Lyons, “Rhetorical Sovereignty”

Lyons, Scott Richard. “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want from Writing?” CCC 51.3 (2000): 447-468. (22 pages)

The backdrop of Lyons’ incorporation of rhetorical sovereignty is set against cultural and rhetorical (in addition to physical) violence that the education system has historically inflicted on Indian identity, replacing tribal identity for “commonplace knowledge and values of white civilization” (449): “the duplicitous interrelationships between writing, violence, and colonization developed during the 19th century…would set into motion a persistent distrust of the written word in English” (449). Given this distrust, Lyons questions, “what do Indians want from writing?” He offers the concept of rhetorical sovereignty, an ideal principle or beacon “by which we seek the paths to agency and power and community renewal.” (449). Defined: “rhetorical sovereignty is the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires in this pursuit, to decide for themselves the goals, modes, styles, and languages of public discourse” (449-50). He further teases out the concept of sovereignty, particularly in the context of a native worldview.

He, in a way, places rhetorical sovereignty against rhetorical imperialism: the ability of dominant power to assert control of others by setting the terms of the debate. These terms are often definitional—that is, they identify the parties discussed by describing them in certain ways” (452). As Lyons claims, “he who sets the terms sets the limits” (452). Thus, rhetorical sovereignty, in part, is a way to control the terms and definitions that define native peoples. He specifically points to the different conceptions of “public” between Western powers and Indians. In Western understandings of public, “sovereignty rested primarily with ‘public.’ Itself constituted by the communicating mass of wholly ‘private’ individuals acting out of self-interest” (via Kant, in Lyons 454). This dialectic of private and public constituted the business of the nation-state. In opposition, Indians represent themselves in terms of a people: “A people is a group of human beings united together by history, language, culture, or some combination therein—a community joined in union for a common purpose: the survival and flourishing of the people itself” (454). In this fashion, Indians have always considered themselves as part of a nation: via Castells, “’cultural communes constructed in people’s minds and collective memory by the sharing of historiy and political projects,’ adding a political dimension to a sense of peoplehood” (Lyons 454). He places the Western idea of nation-state against the Indian concept of nation-people: “the sovereignty of individuals and the privileging of procedure are less important in the logic of a nation-people, which takes as its supreme charge the sovereignty of the group through a privileging of its traditions and culture and continuity” (455).

However, such recognition of peoples’ culture and language—in the vein of multiculturalism—is not enough, and not (in itself) is self-governance. For Lyons, “what we might need, then, is an understanding of the twin pillars of sovereignty: the power of self-govern and the affirmation of peoplehood. For without self-governance, especially in America, the people fragment into a destructive and chaotic individualism, and without the people, there is no one left to govern and simply nothing left to protect” (456). On the other hand, multiculturalism, in other words, divorces culture from national recognition: “mainstream multiculturalism is not sovereignty per se because it abstracts its sense of culture form the people and from the land” (457). In this sense, key to rhetorical sovereignty “is an adamant refusal to disassociation culture, identify, and power from the land…While most Indians have a special relationship with the land in the form of an actual land base (reservations), this relationship is made truly meaningful by a consistent cultural refusal to interact with that land as private property or purely exploitable resource. Land, culture, and community are inseparable in Indian country” (457-8).

In the context of textual representation, Lyons asserts that rhetorical sovereignty takes as a central tenet the ability to have some say in the nature of their textual representation. He offers a couple examples in rhetoric and composition that demonstrate the need for such sovereignty. In particular, Lyons confronts the developmental understanding of Indian contribution to literacy, placing Indians at an early stage on the “great Chain of Speaking”. Citing George Kennedy, Lyons challenges the logic that positions Indians as part of the oral-literate binary, whereby his logic “lead some to the conclusions that a writing Indian is no Indian at all” (459). More, Lyons confronts the appropriation of Indian culture in order to support the sovereignty of white individuals.

Toward the conclusion, Lyons asserts the rhetorical sovereignty requires “above all the presence of an Indian voice, speaking or writing in an ongoing context of colonization and setting at least some of the terms of the debate” (462). In this way, Lyons is unlike Gates’ playful use of language via signifyin’. Rather, Lyons ideally sees voice manifested in Native language.


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