Materiality Matters

Constructing a Rhetorical Biography of Plains Indian Pictography
Center for American Indian Studies Programs
American Indian Studies Seminar Series
Wednesday, April 2, 2014

TFL

5:30 pm to 6:30 pm

Ann Updike, Miami University Ohio

The recent explosion of material and object-oriented theories in the Western traditions of philosophy, anthropology, literary studies, and rhetoric, among others, resonate with the millennia-long traditions of American Indian ontologies that recognize humans’ role as one, equal entity among others in vast webs of interrelationships. As the late Apache philosopher Viola Cordova (2007) states, “Humans are not superior to other life forms. They are simply different… Each group plays a specific role. All of the diversity, together, forms a complete whole that is what the Earth is.” Based in part on these longstanding non-anthropocentric, non-hierarchical American Indian ontologies, combined with literary scholar Scott Manning Stevens’ (Mohawk) integrationist approach to the study of indigenous artifacts (2007), this paper outlines an object-oriented research method, termed a “rhetorical biography of things.” By decentering Western paradigms and paying attention to already-present indigenous material rhetorics, this method helps address the marginalization of cultures whose knowledge systems include more than the linguistic, for as Maureen Daly Goggin (2004) asserts, “the [Western verbal-material] divide severely limits what counts as rhetorical practice and who counts in its production, performance, and circulation.”

Using this methodology and examples of a non-linguistic material rhetoric of American Plains Indians—a form of pictography often called ledger art—I present results from a study that follows the genre’s trajectory from its traditional use on the nineteenth-century North American Plains, in military prisons and Indian boarding schools, through periods of Western collection and commodification, and finally to the work of current indigenous artists. Examining ledger art at these various sites illuminates how this material practice has functioned rhetorically, and continues to do so, in Plains Indian culture; analyzes the ways Plains Indian painters have responded to differing rhetorical exigencies; and explores how Western culture has defined, (de)valued, and used the medium for its own purposes. By focusing less on the aesthetic quality of visual and material indigenous objects and considering instead the ways these objects circulate through various cultural and intercultural contexts, speak to their differing audiences, and are received and interpreted differently by those audiences, this research explores new ways of interpreting and valuing indigenous materials and their uses as rhetoric in both indigenous and EuroAmerican cultures.

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AIS seminar papers are pre-circulated electronically two weeks prior to the seminar date. Email mcnickle@newberry.org to request a copy of the paper. Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.