In Plateau Indian Ways with Words, Barbara Monroe makes visible the arts of persuasion of the Plateau Indians, whose ancestral grounds stretch from the Cascades to the Rockies, revealing a chain of cultural identification that predates the colonial period and continues to this day. Culling from hundreds of student writings from grades 7-12 in two reservation schools, Monroe finds that students employ the same persuasive techniques as their forebears, as evidenced in dozens of post-conquest speech transcriptions and historical writings. These persuasive strategies have survived not just across generations, but also across languages from Indian to English and across multiple genres from telegrams and Supreme Court briefs to school essays and hip hop lyrics.
Anecdotal evidence, often dramatically recreated; sarcasm and humor; suspended or unstated thesis; suspenseful arrangement; intimacy with and respect for one’s audience as co-authors of meaning—these are among the privileged markers in this particular indigenous rhetorical tradition. Such strategies of personalization, as Monroe terms them, run exactly counter to Euro-American academic standards that value secondary, distant sources; “objective” evidence; explicit theses; “logical” arrangement. Not surprisingly, scores for Native students on mandated tests are among the lowest in the nation.
While Monroe questions the construction of this so-called achievement gap on multiple levels, she argues that educators serving Native students need to seek out points of cultural congruence, selecting assignments and assessments where culturally marked norms converge, rather than collide. New media have opened up many possibilities for this kind of communicative inclusivity. But seizing such opportunities is predicated on educators, first, recognizing Plateau Indian students’ distinctive rhetoric, and then honoring their sovereign right to use it. This book provides that first step.
What's new is this book's focus on a specific American Indian culture and that culture's rhetorical tradition. Monroe makes an effective bridge between the work of scholars in American Indian studies and scholarship in composition and communication studies. In a general sense, the value of Plateau Indian Ways with Words is its overarching movement toward rhetorical and communicative inclusivity. More specifically, Monroe provides a template for educators who serve American Indian communities on how to identify culturally specific rhetorical patterns.
What if Indians used this compelling, complicated tool to advance their interests, promote an idea, rethink (or reclaim) their values; or what if they wrote simply because they enjoyed their literacy, as so many human beings have done before and since? Barbara Monroe has written an insightful and compelling book that starts from these latter questions rather than scouring the Native text for signs of oral traditional resistance or, conversely, proof of assimilation. Her subjects, Plateau Indian students, use alphabetic writing in English in ways that do not threaten their identities or cultures so much as protect and even advance them in the way of a tool. . . . [They] are engaged in survival, not tragic assimilation or defiant resistance to the written word. . . . Because they seem more focused on life than death, they give me no small amount of hope.
Barbara Monroe, former associate professor of English and coordinator of English Education at Washington State University, is also the author of Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom.learn more