Native Rhetroric

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Wed Dec 6 03:11:42 UTC 2006

Researching Indian rhetoric

John A. Berteaux Connections

Prof. Ernest Stromberg stopped by my home last week to share a pot of
coffee and discuss his new book American Indian Rhetorics of

An associate professor in the Department of English, Communication and
Journalism, Ernie travels to California State University-Monterey Bay
from a trim home in Seaside where he lives with his wife, Sherry. He
grew up in Arcata.

In Arcata, he advises, "Diversity meant Native American people."

But in other parts of the United States, from Humboldt State University,
where he received his bachelor's degree to Eugene, Ore., where he wrote
his dissertation about American Indian Literatures, to Harrisburg, Va.,
where he taught at James Madison University before moving to the
Peninsula, Ernie found, "it easy to forget that American Indians
continue to exist."

Growing up with American Indian kids in school and sleeping over he
noted early on that the idea of Indians in the popular media and the
life he saw his friends living were quite different. Seamlessly, he
ties his childhood experiences into a central idea in the book.

"From first contact," Ernie warns, "for American Indians the problem was
mental as well as physical... When they got here Europeans had already
conceived the individual."

I took him to mean that nonwhite and white were not simply descriptive
terms of skin color; rather, from first contact they were used for
social categorization, social control and social relationships.

America's indigenous population acknowledged and used to their advantage
the fact that the way they spoke (and looked) stood in for intellect,
moral sense and character. They acknowledged that there is a connection
between the language we use and stories we tell.

I recalled something attributed to French linguist Saussure, who asks us
to think about what had to be overcome to say "Black is beautiful." This
is something that came out of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Up
until the time that someone said "black is beautiful," black was
considered ugly, dirty, and stupid. And then someone said "black is

According to Saussure this wasn't just saying something new; rather, it
was conceiving the world in a way it had not been imagined before.

"So American Indians recognized in their initial encounter with
Europeans that we don't speak language so much as language speaks us?"
I chimed in. Ernie nodded in agreement.

I asked about the word "survivance" that appears in the title. "It ties
in," he says. "The book is about 'rhetorics of survivance.'"

Survival suggests images of someone just hanging on -- on the edge of
existence. "Survivance," he quotes the text, "goes beyond mere survival
to acknowledge the dynamic and creative nature of indigenous rhetorics."

He writes, from the early debates about treaty rights and native lands
to present day controversies about casinos and team mascots America's
indigenous populations continue to draw on the art of persuasion.

Nevertheless, Ernie adds, "While rhetorical studies have been enriched
by important research done in women studies and African American
rhetoric the rhetorical practices of America's indigenous people remain
significantly incomplete."

To begin filling that gap in our knowledge, Ernie has produced an edited
collection that is worthy of note, unique, readable, and accessible for
a non-academic audience.
John Berteaux, an assistant professor of philosophy at CSU-Monterey,
writes a monthly column. He can be reached at john_berteaux at

© 2006 Monterey County Herald and wire service sources. All Rights

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