By Madison Williams
A commonplace recollection of 19th-century America evokes romanticized visions of an era known for dreams of manifest destiny, the ascendance of Jacksonian democracy, and the rise of the Gilded Age. However, this golden age of American expansion might be more accurately characterized by the U.S. government's cruel dispossession of Native Americans across the country through legislation that sustained government sanctioned violence and attempts at assimilation. Today, the enormous suffering felt by Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. government is no secret, yet this torture and enduring pain is thought of as a piece of the past. The problem with this attempt at public forgetting lies in the fact that "these settler ambitions, practices, and assertions" remain present, unchanged, and reproduced through the archival work done at this time.
Archives traditionally consist of a repository of historical documents, personal or scholarly papers, permanent records, and original documentation. They hold a collection of materials providing information about a place, institution, group of people, or individual; materials preserved because of the enduring value in the information they contain. Generally, archives are concerned with preserving primary sources, which is why archives are so often seen as unquestionably accurate and entirely neutral. After all, what could be more reliable, more credible, more true than an authentic artifact, a first-hand account, an original correspondence, or scientifically collected documentation?
Kimberly Christen and Jane Anderson address these issues directly in their article "Toward Slow Archives," asserting that colonial power is more that just present in archival records, in fact, "the history of collection is the history of colonialism" (92). They explore the practices, policies, projects, and technologies responsible for producing the Native American records collected by researchers in the 19th-century, identifying the colonial influence present in the purpose of the information being collected, what they chose to include, and, perhaps most importantly, whose voices they choose to silence.
As the government rapidly advanced its efforts to displace, destruct, and assimilate Native Americans, researchers embarked on a mission to preserve "supposedly dying Native cultures and languages" (94), effectively linking "colonial efforts, territorial displacement, and preservation practices together under the nomenclature of scientific advancement" (94). These records—made possible thanks to new technologies such Thomas Edison's cylinder phonographic recorder—represent Native Americans as objects, void of perspective, and without voices. Pioneered (pun-intended) by anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes, the quickly standardized use of the recorder in fieldwork to create "scientific documentation" sustained the colonial view of archival production as inherently un-bias. This silencing of Native American voices is powerfully illustrated by Christen and Anderson as they state: "Fewkes did not, of course, explicitly link the 'vanishing' or 'disappearing' of Native people, languages, and cultural practices to the nation’s policies and practices of displacement, violence, and removal" (96)
Recently, the City of Milwaukee celebrated its first Indigenous Peoples' Day, a statewide officially designated holiday, which will serve as a permanent replacement for the federally recognized Columbus Day. The unveiling of one Milwaukee County Park’s new signage memorialized this day as they proudly displayed the transformation of Columbus Park to Indigenous People's Park. This change is made in an effort to bring to light the often ignored injustice and violence indigenous people suffered at the hands of Christopher Columbus, and, as stated by Milwaukee County Supervisor Felesia Martin, to act as a measure "not to erase but to [create]... a complete narrative of U.S. history." Milwaukee County is home to a number of tribes, including the Menominee, Fox, Mascouten, Sauk, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk; however, the impressive, and ultimately successful, campaign for renaming the park was launched solely by a tenacious group of students at Franklin's Indian Community School.
We can work to decolonialize Indigenous archives by intentionally "keeping colonial structures and practices in our view—as they are manifest in our institutions, policies, practices, and technologies—we can begin the work of tearing them down and building anew" (98). We can construct a new public memory, allowing Native Americans to control their own narrative, and, in turn, dissolving the power possessed by the colonial structures still in place today. Although renaming a local park may seem a small feat in the grand scheme of colonialism's effect on America today, it is a monumental accomplishment toward the effort of Native Americans in Milwaukee to control their own narrative and discontinue the possibility of public forgetting.
In last week’s class, I questioned whether it is possible for Western rhetoricians to fully understand and interpret the rhetorics of a culture from another tradition, especially one no longer existing, as in the case of the Moche peoples discussed by Laurie Gries, (and to her credit she made several careful allusions to this problem in her chapter). My question comes from the intimacy of language, and thus rhetoric, with worldview, the latter being formed by the creation of the language and the teaching/learning process of passing it to new generations, who in turn continue to invent it in kind (or is this just how we see things in western tradition?). This week’s readings have added fuel to my contention that such an accurate interpretation of a non-western rhetoric, absent of the discourses to which it was attached, may be unlikely, and if possible, such success cannot be certain. In short, we may know what such artifacts as Gries describes tell us, but we cannot know that we know.
Sanchez tells us nothing new when he says “…writing actively participates in the world, and the details of that participation are not easy to decipher” (78), even more so when the writing is non-alphabetic or even wholly metaphorical, as in the placement of objects. So as Lao observes, we have to start with what we know, for what else have we to start with (49)? But as Lao observes, in so doing we risk imposing that on others, a risk that JC acknowledges in the previous post with the concern about whether or not such interpretive acts serve to re-colonize those we seek to decolonize and reaffirm their subaltern status in our journals, centuries after the fact.
If we accept that, as Cortez says, that subalternity cannot be separated from the notion of publics, and that “subaltern speech is assumed to be public and registerable” (56), then therein lies our problem, for that particular public cannot be joined posthumously. Colonization, as we have discussed it, replaces language, destroys art, and inhibits expression, replacing such rhetorical forms with its own. The demise of a society, such as with the Moche, erases their discourse altogether. Gries was clear about the care needed in interpreting the funereal artifacts, as those artifacts were separated from the languages and discourses that surrounded them. This is exactly why the example, cited in class, of a gay academic studying the rhetoric of a heterosexual, or a rhetorician of one race studying the rhetorics of racial others, fails in my view. In those cases, the discourse is still there, the language heard and (Derrida notwithstanding) understandable. These rhetorics, while unfamiliar, still stem largely from the same western traditions, and these rhetoricians and their subjects - or other rhetoricians – can talk their way around to an understanding. Of course, this is not without its difficulties; disagreements abound in the most equal of situations, within discourses among people in the same disciplines, using the same language and with the same rhetorical knowledge. Interpretations differ within our own western modes of thought. But that reaffirms the problem of the Moche; if we can have such differences of interpretation within our own rhetorics and our own disciplines, how can we be certain of something from beyond that, something that speaks to us in its own unfamiliar language with a voice unheard for centuries? If literacy is, as Gee says, a way of being, an “identity kit,” how can we ever truly understand an identity absent of any idea about that literacy, when our interpretation itself stems from a literacy that forms our way of being?
Of course, this does not mean we never try. There is great value, much to be learned, in the very act of trying; it seems to me that if nothing else, we may learn something about ourselves and our own ways of thinking in such attempts, and of course it’s not impossible to learn about the subjects, as well. It does mean, however, that we often have to settle for possibilities. To remain honest to both ourselves and that which/those whom we study, we must remain distant from overly strong claims of knowing. In cases such as the Moche, and even those peoples yet extant who were colonized, their language killed, their art destroyed, and their religion replaced, we can only go so far in decolonizing, regardless of the method used.
In this post, I will focus on the points of discussion from our class where we emphasized the complexities of accounting for colonialism in our research practices and methods, especially as it relates to ancient Indigenous communities of the Americas. I hope to complicate, without necessarily offering answers to, a variety of issues surrounding representation, experience, and expertise as they overlap in research methodologies. As such, I will focus on the collection Rhetorics of the Americas: 3114 BCE to 2012 CE edited by Damián Baca and Victor Villanueva, with a particular focus on the chapter “Practicing Methods in Ancient Cultural Rhetorics: Uncovering Rhetorical Action in Moche Burial Rituals” by Laurie Gries.
In her article Gries asks, “How then do we accurately recover nonverbal ancient rhetorical practices on their own terms if we do not have a society’s own “terms” to begin with?” (91). Different forms of this question became central to the conversation in our class as we discussed the collection Rhetorics of the Americas. While we did not necessarily focus on nonverbal rhetorical practices solely, we did spend a fair amount of time thinking about the effect of history on our ability to understand any form of rhetorical practice outside the Western world.
The reality of colonization, whether Spanish or British, complicated the process of thinking about non-Western rhetorical practices through the consistent devaluing of Indigenous ideologies and epistemologies—ways of knowing. The devaluation of Indigeneity that lies at the core of settler colonialism has continued into modern academe through what Damián Baca calls the “largely unquestioned dichotomy in higher education: that of ‘high’ and ‘low’ theory” (12). He notes that “high” theories, in Rhetoric and Composition specifically, are tied with the reading of rhetorical tradition mapped from the Classical Rhetoric of Athens to the Modern Rhetorical Theory of the United States. Such a reading embeds the West as “high” theory and everything beyond Western ways of knowing and thinking as “low” theory. It is this same dichotomy, born out of colonial enterprise, that complicates our ability to encounter ancient rhetorical practices, whether verbal or nonverbal, “on their own terms.”
Of course, access to ancient rhetorical practices of the Americas is complex in a variety of ways, not leastwise because of the plurality of different Indigenous groups and thus the plurality of rhetorical practices themselves. Furthermore, as we discussed in class, Indigenous communities have dealt with vast amounts of oppression at the hands of unethical anthropological and ethnographic research (this would certainly include Indigenous communities here in Milwaukee and around Wisconsin). This history requires an extremely cognizant approach, especially by researchers outside the communities in question. Finally, access becomes problematic when members of the tribal communities are no longer available to work alongside. Such is the problem faced by Gries in her exploration of ancient Moche burial procedures.
In order to work against this complication, Gries champions what we might call a materialist or new materialist approach to the nonverbal cultural artifacts of Moche burial chambers. She writes, “I argue that nonverbal artifacts have this same potential; if we listen close enough, these cultural artifacts speak to us and render the terms with which we can begin to uncover their rhetorical actions” (91). This approach, which focuses on the agency of nonhuman and nonanimal objects, has been critiqued in other iterations (i.e. the work of Ian Bogost and Levi Bryant) for overwriting the peoples who have consistently borne the brunt of the violent de-humanizing tactics of colonialism. This complication with new materialist thought came out in our class discussion as we tried to puzzle through whether or not Gries’s new materialist approach overwrites the Moche people who enacted rhetorical practices through nonverbal artifacts. While a new materialist approach seems intriguing and necessary in a lot of ways, I can’t help but struggle with the implications for consistently marginalized groups at the hands of Westernization. Does giving these cultural artifacts such agency, as Gries does, actually undercut the agency of the Moche people? That is, do the artifacts themselves carry the connotations that actually inform us about the social, political, economic, and/or rhetorical complexities of the Moche people, or are we actually projecting a Western research methodology onto them even in our attempts to keep from doing so? Furthermore, precisely because Moche culture is no longer extant as such, is it possible to allow the artifacts to “speak to us” divorced from our Western expectations and understandings of rhetoric and rhetorical practices? Is it possible that this is a continued form of colonization via research practices?