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Composition Forum 32, Fall 2015

Review of Barbara Monroe’s Plateau Indian Ways With Words: The Rhetorical Tradition of the Tribes of the Inland Northwest

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Daniel Cole

Monroe, Barbara. Plateau Indian Ways With Words: The Rhetorical Tradition of the Tribes of the Inland Northwest. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2014. 288 pp.

Readers who look only at the title would be mistaken to dismiss as too parochial Barbara Monroe’s Plateau Indian Ways With Words. Its feet planted in both Indigenous Studies and Composition Studies, the book offers teachers at all levels a great deal that is generalizable and adaptable from its close examination of the rhetorical practices of Plateau Indians, a term that covers an array of Indian nations whose homelands center in central and eastern Washington state. This group is not exactly obscure; notable members include Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene), Chief Joseph (Nez Perce), and Kennewick Man (Colville). Though Monroe’s book does not mention the Kennewick Man controversy, this case in which Indian knowledge became validated over the erroneous assertions of Western scientists points to a principle that animates Monroe’s book: Eurowesterners could learn much from serious and respectful engagement with Indian epistemologies and intellectual traditions.

Its title an homage to Shirley Brice Heath’s groundbreaking book, Ways With Words, this book found its impetus, writes Monroe, in a sense often expressed by teachers that there is “something special” about Plateau Indian student writing, but they “were hard-pressed to explain exactly how, much less why” (xvii). Monroe believed that finding an answer to those questions might lead to more effective pedagogies to engage this population, which generally scores low on standardized tests and other modes of evaluation. Thus, Plateau Indian Ways With Words draws upon approximately 940 writing samples from Plateau Indian students in grades 7-12 between 2001 and 2004 in two reservation schools. These documents are examined in comparison to an extensive historical archive of Plateau Indian texts dating back to 1855. Using an elaborate qualitative theoretical framework that draws primarily on critical discourse analysis, Monroe determines that, taken as a whole, this body of texts does indeed contain an internal continuity and coherence that represents a distinct and continuously evolving system of Plateau Indian rhetorical practices. Monroe recognizes that such a project risks essentializing her subjects; she responds that “isolating key features of any rhetoric always entails, to a certain degree, making it hold still for a moment in order to pinpoint and describe those features” (20-21).

Monroe argues that Plateau Indians’ rhetorical practices are directly at odds with the conventions typically taught as integral to standard academic discourse. Plateau Indian students are thus confronted with writing pedagogies that not only place them at a clear disadvantage, but also invalidate their identities and home cultures. Monroe calls for new pedagogical approaches that honor Plateau Indians’ rhetorical sovereignty—a concept first advanced by Scott Lyons (Leech Lake Ojibwe), who also provides the Foreword for this book. Kristin L. Arola (Anishinaabe) affirms this ideal in an Afterword.

Through analysis of an Indian student’s rap poem, Chapter One explores foundational issues of authenticating Indian identity. A key to the book, Chapter Two lays out four key features of Plateau Indian rhetoric. A close look at two may suffice to clearly represent the book’s core argument. A grounding principle for Monroe is Robert Kaplan’s notion that questions of who is authorized to speak to whom on what topics in what manners are answered in often profoundly different ways by different cultures, thereby rendering cross-cultural communication fraught and problematic (21). As criteria for persuasive evidence, for example, Monroe argues that Plateau Indians deploy and privilege “experiential knowledge,” usually conveyed in a first person narrative of something the rhetor directly witnessed or experienced. Monroe observes: “Therein lies the cultural conflict: with its foundations in classical rhetoric, academic discourse generally discounts, if not disallows, experience-based support on grounds that such support is subjective and therefore unreliable” (23).

Another Plateau Indian rhetorical principle that diverges from standard academic discourse involves a tendency to organize evidence with a “Suspended Thesis/Suspenseful Arrangement,” a practice that Eurowestern audiences may mistakenly regard as lacking coherence or cohesiveness. “The larger argument itself is not necessarily recursive,” Monroe writes; “[w]hat is recursive is the return to story to develop pieces of argument” (29). This feature obviously marks another consequential divergence from standardized academic discourse, which demands a linear, thesis-driven arrangement. Monroe notes that, historically, Eurowestern analysts have used this feature of Indian rhetoric as a basis for false conclusions about cognitive deficiency. (Monroe acknowledges Kaplan’s involvement with this problem through his problematic 1966 “squiggles” essay [29].) It must be recognized, Monroe urges, that “arrangement—and its constitutive kinfolk, coherence and cohesion—is both logical and not logical, depending not on audience or even discourse but on discursive community, whose interpretive strategies are bounded by values that make the community cohere as a community in the first place” (31).

Other principles Monroe describes include elements of “High Affect,” which “re-create” in writing “an oral experience” through the use of underlining, all-capitals, and other means (26), and “Situated Elaboration/Selective Detail,” or the range from silence to volubility—another factor sometimes wrongly linked to cognitive ability—along with stipulations for appropriate topics (33). Monroe’s larger argument is that this collection of rhetorical practices is part of a broader rhetorical system that has been internalized by Plateau Indians, who must contend in school with writing pedagogies that tell them that these practices are wrong. Frustration ensues for teachers and students alike, but for the Indian students this problem is even more deeply consequential because it invalidates their culture, identities, and capabilities.

Monroe’s efforts to historicize Plateau Indian rhetoric, and thereby establish its coherence and continuity, takes up a substantial portion of the book, comprising Chapters Three through Five. Chapter Three goes back to the nineteenth century and examines the transcribed proceedings of a series of treaty negotiations between Plateau Indian leaders and US government officials in 1855 and follow-up sessions in 1870. Monroe quotes all or part of several Indian speeches and demonstrates how they “share common discursive moves” in line with the distinctive rhetorical system she mapped in Chapter Two (45). To get a sense of the remarkable rhetorical complexity of these circumstances, consider that as many as two thousand Indians were in attendance at one session, in Walla Walla, and at least four languages were in play, including several dialects. Monroe argues that this “language pluralism and frequent contact may have actually predicated rather than precluded the development of shared communicative competence” (45). While the analysis of texts in translation of course raises questions about authenticity and representation, Monroe points out that the circumstances necessitated awareness and accommodation of these problems, and the record indeed shows great concern and discussion of accuracy in translation. Further, Monroe argues that broader rhetorical moves like the ones she’s tracing are less likely to be lost in translation than issues like diction and syntax.

Covering 1910-1921, Chapter Four examines what Monroe calls, “a dark period of critical transitions from oral to written communications, and from ancestral language to English, giving rise to Plateau Indian English” against the backdrop of Allotment, a US effort to basically disintegrate Indian nations and parcel out Indian land to individuals (76). Drawing in part on texts compiled in the Lucullus Virgil McWhorter Papers, Monroe traces Plateau Indians sustaining their distinctive rhetorical practices through their use of writing, not only in a Western language, but also in Western genres, including telegrams, petitions, letters-to-the-editor, and legal briefs. In these vibrant documents, we see Plateau Indians using writing to pursue their national interests, engaging with issues like water rights, hunting and fishing rights, alcohol regulation, and the draft prompted by World War I.

While much of the book is concerned with texts in which Plateau Indians address themselves to white authority figures, Chapter Five examines intragroup interactions and centers on a series of tribal meetings held on a Yakama reservation in 1955 and 1956. Interactional dynamics that emerge from the proceedings, the chapter demonstrates, include “continuity of discourse, affordances for confrontation, and mechanisms for building consensus” (107). Monroe argues that these elements illuminate “the expectations and experiences of persuasive discourse that [Plateau Indian] students bring to the classroom” in the 21st century (107).

Chapter Six restores the focus to latter day Plateau Indian student writers, analyzing their work as exemplars of the rhetorical principles articulated in Chapter Two. In her seventh and final chapter, Monroe critiques ways in which Achievement Gap discourse, with its language of deficiencies and deficits, amounts to the continued colonization of Indian cultures and identities. Late in Chapter Six, Monroe notes a potentially problematic issue in that the rhetorical practices she traces are “not in fact evident in most students’ writing at the tribal school. But when traditional influences do occur, they do so dramatically” (155, emphasis in original). Rather than invalidating her thesis, Monroe argues, this “variability [. . .] supports the view that Plateau Indian rhetorical practices, like identity, are multiple, relative to individual experience and family education, among other factors” (155). I would add in support of Monroe’s argument that the students are operating in an environment that penalizes them if they employ these practices.

Altogether, Monroe tells a strongly compelling story that situates Plateau Indian students as not simply responding to assignments, but participating in a long struggle in which they join their compatriots and forebears in preserving their rhetorical sovereignty along with defending their cultural, political, and economic autonomy.

This problem brings us to the question of critical importance at the heart of the book: “When rhetorical worlds collide, how should educators respond?” (xix). Monroe rightly notes that “models based on deficiency and deficit, assimilation and accommodation” are deeply flawed (xix). Instead, she argues, “faculty should seek out points of cultural congruence, selecting methods, assignments, and assessments where culturally marked norms converge rather than collide, thereby giving all students the opportunity to succeed” (xix). Monroe further asserts that “educators should honor American Indians’ right to rhetorical sovereignty” (xix). While this prescription is very much on target, and Monroe does include a general discussion of praxis in the book’s closing pages, I would still like to have seen more in the way of concrete specifics. An appendix with a sampling of curricular materials that model the kind of “cultural congruence” that might engage students more productively would be useful—and in line with Monroe’s admirable commitment in this book to actual students and classroom impacts.

In addition, I wonder how exactly might the rhetorical features like the ones Monroe enumerates be incorporated into that curriculum vis-à-vis standard academic discourse? How would students be tasked and their work evaluated according to those principles? Would the principles of Plateau Indian rhetoric simply be accorded status as a valid reference point, enabling students to be multi-rhetorical in a manner comparable to being multi-lingual? Would some form of contact zone pedagogy be employed?

Whatever forms the incorporation of Plateau Indian rhetorics into writing projects and classroom activity might take, it bears noting that Indian students may not always be comfortable with the ways that their own cultures might be referenced in school curricula. They certainly do not lack a basis for such mistrust, given the long, fraught history on Indians’ mostly disastrous encounters with Eurowestern style education. (An extensive bibliography on this topic has been compiled by the Association for Studies in American Indian Literature.) It must also be said that non-Indian teachers in particular would need to be very conscientious and careful in how they construct their authority. (Monroe, by the way, notes in sentence one of Chapter One that she is non-Indian; I too am non-Indian.)

As noted above, the basic problems Monroe grapples with in this book are pervasive in American multi-ethnic classrooms. Indeed, all or portions of this book would be well worth assigning to teachers in any stage of training or professional development, not only to help them avoid ethnocentrism, but also to demonstrate the value of empathy and building on student strengths. The book’s own greatest strength may be evinced in Monroe’s efforts to understand Plateau Indian writing on its own terms. Here again, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngati Awa, Ngati Porou) and others have pointed out, such research must be handled with careful and well-considered motives that ensure that those studied will benefit rather than suffer further colonization. Monroe offers a model of engaging Indian writing with honor and respect. Plateau Indian Ways With Words rightly suggests that working out how we might better teach such students entails figuring out how we might better learn from them.

Works Cited

ASAIL. Selected Bibliography on American Indian Boarding Schools and Resistant Strategies of Indian Students at Indian Schools. Web. 1 July 2015. <>.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd ed. London: Zed Books, 2012. Print.

Zimmer, Carl. New DNA Results Show Kennewick Man Was Native American. New York Times. 18 June 2015. Web. 1 July 2015. <>.

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