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Rhetoric and Indigeneity

Workshop Leader: Ellen Cushman, Michigan State University

Workshop Leaders:

Ellen Cushman, Michigan State University

From textile designs, to wampum, tocapus, quipus, glyphs, and other expressions of writing, indigenous peoples have long recorded their lives and ways using material, performative and symbolic systems. This workshop focuses on the visual and linguistic expressions of indigenous symbolic systems as a key to unlocking their lasting cultural, historical, and social impact. How do these systems do their representational work? What impact did/do these have for the peoples who use(d) them? How do these communication systems mitigate the influence of the written letter and pressure the American Indians to become “civilized others” through the use of the Roman alphabet?

Seeing literacy and rhetoric as two sides of the same coin (Duffy), we’ll examine the relationship between Indigenous languages of the Americas and the politics of their writing before and after the arrival of the Europeans in 1492. To do this, we’ll explore scholarship in native American, indigenous language, and decolonial studies with three questions in mind: (a) how has the acquisition of alphabetic script impacted (Latin) American indigenous communities, primarily its effects on identities, languages, and cultural institutions;(b) what knowledge is produced today about these communities and their changing responses to what they consider local and global languages and identities; and (c) how have indigenous communities used global networks to advance their own ideas regarding cultural maintenance and language preservation? Participants are encouraged to bring questions of their own to the table as well.

Framed in ongoing discussions of decolonizing thought, we discuss several forms of writing, record keeping and representational systems, tracing the long history of meaning making in the Americas. We pay special attention systems of representation as examples of key moments of resistance to the alphabetic influence and the civilizing force of the letter. Along the way, we will apply key rhetorical frameworks to the study scripts and material literacies, including, but not limited to the decolonial (Mignolo, Baca), ecological (Cooper), cultural (Mailloux, Villanueva, Young, Royster), and comparative rhetorical perspectives (Mao). As we do, we’ll reflect on the methodological difficulties that emerge when trying to remove an alphabetic lens to see writing systems in their own right.

 Participants are asked to bring works in progress to the workshop; these will be discussed, with the aim of producing a full research proposal to be presented at the conclusion of the workshop. When possible, explorations of readings will involve participants in hands-on, inquiry-based activities designed to encourage multiple entry points into the concepts. By incorporating their findings from the workshop into the final project, participants will leave with a trajectory for their future work.

Questions should be directed to Ellen Cushman,

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