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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Nov 23, 2015

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren. This week we celebrate Thanksgiving, which is a time for food, family and remembering that this land was forcibly occupied from a variety of disenfranchised indigenous people. So in honor of that tradition, today we’ll be talking about a book called American Indian Rhetorics of Survivance, edited by Ernest Stromberg.


First off, we might have to define a couple of the words in the title, which is actually the same step that Stromberg makes in his introduction. He acknowledges that “American Indian” is a pretty broad title to encompass a spectrum of people whose boundaries were and are constantly shifting as questions of heritage, culture, genetics and geography are redefined over and over again. Similarly, the title makes use of ‘rhetorics’ instead of ‘rhetoric’ because there is no singular, Western European-influence rhetoric, but a variety of methods to create symbolic understanding. And now for the kicker--what does “survivance” mean? Survivance, a term coined by Gerald Vizenor, “goes beyond mere survival to acknowledge the dynamic and creative nature of Indigenous rhetoric” (1). Vizenor himself defines it as “Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry.” This means that instead of hanging on white knuckled, you thrive, turning your position of oppression into one of resistance.


Over all, the chapters in the book all highlight the way that native american rhetors were able to reappropriate the tropes and stereotypes of their different eras into strategies of persuasion. This includes what Stromberg calls an “acute awareness of [an] audience” (6)that frequently includes white people who may hold their own preconceptions about a Native American speaker. Karen A Redfield provides a term for this when she says “The attempt to find ways to commynicate with non-Native people taht I am calling external rhetoric” (151). External rhetoric is important for rhetors who are “astute enough to tell stories so that white people can hear them” (154).


Let me give you a couple of examples from the book.In Matthew Dennis’ chapter on the 18th century diplomat Red Jacket, he points out that “Red Jacket was capable of deploying to good effect teh conventions of the Vanishing Indian, a white discourse taht imagined various individual Indians as the ‘last of their race.’ In 1797 in Hartford, Connecticut, the Seneca orator says: ‘we stand on a small island in the bosom of the great waters. We are encircles--we are encompassed. The evil spirit rides upon the blast and the waters are disturbed. They rise, they press upon us, and the waves once settled over us, we disappear forever. Who then lives to mourn us? None. What marks our extinction? Nothing. We are mingled with the common elements’” (23). Whoo. Chills. One of the great things about this book is the recovery of such rhetoric, which presents powerful arguments which are also acutely aware of the conventions in which they are made. Another rhetor who played off of white expectations is Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, who Malea D. Powell describes as creating a “deliberate performance of the kind of Indianness that would have appealed to her late nineteenth-century reformist audiences” (69) as she fashioned herself as the ‘nobel Indian princess’ who could speak in behalf of her people.


These native american orators blend the rhetorics of their borderlands together in what Patrica Bizzell in this volume calls “mixed blood rhetoric” (41). These borderlands can be boarding schools where Native Americans were stripped of their cultural heritage, as the authors Ernest Stromberg studies describe, or the fringes of American and indigenous legal cultures as Janna Knittel and Peter d’Errico describe. These borderlands have existed since Western Europe met the Western Hemisphere, for sure, but they are not a thing of the cowboys-and-indians past. Anthony G. Murphy describes how the documentaries made for PBS in the 1990s about cowboys-and-indians--or rather, about Custer and the battle of little bighorn--highlights how questions about the past, and whose sources of the past we use, are under continual debate. Murphy’s historiography of the battle and the ways that “assumptions of  historical authenticity [have been] long held by the imperial center of American society that has until now attempted to maintain hegemonic control over the Custer Myth” (204). The past keeps meaning new things.


This text also encompasses a variety of genres. Contemporary Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko  is the focus of Ellen L. Arnold’s literary analysis, while Holly L Baumgartner examines an anthology of Native American autobiographies. Karen A Redfield looks at newspapers and Others like Angela Pully Hudson look at political speeches. The last peice in the antholgoy, is piece of ficto-criticism by Richard Clark Eckert, which begins with the question “Who symbolizes a ‘real Indian?”’”


This is a great book to open up a lot of new rhetorical study about native american rhetoric in many time periods and genres, but, as any anthology, it’s more generative than exhaustive. As Ernest Stromberg points out, “the purpose of this text is not aimed at achieving the closure of a conclusion; rather, it suggests future directions for the study of American Indian rhetoric.”


If you’d like to suggest future directions for the podcast or have feedback, drop us a line at Until then, have a great Thanksgiving, and remind your friends and loved ones of the words of Red Jacket “At the treates held for the purchase of our lands, the white man with sweet voices and smiling faces told us they loved us and theat they would not cheat us [...] these things puzzle our heads and we beleive that the Indians must take care of themselves and not trust either in your people or in the king’s children” (qtd pg 28).