American Indian Rhetorics of Survivance: Word Medicine, Word Magic Edited by Ernest Stromberg

In his introduction to this collection, Stromberg offers rich insight into American Indian rhetorics, beginning with the point that the exclusion of American Indians voices and practices from the Western rhetorical tradition is part of what Stephen Riggins calls the longstanding “rhetoric of othering” within our field (3).  This collection, demonstrates, however, that American Indians do have a rhetorical history, which when directed at a white audience, often involve “bridging communication divisions while maintaining an insistence on difference” (3).  In most of these insistences, Stromberg reminds us, American Indians must face the rhetorical task of “discovering and applying another’s “available means of persuasion” (3).  For this collection, Stromberg defines rhetoric as the “use of language or other forms of symbolic action to produce texts (in the broadest possible sense) that affect changes in attitudes, beliefs, or actions of the audience” (4).  He draws on Bitzer to describe the rhetorics of contact, which American Indians have been enacting since the Europeans arrived on U.S. soil, as “an unending chain of rhetorical situations, replete with ‘exigence, audience, [and often overwhelming] constraints’” (5).  Much of this process has also involved revising, replacing, or tearing down the terministic screens through which whites have viewed and communicated with American Indians.  Although American Indians certainly have rich and complex rhetorical traditions enacted within their own cultures surrounding ceremony and internal decision-making processes, the majority of this collection focus on post-contact rhetorical acts used to bridge communication between American Indians and European and American colonizers (5).  These acts demonstrate an acute awareness of audience, appropriation of language, style, and beliefs on American Indian rhetor’s part.  As Stromberg eloquently puts it, “this study confirms the truism that in situations of extreme opposition, the oppressed of necessity know more of the oppressor’s ways than the oppressors understand the ways of those whom they oppress” (6). In essence, both the American Indian rhetors who are being written about and the rhetors producing this scholarship provide evidence that American Indians “demonstrate not only a mastery of the available Western means of persuasion, they also enlarge conceptions of rhetoric itself” (7).  It is through this demonstration that this collection contributes to the Native intellectual tradition that Robert Allen Warrior advocates we begin to understand.


Craig Womack and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn make it clear that part of the American Indian intellectual, rhetorical tradition is literature, which often functions rhetorically to aid Native communities in their defense of sovereignty.  Jace Weaver identifies such rhetoric—rhetorics committed to Native community—as “communitist” (qtd. on 7).  Recognizing contemporary literature as important rhetorical acts gives presence and acknowledgement to American Indian rhetorics, for which Scott Lyon advocates and is in desperate need thanks to text such as George Kennedy’s Comparative Rhetorics, which reinscribes the “vanishing Indian” narrative. 


This text is organized in three sections, the first of which is devoted to uncovering the effective rhetorical strategy of appropriation. Matthew Dennis, for instance, demonstrates how as an Indian rhetor, Seneca leader Red Jacket appropriates elements of Christian discourse, sentimentalism, and nationalism to make sophisticated arguments on behalf of Seneca sovereign rights when white America itself was groping with an emerging sense of national identity.  Patricia Bizzell, on the other hand, demonstrates how Pequot author and Methodist minister William Apes appropriates the rhetorical elements of the “American jeremiad” to invoke “the audience’s cherished values and prophes[y] dire consequences for the [white, Puritan, American] community if these values are not served” (36).  The appropriation of this genre’s elements is an example of what Powell call’s the rhetoric of ‘survivance.’  Another instance of American Indian rhetoric that uses appropriation as a rhetorical strategy is Elias Boudinot’s editorials in the Cherokee Phoenix, which appropriates democratic discourse from the Constitution to argue against the removal of Cherokees from their land. 


In the second section of this text called “Rhetorical Self-Refashioning”—a term borrowed from James Clifford’s concept of ethnographic self-fashioning—rhetorical scholars recover the autobiographies of Indian rhetors to demonstrate how storytelling and construction of self act rhetorically to help Indian rhetors obtain assistance and right for their own peoples.  Powell shows, for instance, how reform movement advocate Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins employs tactics of representation and tropes and figures of “savagery” and “civilization” to authenticate and authorize her self as a civilized Indian woman in order to establish a credible ethos in the eyes of her audience and help make connections with them in order to persuade them of reform (80).  Ernest Stromberg himself discusses how native writers Francis LaFlesche and Zitkala-Sa use narrative to confront the dominant assimiliation discourses of their time that claim American Indians need “civilizing,” which entails  a process, in their eyes, of cultural abandonment.  Stromberg shows how through the use of identification and appeals to sentimentality in  their narratives, LaFlesche and Zitkala develop consubstantiality of Indian peoples or in other words develop a share commonality of humanity with white audience. Yet, through irony, these native writers simultaneously critique and persuade their audience of the injustices of Indian education (108).  Lastly, in this section, Janna Knittel, demonstrates how in his life story Prison Writings:  My Life is My Sundance, political prisoner Leonard Peltier employs historical parallels (Native issues to holocaust and Vietnam)  metaphorical references (sundance) and features of oral storytelling (repition) to advocate for his own freedom and articulate native spirituality. 


In the third section,  authors reveals the role that autobiography and storytelling play in American Indian rhetorics.  Holly Baumgartner, for instance,  analyzes autobiographies across time and tribal cultures through the conceptual lens of Baktin’s heteroglossia to show how cultural appropriation and code switching played major rhetorical roles in individual autobiographies that had commmunitist objectives.  Baumgarter notes, for instance, how Charles Eastmen code switched and used autobiography as a site of rhetorical resistance.  Baumgarter also makes clear that autobiographies are sites of negotiating various identities created by forced assimilation.  Autobiographies, according to Baumgarter, were intended to generate a response; they served as an opportunity to reconstruct their lives and thus signified a coming to consciousness that was necessary for de-assimiliation ( 141).   Karen Redfield, on the other hand, looks at the role of storytelling in Native newspapers and television shows, which she claims functions similarly to oral storytellers.  She reminds us that “radio and television stations, movies, and newspapers are all forms of contemporary Native communication that exemplifies ‘internal rhetoric’” (157).  Internal rhetoric, she argues, is contemporary resistance enacted to a great degree through stories told for their own people  and through parody (159).  Redfield concludes by stating three reasons for why non-Indian researchers and teachers need to be aware of American Indian rhetorics:  a.) to facilitate success of American Indian students in college; b.) we have much to learn about rhetoric from American Indian rhetors; and c.) because we are living in a constant contact zone, studying American Indian rhetorics can lead to deeper cultural understanding (162). 


In the final section of this book, authorize theorize American Indian rhetorics to show how American Indians rewrite history through fiction and trickster stories, disrupt Cartesian understandings of the world, fight for self-determination, and self-definition. 




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