Cobb, Amanda “Powerful Medicine: The Rhetoric of Comanche Activist LaDonna Harris”


In this article, “Powerful Medicine: The Rhetoric of Comanche Activist LaDonna Harris,” Amanda Cobb models a solid social history of American Indian rhetoric.  Cobb begins her article by articulating the need for social histories of contemporary American Indian rhetoric because these rhetorics are being practiced by contemporary leaders and activists which are “teaching our communities how to move through the processes of decolonization and nation building to more fully exercise our sovereignty” (63). Cobb focuses her attention on the rhetorical practices of Comanche Activist LaDonna Harris, a relatively unknown activist who played an important role in “shaping and influencing American Indian policy from “inside” the system during the Red Power era” (64). According to Cobb, Harris is a leader who does not fit within traditional Western conceptions of leadership, which typically valorizes persons in high positions of power.  Harris was uniquely Comanche in that she modeled leadership and enacted rhetoric that was based directly on her Comanche worldview and value system (65). Harris, according to Cobb, deserves to be credited for what she created through her rhetorical delivery and rhetorical tactics. 


As Cobb explains, part of Harris’s rhetorical tactics was to create “new networks and relationships, new social spaces for Native issues, and new words, ideas, and philosophies”–all of which were grounded in Comanche values. Like Winnemucca, Harris “reinvented the enemies language” in order to create a rhetoric of sovereignty that worked for the benefits of Native peoples. For instance, Cobb credits Harris for the positive connotations and implications of the words “self-determination and sovereignty” (66)  Harris also is credited for creating intellectual and philosophical spaces.   Operating from the concept of nation-people, Harris lives the Commanche way of life and makes life and rhetorical choices based on Commanche values. These values are:  the value of kinship and responsibilities; the value of equality; the value of contribution;  and the value of redistribution.


Harris’s rhetorical delivery was dependent on the circle of kinship developed through various publications, forums, and conferences as well as the collaborative efforts in creating these networks and texts, which reflect the Commanche values of sharing and redistribution. As Cobb explains, Harris’ organization AIO published various newsletters, position papers, and reports that were intended to inform and persuade audiences to support specific Indian issues, help Natives cope with internalized oppression, and  influence government understanding of Indian issues. These documents not only developed kinship but also contributed to the processes of decolonization and recovery. To more specifically analyze Harris’ rhetorical tactics, Cobb rhetorically analyzes This is What We want to Share–a publication put out by AIO, which demonstrates an adherence to many Comanche values. In this piece of intellectual work, AIO relies on collective wisdom and shared knowledge of tribal citizens to create a strong example of  rhetorical sovereignty (75).  Not only did Harris and friends decide on their own style of discourse, they also created a “communitist text,” which is formed “from a combination of the words community and activism or activist. Communitist texts promote the “healing of grief and sense of exile felt by native communities and the pained individuals in them” (76).  These texts also enact a “decolonizing methodology,” which in this case relies on four rhetorical acts or moves made in the texts:  self-assertion bearing witness, developing counter-consciousness and building community, and sharing gifts. The communitist text, which uses these four rhetorical tactics, demonstrates that while writing has been used as a tool of oppression against American Indians, writing is also used as the first step in the healing process.


 These rhetorical tactics are worth noting:  Self-definition comes from the identification of “core tribal values”–in this case, being a good relative, inclusive sharing, contributing, and noncoercive leadership–which act as both the foundation and method of analysis for the rest of the writing (77). Bearing witness entails the articulation of pain experienced by Native communities.  “The rhetorical act of making the pain of colonization explicit is what Gloria Bird (Spokane) has called an act of “bearing witness to colonization…a testimony aimed at undoing those processes that attempt to keep us in the grips of the colonizer’s mental bondage” (78). Cobb explains that Harris connects the act of bearing witness to the Comanche value of contribution; every one bears witness in order for collective healing to occur. The third rhetorical act, or tactic, is developing a counter-consciousness, which is a path developed by the collective of ways to adapt tradition to contemporary existence and a take action for building community.  In this particular case, Harris ironically calls for the recovery of Native histories. Other counter-consciousness raising practices entail finding solutions based on core cultural values to issues of economic development, which have previously been determined by imposed economic categories (80-82). The fourth rhetorical tactic is sharing gifts which is based on the values of contribution and redistribution. In this particular case, AOI publications attempt to share core cultural values with rest of the world. By using terms such as “co-creaters, which related to core value of being a good relative,” AOI demonstrates a strong sense of self determination and sovereignty. All of these tactics, Cobb argues, create a strong rhetoric of decolonization that arises from Native traditions.  


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