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Native American Rhetoric: How and Why Is It Important?

by Laura Price

When discussing the rhetorical tradition, scholars agree that it “begins with the Greeks, goes Roman, briefly sojourns in Italy, then shows up in England and Scotland, hops the ocean to America and settles in” (Powell 397). Despite the final destination, this sequence of events excludes one of the most oppressed and voiceless peoples in American history: Native Americans. Although there is a lack of evidence of any attempt by the Native Americans to develop theories of communication as a distinct field of knowledge or activity, Native Americans still use language to communicate, via both the oral tradition as well as the written word. Furthermore, rhetoric is not solely used within Native American culture, but also cross-culturally (Stromberg 2). However, the concept of rhetoric is often thought of as a solely Western phenomenon, a “structured system of teaching public speaking and written composition developed in classical Greece” (Stromberg 2). To limit the definition of rhetoric so strictly is to negate the presence of other cultures in that sphere of knowledge. Because of the extensive oppression and extermination of many Native American tribes, their voice has remained widely unheard until recent years.

If one understands and defines rhetoric as the art of persuasion, then Native Americans have been practicing rhetoric since the Western world “discovered” America. Stromberg states that since “Columbus’s first step upon the Caribbean shores and continuing through the present moment, the indigenous people of the Americas have been engaged in a serious study of the available means of persuading the newcomers” (4). The arrival of the European settlers forced American Indians to fight not only for their livelihood but to also preserve and maintain their culture as much as possible. It is clear that, until recent years, their voice has fallen on deaf ears. When European settlers originally began settling in American lands, there was what was referred to as “the Indian problem,” which stemmed from the notion that Europeans were promised bountiful land with access to as much of it as they desired (Powell 401). However, with the Native Americans’ already occupying this land, the settlers encountered what they considered to be a problem, which eventually led to the Trail of Tears as well as the extensive Indian Wars in the 1800s that slaughtered thousands of innocents. With this annihilation, their voice diminished along with the hope for their people.

But beginning in the nineteenth century, Native American activists began publicly discussing some of the trauma they had endured at the hands of White men, which sparked the widespread movement that exposed many of the atrocities committed against the indigenous peoples of America. Although there were many forms of trauma inflicted upon American Indians, one of the least violent forms was the forcing of Native American children into what were referred to as “Indian schools,” where they were taught to assimilate to the new “American way of life” (“Native American History and Culture: Boarding Schools”). Native American children began attending these schools in 1860, when the first Indian boarding school was established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Yakima Indian Reservation in the state of Washington (“Native American History and Culture: Boarding Schools”). Here they were taught “the importance of private property, material wealth and monogamous nuclear families” (“Native American History and Culture: Boarding Schools”). Reformers at the time believed that this was the most effective method to assimilate Native Americans and absorb them into White culture (“Native American History and Culture: Boarding Schools”). Although there were many things taught at these schools, one of the first priorities was to teach Native American children the English language. Even though English instruction began the process of cutting off the children’s learning of their Native languages, it was not quite enough for some reformists. Colonel Richard Henry Pratt postulated that complete assimilation was not occurring effectively with the schools still on the reservations. Thus, in 1879, “he established the most well known of the off-reservation boarding schools, the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania” (“Native American History and Culture: Boarding Schools”). His motto was “kill the Indian, save the man,” and he believed that the off-reservation schools could accomplish this (“Native American History and Culture: Boarding Schools”). The boarding schools began their assault on Native American cultural identity,

first doing away with all outward signs of tribal life that the children brought with them. The long braids worn by Indian boys were cut off. The children were made to wear standard uniforms. The children were given new “white” names, including surnames, as it was felt this would help when they inherited property. Traditional Native foods were abandoned, forcing students to acquire the food rites of white society, including the use of knives, forks, spoons, napkins and tablecloths. In addition, students were forbidden to speak their Native languages, even to each other. The Carlisle school rewarded those who refrained from speaking their own language; most other boarding schools relied on punishment to achieve this aim. (“Native American History and Culture: Boarding Schools”)

Once Native languages were forbidden from being spoken, the Native American traditions and cultural practices suffered enormously. Naturally, the prominence of Native languages began to fade over time until they were nearly nonexistent, especially among young adults. Because language is often considered an imperative part of cultural identity, by eliminating a common language among the members of each American Indian tribe, White men effectively eradicated a piece of vital culture.

Until 1978, Native Americans had no choice except to send their children to these off-reservation schools. With the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, Native American parents finally gained the right to refuse their child’s placement in these schools. In many cases, the boarding school education was finally seen for what it truly was – “the total destruction of Indian culture” (“Native American History and Culture: Boarding Schools”). In 2001, the Cherokee Nation Immersion School began as a language preservation program. This entirely voluntary school consists of “full-day or most-of-the-day teaching and learning in the Native language, often complemented by after-school and summer programs” (McCarty). One of the most important aspects of this program is the fact that it “not only engages students in learning the Native language, but also math, science, social studies, music, art, and even English through that language” (McCarty). Schools similar to this have been established across the country and have proven to be enormously beneficial in recovering some of the Native American culture that has been lost. By regaining a significant piece of their culture, Native Americans can now effectively tell their stories and develop their voice in the public sphere, which allows them to participate in the conversations previously privileged solely to Euro-American men and to convey more accurate accounts of their culture and traditions unmarred by bias from the mainstream culture. Before this effort of language recovery, the history of the mistreatment of American Indians had been filled with dissonances and inconsistencies (Harrell).  By using their knowledge of not only their respective Native American language and culture, but also their understanding of the English language and Euro-American culture, American Indians are able to reach across cultural lines to relate and merge the two separate ways of life that generally were thought to have nothing in common. Not only that, but by making their voice heard and sharing their stories, both historical and cultural, they are able to protect their rich traditions from being stomped out further by the dominant culture.

Malea Powell and Scott Richard Lyons each wrote pieces that became particularly influential in composition and rhetoric in the early 21st century. Powell, who is currently the Chair of Conference on College Composition, is of Indiana Miami, Eastern Shawnee, and Euramerica heritage (“Malea Powell”). It is this ancestry that inspired much of her work that focuses on “how American Indian material rhetorics and the degree to which these ‘everyday’ arts are related to written rhetorical traditions” (“Malea Powell”). Powell’s overall goal is “to change the way that knowledge by, about, and for American Indians is produced, distributed, taught and received” (“Malea Powell”). Powell’s piece, “Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing,” examines some of the problems noted with the Rhetorical Tradition, addresses the issues in regards to how Native American rhetoric is often viewed, and makes note of some of the most prominent historical American Indian rhetoricians. The article presents a brief biography of both Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins and Charles Alexander Eastman, who significantly influenced rhetorical ideas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Additionally, she makes it clear that, despite the fact that both Winnemucca and Eastman were rather intelligent of their own right, they were forced to create versions of themselves that adopted what White culture deemed acceptable: they had to present themselves as “civilized Indians” in order to gain the attention and respect of the White audience. By making these blatant issues clear to her audience, Powell reiterates the obvious need Native Americans have for rhetoric of their own. Writing prior to Powell, Lyons addresses similar issues in his work, “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want from Writing?” Lyons, assistant professor of English at Syracuse University, currently teaches indigenous and American literatures (“Author Bio”). Not only has he written several pieces addressing issues Native Americans face, but he has also worked with “grassroots organizations on issues ranging from the Ojibwe language revitalization to Native theater” (“Author Bio”). Much of his professional career has been spent as a spokesperson for the difficulties Native Americans have dealt with historically and continue to face. Examining the idea of the need for a civilized Indian, Lyons highlights the problematic manner of thinking and responding to the Native American writers and rhetoricians such as Winnemucca Hopkins and Charles Alexander Eastman as well as countless others. He presents the idea that what American Indians desire most from writing is sovereignty: the ability to use writing and literature in whatever manner they deem appropriate and for whatever reasons they wish, without being seen as inferior to the dominant culture.

Furthermore, in both Jace Weaver’s piece, That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community, and Ernest Stromberg’s work, American Indian Rhetorics of Survivance: Word Medicine, Word Magic, the struggles Native Americans have faced in their attempts to preserve their culture and language are addressed as well as the overall challenges being a Native American brings. Weaver opens his work by saying, “it is important that Natives be seen as living, dynamic cultures” instead of the stereotypical stoic and tragic figure (Weaver 8). It is arguable that this seemingly emotionless stereotype creates a generally unsympathetic image to which the dominant culture often latches, making it more difficult for Native Americans to gain support and sympathy regarding their struggles. Additionally, Stromberg, a professor of rhetoric and communication, literary studies, and American Indian studies at California State University, dedicates much of his research to American Indian rhetoric and argues that Europeans and Euro-Americans have historically defined Native Americans as “the embodiment of barbarism,” which further alienates Native American rhetoricians from their White audience (Stromberg 5).

Because they have been oppressed repeatedly throughout history, American Indian rhetoricians “have had to find ways to make their voices heard and respected by a too frequently uninterested and even hostile crowd” (Stromberg 6). One of these methods is to learn the ways of the oppressor. Even though they are often able to reach out and understand both sides of the cultural line, their audiences cannot necessarily do the same. Therefore, a primary demand for many American Indian speakers and writers is the need to establish “a measure of identification with their white audience,” which reinforces the ideas that Powell and Lyons present in their respective essays (Stromberg 5). Despite these attempts, Native Americans have remained relatively unheard, even within the academic community. Powell states that “as a discipline, we’ve done a pretty good job of not doing a very good job of critically engaging with Native texts. That alone makes the attempts of Native scholars in composition and rhetoric both necessary and quite difficult” (397). But after “years of colonization, oppression, and resistance, American Indians are making it clear what they want from the heretofore compromised technology of writing. Rhetorical sovereignty, a people’s control of its meaning, is found in sites legal, aesthetic, and pedagogical, and composition studies can both contribute and learn from this work” (Lyons 447). This success on behalf of Native American rhetoric underscores the importance of rhetoric, both formal and informal, in the ultimate preservation of a culture and its practices. Although it may seem pointless and unnecessary at times, particularly when it appears as though every attempt is ignored or rebuffed, by continually pushing for recognition through the use of all forms of rhetoric to create a unified front in the face of oppression, success is eventually achieved.

However, as discussed previously, this begins to change in the nineteenth century when Native Americans begin coming forth and relating stories of the atrocities committed against them by White men, which allows them to begin the long process of fighting back against their mistreatment. Despite the incredible importance of the formal activism on the part of Native Americans, tribal culture and tradition are just as important. Continuing through present times, Native Americans have been using numerous forms of rhetoric, including the oral tradition as well as written word, to preserve and convey their rich culture and traditions. Historically, many American Indian communities have within them their own complex rhetorical traditions that have been developed for decision-making purposes as well as ceremonial ones, for example. There are countless types of traditional rhetoric used by many, if not all, of the Native American tribes, including spoken word and oral storytelling, written stories, cultural rites, and numerous more. Through the oral tradition, many of the myths, legends, and stories that comprise much of their culture have been passed on. Furthermore, not only are there traditional uses for rhetoric amongst the Native American tribes, but in recent years, more modern uses of these stories and cultural identity have become prominent as well, including comedy, prose and poetry, as well as several others. However, by focusing on a single tribe can one begin to understand the enormity of Native American use of both academic and informal rhetoric, specifically oral tradition, written word, and modern avenues, such as stand-up comedy.

One of the most prominent forms of rhetoric practiced by Native Americans, particularly the Tsalagi, also known as the Cherokee, is their oral storytelling. For them, it is just as much a part of “heritage as food, clothing, language, and relations”; oral tradition is the foundation of literature for Native Americans (Hannah 8-9). As Leslie D. Hannah, author of “We Still Tell Stories,” reiterates, much of what has been passed down through the ages has been done so via primarily spoken word. In fact, one of the most important traditions that extends through present times is the storytelling event (Hannah 2). This occasion typically “resembles a family reunion wherein older members of the family speak of life as they have known it, a life that in many cases now exists only in their memories…[while] the younger generations sit around attentively listening to the knowledge and wisdom contained in the anecdotes” (Hannah 2-3). By sharing the knowledge and stories that are inherent to the culture with the younger generations, the elders are keeping the culture alive and ensuring that it will not fade away, at least in their lifetime. Since many of these stories have not been recorded via writing, without the transmission of these stories via spoken word, they would fall into oblivion, taking with them another piece of a culture that has already lost so much. Because much of the modern Western world relies primarily on written word to commemorate history while Native American traditions preserve their history via oral storytelling, Native Americans are often misunderstood. Furthermore, contrary to reports claiming oral tradition has died out among Native Americans, this is quite untrue; for Cherokees specifically, this essential part of their culture is “more alive now than it has been in the past few decades,” which is enormously due to the younger generations making genuine attempts to reclaim and revive their heritage and culture (Hannah 22). These endeavors on the part of the youth serve as evidence that survivance, which is a large part of the reason behind much of the Native American rhetoric, has been successful and will continue to be as long as the youth desire to maintain and uphold these aspects of their valuable culture and tradition.

Although the oral tradition is vital in the passing on of stories, both cultural and historical, the written word has also proven to be especially important to the Cherokee. Beginning in 1824 and lasting until 1832, the Cherokee Phoenix, “the first known American Indian newspaper,” was published (Ross-Mulkey 123). The Cherokee Phoenix was “a literary tool meant to challenge the behaviors of some white Americans that clearly threatened Cherokee survival” (Ross-Mulkey 123). Furthermore, it was not only the first Native American newspaper, but it was also the “first bilingual newspaper to use an American Indian language” (Ross-Mulkey 123). Although it may seem unimportant, it is essential to note that the time period in which the newspaper was written and published coincided “with increasing pressure for Indian removal and the subsequent Georgia land lottery, Worcester v. Georgia, the Indian Removal Bill of 1830, and the discovery of gold in parts of the Cherokee Nation” (Ross-Mulkey 123). Despite these massive challenges, with the help of federal courts and other Native American activists, the newspaper managed to stave off Cherokee removal for an additional eight years. Furthermore, though the newspaper itself and what is contained within is particularly vital, the imagery associated with a phoenix in Cherokee culture is one that is “deeply tied to the sacred image of fire” (Ross-Mulkey 123). Ross-Mulkey notes a significant statement made by Daniel Heath Justice in his work “Our Fire Survives the Storm”: “the Phoenix…has been such an enduring symbol of Cherokee nationhood since the early nineteenth century. The spirit of the fire is also the spirit of the nation” (124). By creating not only a newspaper that was specifically for the Cherokee people, but also one with such vivid imagery that connected to the tribe in a symbolic manner, a niche is created for the Cherokee tribe, which they had been struggling for since Europeans began infiltrating their lands. The importance of this newspaper, and subsequently Native American rhetoric as a genre, is underscored by the achievements the Cherokee Phoenix attained.

Although straightforward activism and scholarly writing is imperative, less formal avenues are playing an enormous role in the survivance of Native Americans as a general population in the modern day. For example, the stand-up comedy arena has proven especially invaluable for Native Americans. They are able to use humor to relate to a typically majority-White audience where a connection might otherwise be lacking. Because of the history between the White population and American Indians, Native Americans employ a range of tactics and rhetorical strategies that encompass “the disciplines of comedy, Native American studies, and classical rhetoric” in order to challenge deep-rooted beliefs about the Native Americans (Morris 38). Morris continues her piece, relaying a few of the methods used by American Indian comedians, stating that

Native American stand-up comedians construct epideictic performances with concrete and personal stories, active voice, and repetition of ideas, bodily and facial gestures, and a dynamic revision response to each audience. I suggest that Native American comedy is particularly epideictic in that Native comedians must deal with the ‘praise and blame’ because of the tense history they share with and against a potentially white-majority audience. (38)

Through the use of these methods, American Indian comedians can create a particularly meaningful yet humorous piece. Because much of the humor derived from Native American comedy is self-deprecation and incorporates some of the stories built on the oral tradition, the discourse evolves past the pure entertainment into underlying tones of survivance rhetoric (Morris 38). Due to the turbulent past between the White population and the American Indians, Native American comedians must rely on these forms of self-deprecation and other general methods of comedic relief to address difficult issues such as genocide and racism. This in turn brings light to the subject and how the modern Native American population still deals with these aftereffects. Due to the covert manner in which these topics are introduced, the White audience can be brought into the discussion without feeling hostile. On the other hand, some these concepts of self-deprecation can only be appreciated by a mostly-Native American audience. For example, for his February 2009 show in Everett, Washington, Vaughn Eaglebear “did not do the ‘Three Indians walk out of a bar sober’ joke because there were six people in the audience for [his] 10:30 p.m. show…and only two were Native Americans” (Morris 39). This joke “only seems funny with an insider audience—Native Americans who understand the realities of alcoholism in their midst and who can likewise be self-referential about it and laugh at themselves” (Morris 39). Because the White audience has never had to deal with the issue of widespread alcoholism among the Native American population firsthand, their ability to fully grasp the joke, or even the humor in it, is impeded. Thus, although comedy is used by Native Americans as a rhetorical tool of survivance, it can also be argued that it is a modern tool for oral tradition, albeit a dark one.

One of the most notable contemporary Native American writers is Sherman Alexie, “the son of a Spokane Indian mother and a Coeur d’Alene Indian father” (Flanagan). Much of Alexie’s work draws from his experiences as a Native American, both on and off the reservation. The first three of his works, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Reservation Blues, and Indian Killer, each won awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction (Flanagan). Published in 2007, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was Alexie’s first attempt at young adult fiction. Alexie based much of the work on his own experiences a young adult. In fact, the work began as a section of Alexie’s family memoir, but he later decided to use it as a basis for his first young adult novel (Margolis). He estimates that approximately 78% of the work is true (Alexie 26). By discussing topics with which he dealt, he can effectively address the obstacles Native American youths face, such as life on a reservation, alcoholism, poverty, and bullying. As previously discussed, American Indians desire to be rhetorically sovereign, which the use of comedy ultimately makes the argument for, though not necessarily in an overt manner. It creates these arguments subtly, infusing the ideas and urgings into their comedic discourse that the mainstream culture often subconsciously absorbs. By using a popular medium in modern culture, Native Americans are able to once again reach across the cultural lines and relate to their audience since the White population in general refuses to make the step themselves.

In order to make themselves seem civilized and modern, they have historically had to make this leap so their White audience, which is the overwhelming majority, will be willing to accept the Native Americans as a people as well as their culture, and ultimately relate to their issues. By forming an alliance with the majority, Native Americans from all tribes can have their voices heard on a more widespread platform. Despite the progress made for other minorities in the modern world, Native Americans and their issues are still severely ignored; thus, forging a relationship of some sort with the majority is still imperative for other cultures to have their voices heard. For Native Americans, specifically the Cherokee, rhetoric is not only a matter of the survival of their culture and a resistance to being overtaken and downtrodden by the dominant culture over time; their oral traditions as well as modern uses of rhetoric, such as stand-up comedy, are also vital to their sense of identity in that they allow a modern audience to gain knowledge of their culture. Despite superficial appearances, their use of rhetoric is far more than simple communication or the art of speaking well: they are using rhetoric as a tool for persuasion in order to salvage as much of their culture as possible after the prolonged reign of terror over their way of life. This use for rhetoric is arguably more important than simply the art of speaking well, as rhetoric has been defined historically. Like any other rhetorician, American Indian rhetoricians use various genres to convey their point, such as speeches, oral storytelling, and stand-up comedy, as well as writing, including books and newspapers, among countless others. Through them, Native Americans are able to convey their cultural identity. Employing a broad array of media further assists in the survivance of their culture and traditions (the driving force behind much of American Indian rhetoric) and encourages further learning of traditions that have been central to maintaining a sense of identity for a people who are all-too-often overlooked in the mainstream culture. However, if America is to progress further, the acknowledgement and inclusion of Native American culture and histories are imperative to create an adequate anthology of American history; without it, only a mismatched, incomplete version is available.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “Fiction and Poetry Award Winner: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Horn Book Magazine, vol. 85, no. 1, 2009, pp. 25-28.

“Author Bio.” University of Minnesota Press, Accessed 30 June 2016.

Flanagan, Mark. “Meet Sherman Alexie: His Biography and His Writing.” Entertainment. 25 Feb. 2016, Accessed 01 July 2016.

Hannah, Leslie D. We Still Tell Stories: An Examination of Cherokee Oral Literature. Diss. U of Oklahoma, 2003. ProQuest, Accessed 30 June 2016.

Harrell, Willie J. “‘Sons of the Forest’: The Native American Jeremiad Materialized in the Social Protest Rhetoric of William Apess, 1829-1836.” Americana– E-Journal of American

Studies in Hungary, vol.7, no.2, Fall 2011, Accessed 30 June 2016.

Lyons, Scott Richard. “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want from Writing?” College Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no. 3, February 2000, pp. 447–468.

“Malea Powell.” Writingaboutwriting: A Collaborative Wiki Project, Accessed 30 June 2016.

Margolis, Rick (2007). “Song of Myself.” School Library Journal, vol. 53, no. 8, 01 August 2007, p. 29. . Accessed 30 June 2016.

McCarty, Teresa L. “Teaching the Whole Child: Language Immersion and Student Achievement.” Indian Country Today Media Network, 1 Sept. 2014, Accessed 30 June 2016.

Morris, Amanda Lynch. “Native American Stand-Up Comedy: Epideictic Strategies In The Contact Zone.” Rhetoric Review. vol. 30, no. 1, 28 December 2010, pp. 37-53. Professional Development Collection, Accessed 01 July 2016.

“Native American History and Culture: Boarding Schools.” American Indian Relief Council, /PageServer?pagename=airc_hist_boardingschools. Accessed 01 July 2016.

Powell, Malea. “Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 53, no. 3, February 2002, pp. 396-434.

Ross-Mulkey, Mikhelle. “The Cherokee Phoenix: Resistance and Accommodation.” Native South, vol. 5, 2012, pp. 123-148,166.

Stromberg, Ernest. American Indian Rhetorics of Survivance: Word Medicine, Word Magic. U of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.

Weaver, Jace. That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community. Oxford UP, 1997.

Laura Price is a recent graduate of the University of North Georgia where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in English, with an emphasis on writing and publication, and minored in Business Administration. She received an Honorable Mention at UNG’s Annual Research Conference in the Spring of 2016 for an early version of this essay. From the time she was old enough to read, she knew she wanted to be involved in the publishing process and is currently working as a freelance content writer and editor. In her free time, you can find her reading the latest thriller or mystery novel, hiking with her little dog, or practicing yoga.

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