his MAGA hat, the cheers and laughter of his peers, Phillips’ drumming and impassible expression) that are subject to debate, so much as the participants’ intent and the possible multiplicity of meaning these signals can hold. Sandmann, for instance, suggested that he misunderstood Phillips’ drumming and that his smile was an attempt at defusing tension. Reciprocally, Phillips felt confident that the Covington Catholic School students were hostile, which is why he continued to sing the American Indian Movement anthem to appease the crowd. In short, either the confrontation was caused by misunderstandings of nonverbal signals, or these signals were rather legible symptoms of underlying strains. The main question, then, is one that has long occupied Western thinkers: Can one confidently deduce another’s true intentions from exclusively physical, or nonverbal, cues?

People in early colonial America felt sure that bodies, even those of people from different cultures, could be read. In fact, European explorers and colonists not only placed a great deal of trust in their reading of Indigenous nonverbal signals, but they let that deciphering of nonverbal evidence profoundly shape decision-making in their colonies. Immense linguistic barriers made nonverbal communication the most effective way to exchange strategic information, often crucial to Europeans’ survival and future colonial prosperity. To bridge the language and cultural divide, peoples of the early Atlantic world could rely on robust traditions of nonverbal communication. Before the arrival of Europeans on their shores, many Indigenous societies already possessed such sophisticated systems, including well-developed sign languages to trade and negotiate with other nations. Reciprocally, early modern Europeans were accustomed to expressing themselves through gesture in a variety of settings, including that of preaching, law, and theatre. Rather than turning to improvisation when they met, natives and colonists therefore tapped into familiar repositories of signs and blended the old with the new rather effortlessly.

If the local shape of greeting ceremonies varied widely across the Americas, colonists were confident they could identify friendly from hostile intent upon first encountering a group. In early America after 1500, nonverbal communication contributed to the language-learning process, and continued to play an important part in diplomacy well after mutual understanding emerged. Context was key in bolstering colonial interpretations of Indigenous embodied expressions, often even superseding ingrained prejudices. The meaning of signs, in other words, was predicated upon each situation rather than immutable. Ceremonial face paints worn by natives, for instance, could be interpreted in one instance as one of many “signs of welcome” (in the sense of a deferential adornment), while, elsewhere, they were seen as something the Indians used to dissimulate their faces prior to going to war. Indigenous peoples also adjusted to the mores of the newcomers: once the brief initial surprise of hearing powder weapons dissipated, Indians quickly adopted the European naval practice of saluting and being saluted by volleys of gun or cannon shots.

Insults were clearly and unambiguously expressed and understood in early America: when natives expressed their contempt for a group of French traders by showing them their behinds and refusing to come close to their ships, the foreign visitors clearly felt the sting of the offense. When, in early Virginia, Christopher Newport and his men, upon meeting Wahunsenacawh (commonly known as “Chief Powhatan”), chose to withhold the traditional salute they knew was expected of them, they were openly manifesting their defiance of the Algonquin leader. In doing so and in writing about it, they were also performing their intent to dominate the Powhatans for their English audience. Symbolic violence and nonverbal expressions of hostility in early America were not the result of cultural blunders.

In fact, misunderstandings rarely accounted for conflicts in early America. When unsure of the intended meaning of a trade or political partner’s gestures, one typically refrained from taking any harsh action. More often, tensions were escalated by one of the parties purposefully using well-known signals. For instance, Europeans quickly manipulated peaceful signs to lure Indigenous people onto their ships, and forcibly take them back to Europe as captives.

We would be wrong to think of the Sandmann/Phillips behaviors on display in January 2019 as produced on the spot, rather than as belonging to a mutual silent language of symbolic violence that has been painstakingly constructed through centuries of interactions.

This sense of communicative fluidity allowed colonists to claim they could decipher the true intentions of their Indigenous allies and foes, regardless of appearances. Both French and English colonial officials were adept at justifying preemptive violence by evoking the elusive “signs” of pending deception they said they perceived thanks to their discerning reading of Indian bodies. Legible signs of peace could be ignored in the name of more subtle signs of ill-intent, especially when the use of violence served imperial goals or called for moral forgiveness. Over time, it was the direct experience of many years of deception and violence that caused mutual distrust between colonizers and Native people, not the imperfection of the means of communication they employed. The more they understood the other’s intent, the more relationships soured. Underlying inter-ethnic prejudices were the culprit, not misunderstandings.

People of European descent have been positioning themselves as victims of Native American aggression as a way to justify their own perpetration of violence for five hundred years. They commonly relied on the description of nonverbal signals as a way to defend their actions as righteous retribution for a yet-to-unfold offense. We would be wrong to think of the Sandmann/Phillips behaviors on display in January 2019 as produced on the spot, rather than as belonging to a mutual silent language of symbolic violence that has been painstakingly constructed through centuries of interactions. In the aftermath of the events, many voices from the Native American community expressed how painful watching the video was, precisely because the boys’ attitudes were reminiscent of racist treatments Indigenous people experience every day.[2] The Covington students may genuinely have thought their reactions were spontaneous and not misplaced. That’s the thing with the nonverbal: it becomes so internalized as to seem idiosyncratic even when it follows unspoken conventions. Western movies, racist sports team mascots and their associated gestural displays (the “tomahawk dance”), and other misrepresentations of Native Americans in recent political discourse, all contributed to shaping the high-schoolers’ interpretation of Phillips’s song and their chosen response. These young men have learned the lessons of a curriculum and a popular culture that largely continues to portray American Indian men as defeated enemies or disappearing savages, and Indian women as oversexualized temptresses. They are predisposed to perceive Indian actions as hostile and respond with disrespect. This is not about the ambiguity of nonverbal media of communication. Instead, this unfortunate but predictable event is an opportunity to revisit how prejudices can affect the reading of otherwise legible behaviors and how structural tensions affect our understanding of nonverbal expressions.

[1] Lawsuits against CNN and NBC are still pending at the time I write these lines.

[2] Megan Red-Shirt-Shaw (Oglala Lakota) tweeted: “if you’re Native, you know the look Sandmann is giving Phillips… I get it from someone in South Dakota every time I go.”(Megan Red Shirt Shaw on Tweeter, January 21, 2019, 11:43pm). See also: Rebecca Nagle, “I know what I saw when I watched the Covington video,” https://thinkprogress.org/covington-catholic-video-nathan-phillips-nicholas-sandmann-72512dd30615/.


Photo by Lana Foley Photography

Céline Carayon is associate professor of history at Salisbury University.