“Rhetorical Sovereignty” Scott Lyons


Lyons begins his powerful essay “Rhetorical Sovereignty” with the profound claim that writing has played a major role in eradicating tribal identities and cultures and replacing them with the cultural values and beliefs of white civilization.  Because of the “duplicitous interrelationships between writing, violence, and colonization during the nineteenth century,” a distrust of the written word in English still persists.  Lyons asks then, “What do Indians want from writing?” Lyon’s answer is rhetorical sovereignty –“the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires in this pursuit, to decide for themselves the goals, modes, styles, and languages of public discourse” (449).  Rhetorical sovereignty, of course, demands a radical thinking of how writing is taught at levels of public education; it also demands a commitment to listening and learning from the writing of our students.


Lyons starts off the bulk of his argument by historicizing the concept of sovereignty, explaining its shifting definitions over time and culture. Today, the term is generally understood as the right of people to conduct its own affairs, including making and enforcing laws.  Sovereignty also supposedly signifies a nation’s political legitimacy and ensures international recognition, and national self-determination. Lyons then launches into a brief history of the contested, contradictory process of sovereignty between the US government and American Indian tribes, noting that between 1778 and 1868, the U.S. signed an ratified around 367 treaties with Indian nations, all of which “presumed a sense of sovereignty on the part of Indian groups” (451).  As is well documented now in the records of historic court cases, Native sovereignty as initially conceived was short lived because of what Lyons identifies as the U.S. government’s rhetorical imperialism, which reflects the American imperialist notion of recognition- from- above. Rhetorical imperialism allows the dominant powers to control the debate and, in this case, establishes the U.S. government as a political parent of over Indian nations.  Soon, “nation” was replaced by tribes, a rhetorical move that preceded the end to treaty making in the U.S., after which “treaties” became called mere “agreements” (452-3).


Lyons is quick to point out that Native sovereignty did not end.  “Varying and constantly shifting degrees of sovereignty” still exist (453) and the contemporary rhetorical battles over sovereignty constitute what Lyons calls the “colonized scene of writing:  a site of contact-zone rhetoric in its fullest sense” (453). The ensuing rhetorics of sovereignty employed by both Indian and non-Indian people reflect a clash of “ideological conflations and intertwinings of motives, beliefs, and assumptions” that make consensus difficult (453).  Much of this clash revolves around different perceptions of what “nation” entails.  While Americans in the US of enlightenment conceived of nation as a public run by the nation-state, American Indians conceived nations as representing themselves as a “people”–” a group of human beings united together by history, language, culture, or some combination therein–a community joined for common purpose:  the survival and flourishing of the people itself” (454). According to Lyons, the nation-state does not make political decisions in Indian nations; nations are made by the nation-people and adhere to the logic of the nation-people.  Reason was not contingent on individualism or the right to privacy; instead, reason was deployed for betterment of the people.

Lyons claims that Natives do not think of sovereignty solely as the “self-governance” western governmental systems think of.  Rather sovereignty is a twin pillar: “the power to self-govern and the affirmation of peoplehood” (456).  This twin pillar guides the new rhetorics of sovereignty.  Lyons represents new rhetorics of sovereignty through the rhetorical positions of Deloria, Warrior and Cook-Lynn, each of who advocate action at the community level and for individual American Indians to rebuild through association of tribal identity, culture, and power in connection to land.  This rhetoric is very different from mainstream multiculturalism; “Mainstream multiculturalism is not sovereignty per se because it abstracts its sense of culture from the people and the land” (457).  Nor does it focus on self-governance.


Worried he has digressed a bit too far, Lyons then moves to discussion of what it means for students to have rhetorical sovereignty in the classroom. Lyons claims that American Indians deserve to have “some say in the nature of their textual representations”  (459).  At the present, Lyons, claims rhetorical sovereignty is impeded by the “presentation of Indian stereotypes, cultural appropriation, and a virtual absence of discourse on sovereignty and the status of the Indian nations”–a form of rhetorical imperialism at work in our classrooms (459). Lyons cites Kennedy’s Comparative Rhetorics as a prime example of well-intentioned yet problematic examples of rhetorical imperialism.  He charges Kennedy’s book for presenting an evolutionary study of language, which positions Indians below the apex of Greeks and Romans. but also with omitting representations of 19th century American Indian writing (459). This omission, based supposedly on stereotypes of Indian as oral creature and savage, might conclude reader to think “a writing Indian is no Indian at all” (459).  Lastly, Lyons charges Kennedy with erasing “real Indians” and making ” a connecting link” between rhetoric of animals and oral humans, which Lyons claims would lead reader to compare American Indians to animals. Locating Indians early on in the “Chain of Speaking” is dehumanizing and “suggests that today’s Indian people’s are probably not real anymore” (460).  It also reifies the oral-literate binary, which Bruce Ballinger also reifies in his article “Methods of Memory:  On Native American Storytelling.” Lyons charges Ballinger with appropriating the “Indian way” of remembering in order to help the non-Indian’s quest to “Know Thyself.”  although Ballinger appropriates Indian “methods” in order to improve student writing, he does so by committing cultural imperialism.  What he needs to be doing if he is really an ally is discussing issues facing Indian people today, but “nobody wants to appropriate stuff like that” (461).


Lyons argues for a social justice pedagogy that compels us to talk about cultural injustices that American Indians face.  He argues that indigenous rights are worth talking about for American Indians are beacons of hope and inspiration in the fight against global injustices and environmental destruction.  Admitting that comp and rhetoric scholars cannot save the world, Lyons argues that we can at least play a meaningful role in fighting American imperialism and other injustices. One way we can enact social justice in the classroom is to avoid some of the mistakes that have been made in the past in terms of rhetorical imperialism.  We can also commit to rhetorical sovereignty and alter our pedagogical practices, radically if necessary, to enact post/anti-colonial pedagogy. Lyons offers several pedagogical possibilities: presenting and teaching from retrials concerning Indian sovereignty as examples of rhetorical sovereignty; working with students to rhetorically analyze the use of metaphors in the Indian Nations At Risk Task Force treaty, which advocates True native education. We need, in other words, to prioritize the study of American Indian rhetoric, especially the treaties and federal Indian laws, the ideologies of Indianness and Manifest Destiny–all of which demands that students examine their own relationship to Indian sovereignty and makes them more aware of the peoples who live on this land. 


These rhetorics should not be taught in isolation but alongside other cultural rhetorics of oppressed populations.  History and writing instruction need to be situated in context of American rhetorical struggles (465). Lyons suggests we situate our work with rhetorics of sovereignty in local contexts as much as possible-work that ethnographers and service learning theorists are taking up in community-based pedagogies. Drawing on Susan Wells work that theorizes how writing instruction can be geared toward “public literate action.” Lyons suggests that because sovereignty is a “public pursuit of recognition,” we should teach American Indian rhetorics, such as the Chippewa Treaty in Minnesota and/or the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s disrecognition of the Washington Redskins trademark, which demonstrate successes in the American Indian pursuit of soveriengty.


Lyons concludes his article by admitting that he asks a lot of teachers because what he is asking is for us to “think carefully about their positions, locations, and alignments: the differences and connections between sovereignty and solidarity” (467).    


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Filed under cultural rhetorics exam, historiography exam

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