Rhetoric’s Importance

Many of the historical texts and articles I’ve read thus far mention the power of rhetoric concerning American Indians. Language utilized by white settlers and government officials created a wedge used to separate the cultures, creating a “them vs. us” mentality. Once whites perceived American Indians as “others” rhetorically they justified social, political, and economic inequalities. Thus my writing and rhetoric examining American Indians in the Scotts Bluff area (post white settlement) must remain cognizant of the limitations and strengths of my sources as well as my own perceptions.

During the reservation era (roughly 1860-1934), white government officials often felt empowered as patriarchs and labeled American Indians as “childish.”[1] This point of view was significant as whites of the nineteenth century viewed children as incompetent and in need of direction, as opposed to many American Indian tribes that respected children as valued members of society.[2] As such, whites created a rhetorical barrier that “othered” American Indians, which allowed for whites to justify a plethora of physical and social injustices. For example, President Ulysses S. Grant’s “Quaker Policy” sought to educate and assimilate natives through the use of religious organizations such as the Society of Friends (the Quakers).[3] Thus, viewing American Indians as lesser, policy makers and reservation agents created a dichotomy of power most often in their favor.

Although whites often held more power, American Indians were not completely helpless. Bands of Sioux avoided living on reservations until the late 1870s- an entire decade later than many other native groups.[4] Furthermore, all American Indian tribes have successfully protected many of their cultural traditions.

And therein lies the problem for many historians. The potential exists for historians to portray American Indians solely as victims, which negates their agency and fails to acknowledge their successes. On the other hand, historians run the risk of portraying American Indians in a simplistic, heroic fashion. The problem is for historians to portray American Indians in their true context, both as victims and heroes.

One of the most important goals of my research will be to honestly portray American Indians’ struggle of adaptation to the changes caused by white settlement in the Scotts Bluff area. My work will look at the ways in which American Indians were successful in preserving their heritage throughout the last one hundred and fifty years in relation to the drastic challenges they faced due to cultural clashes with white settlers and reformers. Noting the significance of rhetoric used in the past, I recognize the importance of the rhetoric I will utilize in my research. Though past wrongs cannot be corrected, historians—myself included—have an obligation to portray history with honesty and must advocate for agency and voice for those previously misinterpreted.

 

 

[1] Clyde A. Milner, With Good Intentions: Quaker Work among the Pawnees, Otos, and Omahas in the 1870s, Lincoln, Neb: University Nebraska Press, 1982, 131.

[2] Ibid, 133.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Larson, Robert W. “Part II: Red Clouds: The Reservation Years.” The Magazine of Western History 47, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 14-25. Accessed August 5, 2014.  http://www.jstor.org/stable4519965.

 

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