A Settler Archive: A Site for a Decolonial Praxis Project

Romeo García, University of Utah

December 2019


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History isn’t a dead and remembered object; it is alive and it speaks to us
-Powell 121

At the Cemetery

I want to begin with a memory, one that situates me at a local cemetery — the Restlawn Memorial Park in La Feria, Texas. Then, and there, I remember Grandma stating firmly, “No pises las tumbas.” An important lesson learned that day was to treat the non-living with respect; I walked, thereafter, with caution. As we got closer to the people we were visiting, Grandma reached out her hand and said, “Dame la mano,” and continued by saying, “Habla con ellos…ellos pueden oirte…te miran y te cuidan.” That day, I was reaffirmed the importance of pausing and listening, of working to create presence from absence and sound from silence (see García 7). I’d come to associate her words, “Nos vemos,” that day, too, with more than just an indication of our preparation for departure. Similar to al rato, nos vemos could translate to see you later; y esperamos ese momento. The cemetery was a site of/for community praxis. It is here where I learned how to engage in and with community listening: a departure from mere presence as the genesis for listening, a situating of the self in polylog with past and present selves and others, a learning how to be-with others, otherwise.[1]

Today, I return to this memory of the cemetery vis-à-vis community listening, because community remains at the fore of thinking my racialized and minoritized body out of spaces of domination such as settler archives.[2] The cemetery situates me within a community who has struggled for generations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV). A people thrown “into the world of colonial legacies, colonial differences, and colonial wounds” (“Decoloniality and Phenomenology” 377). A people forced to learn how to address themselves to hauntings and forced to mitigate a precarious subject position between being a subject of hauntings and becoming a subject in hauntings. A people who remain hopeful — that one day they will be seen and heard, belong, and not haunted — despite the contrary communicated to them.[3] I left the LRGV and the cemetery many years ago, but I return often as I do, both to continue to learn and to grow and to be-with my community. Community is important particularly in moments like this, where I must do work in a site that demands a decolonial praxis project.

Settler archives haunt us all. In reading its contents, I gain a greater understanding of my brown(ed) body. Settler archives demand a carefully reckoning, to be sure, with erasure, death, terror, trauma, and settler invention practices, all of which affect how and why I speak today from a particular place, out of a particular history, and from a particular community practice. And so, I come back to the LRGV, as a matter of responsibility; a region six times tilled over by the political order of colonization; a region ecologically affected by a 500 year old invasive species with deep roots for which grip all resources available (e.g., settler colonialism or coloniality); a region, and a people, today discursively contained, monitored, surveilled, interpreted, and checked by human (agencies) and non-humans (borders, checkpoints) in the name of a modern(/colonial) nation-state. Settler archives haunt me because they remind me settler colonialism, or coloniality, is a set of persisting technologies, for which the settler possesses and uses to enforce viewpoints; settler archives are a fixture within such technologies. I began/begin with a memory of the cemetery, because in this essay I must see and listen to an effaced humanity left in the palimpsests of settler subjectivity, whiteness, and settler intimacies; a humanity today forced to reside in a nation’s imaginary space of death[4] and considered half-dead (Anzaldúa 25).[5] In this essay, I have made it my responsibility to amend a settler archive against the backdrop of a socio-political milieu that remains committed to monitoring, surveilling, and interpreting brown(ed) bodies.

In the fall of 2014, I began research in the LRGV for my dissertation. I was partially interested in settler archives. So, I turned to the Special Collections and Archives at the University of Texas — Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). I requested archival boxes from various cities in the LRGV. Each box, I found, was a storehouse of various artifacts such as newspaper clippings, images, and pamphlets all pertaining to the arrival of settlers, their settlement, and their march towards modernity (salvation, progress, and development). At the onset, I had four goals: (1) to gain insight into settler discourse and invention practices, (2) to locate, identify, and reveal a complicity between a logic of coloniality and a rhetoric of modernity/rationality, (3) to understand the role settler archives play in strengthening the complicity, (4) and, to demonstrate how settler archives can be a site for a decolonial praxis project. I have chosen to focus on one settler box, the Harlinen, Texas box, a local history of settler colonialism (and local desire to veil a darker side of settlement and modernity) important to the West’s hegemonic narrativization of civilization and modernity, to exemplify such a decolonial praxis project.

As I opened up the Harlingen box, I was transported to a cemetery, once more present with my Grandma. I could hear her say “que curioso” and ask: “¿qué ves?” | “¿estás escuchando?” | “¿ves lo que está pasando”? Settler archives are a curious fixture in settler and modern/colonial technologies. In my initial observation of the box, documents were founded on peaceful settler narratives and a sense of settler vision, order, and direction.[6] On a local and global scale, this was a settler vision, however, that produced images of empty landscapes from which other inhabiting bodies vanished, that established ways of relating to people (being/human/reason | non-being/less human/nature), that pursued the management and control of land, resources, and people.[7] I remain convinced today we must approach and treat settler archives not simply as a storehouse for the West’s fictions and myths, but rather, as a premier site of production for colonial difference and coloniality of knowledge.[8]

For this essay, I have selected a few artifacts to showcase a local settler discourse inextricably predicated on foundations of dualism (reason/nature), evolutionism (savage to rational, primitive to civilized, traditional to modern), and epistemic and ontological difference (human/knowing and less human/inferior). Specifically, though, I focus on how these artifacts bare the jussive claims that civilization commenced when settlers arrived into, wrestled away, and saved empty lands; that settlers alone possessed a vision and sense of direction for modernity and alone are responsible for any and all accomplishments; that settlers were peaceful and philanthropic in their colonizing endeavors. I intend to amend these archives and haunt back vis-à-vis delinking and bringing forth from the shadows of coloniality humanity left in the palimpsests of settler subjectivity, whiteness, and settler intimacies. I do this work throughout, and it becomes more apparent in the latter part of the essay when I introduce borderland literature and corridos.

It is with this opportunity to amend that I maintain a glimmer of hope despite inheriting what Michael Taussig calls spaces of death — a physical, ideological, and imaginative space of death, terror, and trauma consubstantial to the (re)creation of a coloniz(ed/ing) world (4-5); despite inhabiting wound(ed/ing) cities and wound(ed/ing) institutions of education normalized by the dialectic between space-time specific projects and societal institutions and material structures that rewrite geographies and inhabiting bodies in colonial ways (see Till 6; Brasher et al. 2-3). And with this opportunity, rather than speak on the differences between settler colonial studies and decoloniality, I have decided to place them in conversation with each other. That being said, the following premises, based on readings, underwrite this essay:

  • Settlers discovered (doctrine of discovery), arrived, stayed, and sowed a disease (coloniality) into the landscape of the Americas and their subsequent practices of testing variegated methods of bringing together designs of missionaries, civilizing missions, modernization, development, marketization constituted imperial modernity and the eventual emergence of a modern/colonial world system.
  • Imperial modernity veils at the same time articulates a pretended universality of a particular ethnicity and place, and hence, a historical rationality and sense of direction too, which is responsible for ignoring and rendering invisible geo-and-body politics of knowledge and understanding, elsewhere and otherwise.
  • Coloniality and a modern/colonial world system illuminates an association of social interests between dominant groups of nation-states interested in the management and control of land, resources, and people. This resulted in images of empty landscapes from which othered inhabiting bodies vanished and established ways of relating to people. Unavoidable today, both affect the human experience across all domains: economic, political, civic, and epistemic.
    • In the spirit of learning how to re-exist and rebuild in and across differences, not casted in terms of plus or minus degrees of humanity, it is important to strike a balance between the analytical task of critique and the task of reaffirming modes and principles of thought and feeling denied.[9]

I proceed forth, in the spirit of a decolonial praxis project, ultimately to peel back the layers of settler discourse (epistemic murk), to reveal a complicity between a logic of coloniality and rhetoric of modernity, and to short-circuit the grid by amendment; to create friction in the trafficking of settler images, narratives, and rhetorics in the normative. And I do this work by heeding the advice of Lorenzo Veracini, amending an unnamed and undisturbed image by focusing on settlers: what they do, how they think about what they do, and their desire for permanency (15). Of course, any shortcomings in this pursuit are mine.

As a quick note, I invoke settler not to suggest a homogenous population nor imply settler colonialism unfolds evenly across space and time. Apropos to the discovery of the Americas, settler names and situates a mutation of a palimpsest of identity (men of letters, men of science, men of vision and integrity), an ego (ego conquiro, ego cogito), and a rhetoric (rights of man/empire, rights of citizens/nation-states) incited by epistemic and ontological difference (human/rational, less human/nature) and a hubris of the zero point principal.[10] Similarly, I speak in the register of settler archives, but not to infer they are monolithic. Acknowledging the etymology of archives (arkheion), their entrustment to archons (e.g., human and non-human agents), and the role of archons in storing and commanding the law (see “Archive Fever” 9), settler archives name and situate the arrival and settlement of settler storehouses. Such directly correspond with the discovery of the Americas, the development, emplacement, and dissemination of a structural pattern of power (coloniality), and the emergence of a modern/colonial world system; storehouses that both store/record settler projects (legitimizing accomplishments and ownership of land/property) and produce colonial difference. The Harlingen box, I argue, exists within a constellation of settler archives encamped and guarded across the U.S.

In recent years, rhetoricians and compositionists have considered the applicability of delinking beyond its theoretical baseline. I submit this essay as an example of that possibility. While the structure of the archive, which is spectral (“Archive Fever” 54), interests me, I am equally interested in how settler archives illustrate an awareness by settlers of the role literacy and rhetorical work can play in enforcing viewpoints. Literacy and rhetorical work can take and make place in the image, narrative, and rhetoric of settlers. This is where my contribution is, within a plethora of Texas-based scholarship on settler discourse (“The Indian” and “The Mexican” problem) and the colonization of Texas — de-linking settler archives’ literacy and rhetorical work. Settler archives are most appropriate for a decolonial praxis project. We can begin to triangulate (and works towards decolonizing) the remaking of a colonized world vis-à-vis an attentiveness to different permutations of settler archives. And in the process of carefully reckoning with settler archives, of being forced to come to terms with how we inherit death spaces and reside in wound(ed/ing) cities and institutions of higher education, my hope is we can all learn how to address ourselves to hauntings, a possible stepping-stone towards decolonization and pluriversality.

Ambitious Pioneers: Men of Vision and Integrity
A Great Movement South

In Texas settler discourse (epistemic murk), there are wild landscapes, savages, and primitives proposed to be overcomed. Harlingen, in particular, was a “floundering community buried in mud,” a barren wasteland that was rough, raw, and undeveloped (“Harlingen: The City that Citrus Built”). Yet, settlers possessed a unique vision and sense of direction to overcome. They saw a promised land, a rich fertile, potentially productive, and empty Valley. Some, squatted on, bought, and/or stole the land, but settler citizens of Harlingen celebrated the fact that their land was both “settled on free land with no Spanish background” (while contracted for, the land was originally part of a 1781 Spanish land Grant El Agostadero del Espiritu Santo) and “built on men of integrity,” who’d leave “their records for posterity to read” (“50 Years of Progress,” emphasis mine). A settler vision and sense of direction marked the beginning of a great movement South, and thus, the colonization operation of bringing about “civilization from the wilderness” commenced (n.p.).

We Invite You, “Builders With Vision and Confidence,” to Come[11]

In Harlingen (Lon C. Hill Improvement Company), as well as in Sharyland (The Southwestern Land Company) and Progresso (The Progresso Development Company), fliers, pamphlets, and booklets were published by settler companies, inviting other settler citizens to invest in the land and “to keep capital on the move” (“The Missionite”). I refer to some of these as settler advertisements.

Image 1: Gulf Coast Line Magazine: Lon C. Hill

Settlers compared the discovery of the LRGV to the discovery of a new country. So, all accomplishments were documented in that vein, for posterity to read. Such documentation and celebration is essential for solidifying the permanency of the settler in the present and future. One booklet, for example, advertises the settler vision, conversion of the LRGV, and their modern accomplishments as follows:

Down at the very ‘Tip of Texas’ is a section known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley, which has had a more remarkable growth and development in the last score of years than any section of similar size in the world. From a cactus covered desert it has has been converted into an evergreen garden…and most progressive communities of its size in the country…This booklet is not intended as a…record of its achievements…only as an interesting story of modern day development…a promise of a most brilliant future (“The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas”).

Settlers saw themselves as humble people, so they tended to express their intentions. They were not interested in recording achievements, but rather, in narrativizing development and a march towards modernity. Other similar settler documents were put into circulation, all of which advanced a settler image, narrative, and rhetoric. Each functioned as invitations to specific men though — “different from the kind usually found in new countries” — specifically, they were aimed at settler citizens (different from the other inhabiting bodies): “Sons of valorous men,” who inherited the “deeds” of their fathers and who were encouraged to emulate their ancestors, to “Heed the call of the Treasure Land” (“The Treasure Land of the Lower Rio Grande Valley,” emphasis mine; see Appendix C). Settler citizens, sons of valorous men, answered this call, penetrating what seemed to be at the time impenetrable wilderness.

Harlingen would be founded on April 15, 1910 by Leonidas Carrington Hill (Lon C. Hill), a man deemed to be a settler of moral conviction, known to others as “The Developer” and “The Land Man.” Hill was born in Travis County, Texas in 1862, managed a plantation east of Austin as he grew older,[12] and eventually became a lawyer and established a firm in Beeville, Texas. By 1898, due in part to his interest in farming, he had already visited Brownsville, Texas, and thus, by the early 1900s, settled in Brownsville and eventually purchased the land that would become Harlingen (1903). Hill, in many settler documents, is described as a pioneer who came, saw, and stayed in a land known then as the “Wild Horse Desert,”[13] a great “man of dreams,” “man of action” (a one-man colonization entity), and an empire builder,[14] eager to “get his hands on all the land that he could” (“Six Shooter Junction”). He, as one settler document puts it, “saw beneath the tangle of brush and cactus” (“Harlingen in 1910”).

The LRGV was considered the last frontier. Settlers saw it as a “wild region” that needed to be conquered (“Harlingen: The City”). Civilization was on the march, and Hill would be that man of action, “directing traffic” (“Man of Action–Man of Dreams”). In 1950, Caroline Feild (“Story of Lon Hill is Story of Early Valley Growth: Pioneer Visioned Lush Area”) recognized Hill as a man with a sense of vision, he who first “realized the wonderful opportunity for changing an extensive wasteland, covered with mesquite and cactus, into a veritable garden spot” (n.p.; emphasis mine). Hill’s story, Feild notes, is “not the typical story of an empire builder” (n.p.; emphasis mine). The story captures it perfectly, Hill was an empire builder.

Image 2: “Story of Lon Hill”

In the same year, The Valley Morning Star published, “Lon Hill, Sr., Had Vision to Found Empire in Valley,” describing Hill as a settler, who “came of pioneer stock,” as well as an unofficial member of the state and federal agents, often assisting soldiers and the Texas Rangers in pursuing “bandits” (n.p.). Offering one more description, Jack Rutledge describes Hill as a pioneer who came to the Valley when it was “still lawless, uncivilized, undeveloped,” whose dreams of transforming a wasteland into a city was realized when he purchased and owned more than 100,000 acres of land (“Good Morning”). Harlingen, settlers argue, was the culmination of Hill’s vision  — he came, saw, and conquered.

Hill had similar sentiments about himself and his fellow settlers citizens: they were men of vision, integrity, faith, and guts. In, “Our Lower Rio Grande Valley,” appearing in The Sand Dollar, he describes for readers the LRGV as he arrived: few streets, no railroads, no water systems, and only a few settlements along the Rio Grande river. (It is important to note the Karankawas resided here and that seven land grants were issued dating back to the 1700s: San Martin, Santa Isabel, Potrero Del Espiritu Santo, San Pedro de Caricitos, Concepcion de Carricitos, Ojo de Agua Sub, and La Feria. Ranching communities were prominent too in and around Cameron County in this time). Harlingen was a wild landscape, one however, that if cleared could be the epicenter of progress. Hill speaks to this in his essay:

The Valley’s land development began with a comparatively few larger operators, who foresaw the Valley’s great possibilities and believed in its future. They purchased large tracts of land, which were sold in smaller tracts to various developers for improvement and colonization. Land was cleared, roads and canals built, townsites established. More people came to buy farms, plant orchards. Some prospered, some failed, but the growth continued (emphasis mine).

The LRGV is often described as a realization of “yesterday’s vision,” the vision of pioneers who “recreated the wasteland into a land of plenty” (“Prosperity”). Hill, similarly, describes Harlingen and the LRGV as a “man-made miracle” created by “men of vision” who saw the fertility of the land. (It is important to note that vision connotes those who can colonize and see the productiveness or fertility of the land). In the “Proclamation” for Harlingen, Hill indeed is celebrated for these accomplishments, for seeing “under the tangle of brush and cactus” and developing the land into a productive and “lush semi-tropical paradise” (n.p.). As Hill would put, he and his settler friends had the “guts” to transform the Valley, which remains a “product of vision, self-reliance, and hard work” (n.p.).

Image 3: “Harlingen Gateway to the Valley ‘Wants You’”

Early on, Hill established a strong relationship with the Texas Rangers (Company A), who moved station posts to help protect the newly acquired land. This was per the request of Hill. He is quoted saying to the Rangers: “You boys just clean out the [lawless element], make it a safe place to bring people to, and leave the brush, cactus, and water to me” (“Six Shooter Junction”).[15] (Lawless element is a significant viewpoint, particularly in the context of the other). And the Rangers and settlers did just that vis-à-vis violence (broadly conceived of here), and violence not just aimed towards “bandits,” but towards anyone that got in the way of managing and controlling land and resources. This relationship with the Rangers paved the way for another of Hill’s visions. With the help of Uriah Lott, Richard King (of the King Ranch), Mifflin Kennedy, and Benjamin Franklin Yoakum, construction of the St. L. B. & M Railroad began. The citizens of Harlingen celebrated this accomplishment, as well as the alleviation of the lawless element.

Hill overcame the wilderness and the lawless element. And his success in the LRGV and Harlingen is duly recorded. The citizens of the LRGV, conceivably other settlers, celebrated him. One example of this is a 1925 pamphlet (“Harlingen Gateway to the Valley ‘Wants You’”), a settler advertisement written by settler citizens of Harlingen.[16] The pamphlet identifies modern-day Harlingen as a “spot on a railroad map” (again, absent of inhabiting bodies), one that had grown into a “modern city” in the “center of the richest, most productive, and most thickly populated agricultural regions in the United States” (n.p.). It had overcome its “pioneering” and “experimental” stages. Harlingen was now thoroughly awake and “the world’s most fertile region” (n.p.). Progress, the pamphlet argues, is the story of Harlingen. It was written to point the way to the future and the future was/is the settler (n.p.).

Settlers were humble people. They, once more, were not interested in recording achievements, only in narrativizing development. And so, it can be read in the pamphlet above that the goal is not to “dwell upon its [the settlers] achievements,” but rather “to point the way to the future” (n.p.). Its citizens and their pamphlet do indeed, however, celebrate a “record of progress” (n.p.). Citizens were proud insofar that their investment into “capital” and capitalistic markets (commodification of cotton, sugar cane, citrus, and gin) turned into “prompt and profitable returns” (“View of Jackson Avenue”). By 1925, Harlingen was considered a rich and productive agriculture region that continued to experience growth and prosperity as the “world’s garden spot” and “Heart of the Valley” (“Harlingen’s Location”). It was an empire in the building. Hill, and other settlers, were responsible for its development.

Image 4: “Harlingen’s Location Makes it Key City of ‘World’s Garden Spot’”

The 1925 pamphlet (Image 3) concludes with a selling point towards other settler citizens: “Harlingen Gateway to the Valley ‘Wants You” (n.p.). To be certain, once more, settler citizens didn’t just want anyone. Settler citizens of Harlingen wanted other “men of vision,” a palimpsest of identity to be sure (ego conquiros, empire builders), to come to the “pivot city around which the tremendous development of the past decade…has amazed a nation (“Harlingen: The City that Citrus Built”).[17] They wanted settlers citizens who could continue the tradition of colonizing and managing and controlling land, resources, and people. These citizens, recall, were and are the sons of valorous men. Settler citizens, ultimately, were interested in the permanency of their image, for posterity to read, and literacy and rhetorical work offered such assurances.

Amending vis-à-vis Delinking

The goal, as I spoke of from the onset of this essay, is to peel back the layers of settler discourse (epistemic murk), to reveal a complicity between a logic of coloniality and rhetoric of modernity, and to short-circuit this grid (coloniality and modernity/rationality) by amendment. I want to amend the storehouse of and site of production for erasure, death, terror, trauma, and settler invention practices. In the thick of both hegemonic representations of peaceful settlers marching towards modernity and settler visions producing empty landscapes and/or uncivilized people and land (e.g. literacy and rhetorical work that takes and makes place), thus, I bring forth from the shadows of coloniality humanity left in the palimpsest of settler subjectivity, whiteness, and settler intimacies manifesting today in and as counter memories and counter narratives (e.g., borderland literature and corridos).[18]

Before Hill’s arrival, we know that over the six entradas (encroachments) and political orders of the colonization of Texas (Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and the United States of America), indigenous peoples (Nazan, Pintas, Harices, Comecrudas, Tejones, Toreguanos, Pajaritos, Paisano, Cueros, Crudas), Spanish ranchers, and Mexican communities were present.[19] The land was not empty. Historical records, such as the U.S. Census of Texas (1850), for example, indicate over 200 Mexican and Texas Mexican American families owned land in the LRGV (see Cardenas n.p.). However, these communities are unimportant, especially within a narrative that operates in terms of sequence and jussive statements. I am reminded of this when I read “Colonizing the Valley,” where Don Veach describes “Indian tribes” as not important to the story of the LRGV (n.p.), or, when I read “Land of Hearts Delight,” which emphasizes how “The Indian” has gone:

It [Texas] was named in the days of long ago, by the Indians…Today the Indians are gone but it still has its sunny skies, soft south winds, fertile soils and pure sweet water (n.p.; emphasis mine).

Veach argued “The Indian” was not important because they had “no intention of ‘owning’ any property (“Colonizing the Valley”). “The Mexican” was unimportant, too. Civilization, or in the terms of one document, the “coming to life” of the LRGV, did not begin until the Mexican population diminished and the settler population rose (“Harlingen: The City that Citrus Built”). Make no mistake about it, the idea that settlers entered the “sole remnant of the rough, raw, and undeveloped Texas,” empty of people, is a myth — people were present (n.p.). (I am reminded of another settler like Hill, Chas F.C. Ladd, who in “A Prominent Factor” is described as having “keen insight” both for the “feasibility of colonization” and the development of “barren wastes”).[20] Non-settler citizens must vanish so that empire-building can be thought of as a peaceful and philanthropic venture.

It is a matter of historical fact that settlers took land forcefully, called into question Spanish land grants, and/or used the legal system to take over land. Before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, there was hostility in the LRGV. The land was not empty or desolate. I turn to Caballero, written by Jovita Gonzalez (and Eve Raleigh), to complicate this myth and the mythology of settlers. A proclaimed “historical novel,” it is set in the LRGV during the years 1846-1848 against the backdrop of the Texas Revolution (1835), the emergence of the Republic of Texas (1836), and the annexation of Texas into the U.S. (1845). It depicts presence, as well as the encroachment of the U.S. upon the modern-day LRGV. Caballero complicates a peaceful settler narrative and description of desolate lands. In the account, the “blue-eyed strangers” (4) is an assemblage of settlers, Texas Rangers, and Americanos who have killed and who hate Mexicans (17; 260), have taken land and demarcated boundaries (22), view “The Mexican” as savages, barbaric, and greasers (78), and whom have set up military camps for Zachary Taylor’s war against Mexicans (120). They are who remind the conquered, “Mexicans are a conquered race,” and who also suggest to them, “adjustments will have to be made to make you a part of the new Texas” (180). With Caballero, we also learn about the transfer of land to the U.S., the demarcation of the Rio Grande river as the border between Mexico and the U.S., and the emergence of Texas Mexican Americans as a result of the treaty.

Violence was commonplace. Yet, the Rangers saw and described themselves as a “non-political organization, famed for its efficient non-partisan enforcement of law” (“Sheriff’s Association of Texas Magazine”). The Rangers, as we might recall, were first arranged under the heading of a “common defense” in 1823 by Stephen F. Austin and then carried onward under the identity of a “ranging company” in 1835. They were organized to repel “The Indians” and “The Mexicans.” The argument they did not discriminate — that they were solely interested in law, order, and justice — is preposterous. The LRGV was not an empty landscape. And as settlers arrived, they appropriated land through bloodshed, forced entry onto property, issuance of death threats, and/or or the legal system, with the aid of the Rangers. Many have not forgotten:

1859 para ser preciso…

De Guadalupe-Hidalgo

La tierra se han robado

Más allá del Río Bravo

Gringos contra mexicanos

Leyes y tratados sirven solo

A los Americanos

Corridos are common in the LRGV, a technology of a people who remain on the cusp of invisibility; songs that do memory work by way of remembering triste verdades (sad truths) that affect a people and a place. In the above corrido, “Corrido de Juan Cortina,” the corridista announces a place (“más allá de Río Bravo”), situates the subjects (“Cortina” and “rinches cobardes”), states the problem (“la tierra se han robado”), reveals a haunting (“leyes y tratados sirven solo), and calls forth a politics of memory (“si dicen que soy un bandido por defender mi raza”). Inhabiting bodies vanished/evaporated in the name of modernity, but many keep on remembering, otherwise.

Though not Harlingen related, but definitely LRGV related, there are two pieces regarding the Rangers that hold significance for me in this conversation. The first is a Donna Band Boosters festival brochure (“Texans & Winter Texans International Spring Festival). Paul Martinez, a contributor to the section, “A Look at the Area History,” quotes at length a text that brings forth a darker side of the Ranger’s activities in the LRGV:

Where could the Tejanos turn for protection? The authorities were the sheriffs, judges, and lawyers who coveted our ancestors lands. These terrible injustices, violent situations and excessive crimes committed by vicious Anglo cowboys and bloody Texas Rangers were against the unfortunate Mejicanos who suffered the consequences by having to abandon their own lands and properties.

In the passage above, we learn about “terrible injustices” aimed at Tejanos and the precarious position of Tejanos who could not turn to any form of authority for they were entangled and complicit in the displacement and disenfranchisement of their very community. There is some discussion in the passage too of how Mejicanos were forced to abandon their own lands and properties. The second piece is by Rudolfo Pena of McAllen, Texas, published in The Monitor (McAllen). He is responding to criticism about his description of the Rangers in a previous publication also published by The Monitor. In it, he questions Anglo American justification and superiority, writing:

Superiority in what? In brutality and murder the American way, a la Texas Ranger? In brutality and nuclear and ‘justice’ the Texas way, a la barbarian…if we only had eyes to see, and ears to hear we would contemplate in awe, astounded and bewildered, some of the gruesome and stark panoramas of the darker ages of the past happening all around us…ever since we have had a law enforcement force of butchers and barbarians, like the Texas Rangers, incorporated into our state’s statutes. (“The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas”)

In the passage above, readers are asked to contemplate what justice is and what it means against the backdrop of Rangers as butchers and barbarians. Settlers arrived and settled on preoccupied lands. They formed and continued to acquire the services of the Rangers, who saw themselves as implementing law and order in Texas. But can there be justice, Pena contemplates and asks, if it is at the expense and dispensability of othered bodies? Martinez and Pena both argue no. They force us to acknowledge then how settlers stained the land with the blood of others and how their hands are still stained; then and now, justice only worked and has been in service for a particular type of people — settlers. Before and after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, all was not peaceful. That is a myth, one spoken to at length in George Washington Gomez.

George Washington Gomez, written by Americo Paredes, is set in fictional Jonesville (city in the LRGV) during the early 1900s and against the backdrop of the Americanization movement (1910), the Mexican Revolution (1910), the Tejano Revolt and Plan of San Diego (1915), La Matanza (1915-1919), the Bandit Wars (1915), and the 1919 Joint Committee of the Senate and the House in the Investigation of the Texas State Ranger Force where 19 charges were brought against the Texas Rangers by J.T. Canales. It introduces a different kind of story that disrupts the settler image, narrative, and rhetoric from smoothly trafficking in the normative. In the account, los rinches, or the Texas Rangers, are those who monitor and surveille the land (12), who kill unarmed brown men and children (68; 103), and who tell the non-white community to “go back to your own country” (101). And the settlers, not innocent at all, are those who ensured segregation in schools (116), who invented the “The Mexican” as a “symbol of hatred” (118), and who forever transformed the landscape into a “Gringoland” (25). Paredes’ work affords us a definition of settler colonialism or coloniality before it was named as such, particularly when he writes:

A few English-speaking adventurers moved in…Then came the railroad early in the 20th century, and with it arrived the first real-estate men and the land-and-title companies, and a Chamber of Commerce, of course, which renamed the little town “Jonesville-on the-Grande” and advertised it to suckers from up North as a paradise on earth: California and Florida rolled up into one. Mexicans labored with axe and spade to clear away the brush where the cattle of their ancestors once had roamed. To make room for truck farming and citrus groves. And the settlers poured in from the U.S. heartland, while Mexicans were pushed out of cattle raising into hard manual labor. It was then also that Jonesville-on-the-Grande came to have a Mexican section of town. (36)

The above haunting passage, echoing the rhetoric of Hill earlier,  illustrates how settler colonialism is the pursuit of the management and control of land, resources, and people vis-à-vis the appropriation of land (land grabbing, squatting, calling titles into question), the exploitation of resources, and the idea and imposition of race expressed in the racial classification of people and racial distribution of labor. The two images below depict Mexican laborers and ranchers together working the citrus groves. But they stand there neither on equal grounds nor as equal beings. This was a photo op taken for the purposes of advertisement. And the message remained consistent: settlers managed and controlled land, resources, and people, while the other was cheap labor to be managed and controlled.

Image 5: Mexican Laborers and Ranchers

Mexicans were viewed as “ideal” for manual labor. And so, as the passage above hints at, “The Mexican” was exploited. They were not viewed as human beings, but rather, as objects serving a particular purpose for settlers: re-sowing, re-tilling, and re-harvesting a disease responsible both for their objectivization and exploitation. The latter, for me, is evidenced further in “The American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company” (1923), in which “Mexican” men are described as “cheap and dependable labor” whose hands are “ideal” (n.p.). Today, this viewpoint persists and is enforced by the settler; today, settler colonialism affects the “The Mexican” across all domains: economic, political, civic, and epistemic. History is the burden all Mexican and Mexican Americans must bear in the U.S. as they remain forced to reside in a nation’s imaginary space of death (GWG 31; 149).

The viewpoint, of the nature of “The Mexican,” is an extension of the management and control of people. An extension of that project was the creation of “Mexican Schools” and the pedagogical practice of stamping out “The Mexican” identity. And in this context, I cannot help but observe how Hill emulated Stephen F. Austin sentiments. In an 1835 letter to his cousin Mary Austin Holley, Austin informs her of the situation in Texas and makes several arguments: (1) Texas should be fully Americanized and “settled by a population that will harmonize with their neighbors on the East, in [language], political principles, [common origin], sympathy, and even interest,” (2) The “cause and philanthropy and liberty” will be “promoted by Americanizing Texas,” and (3) The “Mexican” people are a “strange people” and “must be studied to be managed” (n.p.). Hill carried out the projects listed above. In addition, he created the first school for white children in Harlingen. Recognizing “The Mexican” would not leave, settler citizens created Mexican ward schools. This allowed for a strange people to be segregated and managed.

What is a ward? In this context, of segregation between American and perceived non-American children, as a noun a ward is defined as a separate room/space allocated to a particular type of individual. A ward admits an other, protects an other from itself and from harming society.[21] As a verb, ward means to “guard” or to “protect” in the name of something or someone. Ward effectively, thus, locates a place for “The Mexican,” reflecting both the capacity to “study,” surveille, and “manage” a people; a place to administer the work of a modern(/colonial) nation-state. We know as a matter of historical fact that as the brown population entered institutions of education, segregation and pedagogy were means to disciplining the brown(ed) body. All this, once more, is justified in the name of modernity.

Segregation was deemed unconstitutional thanks in part to efforts by organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). But as white and non-white students began attending schools together, other measures were implemented, rationalized along the lines of language acquisition and ideal employment for “The Mexican” (“Mexican tracks”). When this was not enough, Mexican and Mexican American students were disciplined. Borderlands/La Frontera, written by Gloria Anzaldúa, provides a brief glimpse into such disciplining and linguistic terrorism. It is set in the LRGV and against the backdrop of the history of the landscape (six phases of colonization) and the creation of a borderland. In the account, it was the settler who created a border culture, “una herida abierta” (25), who carried out Anglo terrorism in the name of white superiority (29), and who spoke of white rationality in the study and management and control (humanitas) of othered bodies (anthropoi) such as “The Mexican” (58).[22] According to Anzaldúa, the settler is responsible for creating dichotomies that eventually would be expressed in and by pedagogical praxis:

Image 6: “Harlingen Proud of Its Modern School System.”

I remember being caught speaking Spanish at recess—that was good for three licks on the knuckles with a sharp ruler. I remember being sent to the corner of the classroom for talking back to the Anglo teacher when all I was trying to do was tell her how to pronounce my name. If you want to be American, speak American. If you don’t like it, go back to Mexico where you belong. (75)

The above passage offers a lesson in the operationality of cultural logics that function under the heading of linguistic terrorism. The first depiction observed is Anzaldúa being disciplined for speaking Spanish. This is followed by a classroom scene where she is disciplined in a different way. The following are the cultural logics in play: (1) Anglo teacher : American, (2) American identity : American language, (3) brown body : Mexico (birth of origins), and (4) Spanish language : Mexican. Anzaldúa is viewed as transgressive, and thus disciplined for correcting the pronunciation of her name. This act alone led the Anglo teacher to announce, “If you don’t like it, go back to Mexico where you belong” (75). What Borderlands/La Frontera teaches us is that historically schools have attempted to stamp out the identity and language of and/or discipline brown(ed) students.

The above borderland literature and corridos are examples of a particular community practice I speak from. I want to conclude this section on a final claim, which informs partially why I write today from this practice: settlers are interested in the permanency of their image, invoking a rhetoric of modernity to cloak the darker side of settlement and modernity. In a 1935 publication by The Valley Morning Star, Hill’s settler spirit is celebrated, and his image is used as a marker for progress. The publication propagates the settler image the same way K. Hank Harvey (George Washington Gomez) did when he encouraged graduating seniors to not forget the names of settlers and the Alamo (274). It is written:

If the question is asked, why is America great, why has it progressed more rapidly than any other nation in the world’s history, the answer must be: because of the Lon Hills. And if America fails it will be because the spirit of the Lon Hills has died out. (“Man of Action–Man of Dreams”)

But when I think of progress, I also think of violence. I think of the fear instilled in those not considered settler citizens. In 1921, the Ku Klux Klan walked the streets of Harlingen, in the range of 200, during a “civic occasion” the citizens called “white way” (“San Benito Light”). Spectators or onlookers are noted expressing “their complete satisfaction” with the Klan. I am reminded of a haunting passage by Ashraf Rushdy, thus, who in his discussion of lynching’s implicates the spectator:

The spectators, in other words, are not just guilty of looking but also of feeling, smelling, touching, and creating a sound for the full spectacle. And that very spectacle…is a ceremony…It is a complete process in which all are involved…all guilty of participating… (57)

A lynching did not take place in Harlingen that day, but a spectacle did, with spectators “applauding the slogans carried,” which included signages that read “White Supremacy” and “100 Percent Americanism” (“San Benito Light”). As it is noted, no “protest or opposition” took place against Harlingen Klan No. 85, I cannot help but think that perhaps this was so because there was some agreement with their proclamation: “We believe in 100 percent Americanism…the unquestioned and unqualified supremacy of the White Race…We were here yesterday; here today, here tomorrow; here forever” (n.p.). A lynching did not take place, but a sound was reverberated, then and today.

Settler archives, such as the Harlingen box, function as technological sites of memory work, as “inventional sites,” Charles Morris would argue, “of rhetorical pasts” that contain rhetorical power (113; 115). Settler archives are forms of literacy and rhetorical work that take and make place in the image, narrative, and rhetoric of the settler. They are rhetorically performative in that way. But what I hope has become clear is that there is an ongoing effort to remember differently and to story a darker side of settlement and modernity. It is on that note that I offer one more corrido, to “return the dead to the living and to the politics of the present” (Limón 73).

Los rinches que son cobardes

En los pueblitos del norte

Siempre ha corrido la sangre…

Desde aquí se les recuerda

Cantándoles sus corridos

Murieron por que eran hombres

No porque fueran bandidos.

In the above corrido, “Pistoleros Famosos,” the corridista announces a place (“Por las márgenes del Río), situates the subjects, (“pistoleros” and “rinches”), states the problem (“En los pueblitos del Norte…siempre ha corrido la sangre”), reveals a haunting (“Los Rinches que son cobardes”), and calls forth a politics of memory (“Murieron porque eran hombres…no porque fueran bandidos”) (n.p.). Settler narrativize bandidos as killers and threats. But “bandidos,” fought against settler colonialism, like others who took on this fight in different forms: El Primer Congreso Mexicanista (1911), Harlingen Convention (1927), and LULAC (1929). They fought back against laws and treaties that served one type of people — settlers. And “bandidos” died because they were human in a world that conceived of them as non-human and/or half-dead.

The LRGV — A Death Space and a Wound(ed/ing) Place

The U.S. continues to slowly recognize its racist past. Yet, in its desire to claim a past as the past, to heal an open wound (una herida abierta), predictably in the name of modernity, there is a failure to grapple with how the past (death spaces; colonial legacies) shaped the present (coloniality of power, knowledge, and being) and how the future will reflect the past and present (the maintenance of spaces of death, geographically and imaginatively). I’d like to return, for a moment, to community listening and another memory. Grandma and I, as I have spoken about in other publication spaces, use to walk the neighborhoods; this was her time to story to me, to teach me how to listen and to be-with others, otherwise. One memory comes to mind. We are visiting the old neighborhood and she asks me to see (rather than look) and listen (rather than merely hear) to the absence and silence before me. I was reaffirmed in the moment, once more, of the importance of seeking out the traces left behind. As was customary of her, she’d conclude our walk by saying to me, te digo esto para que sepas y aprendas. As I seek out the traces left behind in settler stories, I see and listen to settler archives, borders, and checkpoints in ways to know and to learn.

I turn to community listening because in the difficult process of carefully reckoning with how my brown(ed) body, past to present, is monitored, surveilled, and interpreted, community is essential. In the early 1900s, Robert Kleberg once proposed that every person should be required to “give an account of his comings and goings,” and that those found to be suspicious should be gathered in “concentration camps along the river from Rio Grande City” (qtd. in Johnson 123). Today, there are internal checkpoints that run parallel to the northern outskirts of the LRGV and brown(ed) individuals are asked beyond the normal question (U.S. citizen?) a set of accusatory questions: ¿De dónde eres…a dónde vas…y tus papeles? Denizens of the LRGV are recursively contained, monitored, surveilled, interpreted, and checked — they live in a border(ed)land, a geography of exclusion (Peters 666).

Image 7: Internal Checkpoints (The Texas Tribune; Jacob Villanueva)

The border(ed)land depicted in the image above throws and forces the racialized and minoritized denizens of the LRGV into fixed categories (otros; out of place), a palimpsest of segregation (Mexican Colony’s : Mexican Schools : Mexican Labor Markets : “The Mexican” Zone). We must think of this border(ed)land, a permanent fixture in a modern nation-state (of settler and modern/colonial technologies), as a topography of power — a historical, and yet, a space-time specific project that perpetually rewrites the geography and inhabiting bodies in colonial ways. Today, camps can be found across the LRGV, separating families and caging humanity, a haunting reminder of how the present reflects the past. These are the invisible histories (for society writ large) largely visible and embodied in the everyday lives of the racialized and minoritized denizens of the LRGV.

In Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Stephen Toulmin makes an argument for a humanizing view of modernity that departs from a standard account of a philosophical problem: abstract universals. Writing, “we can neither cling to Modernity in its historic form, nor reject it totally—least of all despite it,” and arguing that the task instead is “to reform, and even reclaim, our inherited modernity, by humanizing it” (185), Toulmin sets out to restore the humanist half of modernity. Toulmin’s frame of thinking, however, is already constituted by and restricted to a particular discourse. In his departure from the legacy marked by ego cogito, ego conquiro is overlooked. This oversight is significant, Nelson Maldonado-Torres would argue, because an imperial attitude gave definition to a modern imperial man:

The imperial attitude promotes a fundamentally genocidal attitude in respect to colonized and racialized people. Through it colonial and racial subjects are marked as dispensable (246)…He (Descartes) could imagine an evil demon who deceives people about their apparent certainties, but could not observe an ego conquiro at work in the consciousness of the European and how it made everyone take for granted the inhumanity of colonized peoples. (252)

I am not against modernity per se, only against imperial modernity that has and continues to support the mutation and dissemination of settler and modern/colonial technologies responsible for establishing a particular way of relating to people: being/human/humanitas | non-being/less human/anthropoi/half dead; responsible for justifying both the violence towards and the dispensability of othered bodies.[23] The point Maldonado-Torres is making above, the one I have been echoing throughout, is that because imperial attitude was already festering within ego conquiro, and because ego conquiro was responsible for establishing a distinction between those who think/those who are and those who do not think/those who are not, there can be no attempt, then and now, to restore the humanist side of modernity in the context of settlers and conquest. Thus, we must continue to amend.

In concluding, I’d like to echo Michel de Certeau: settler archives, like historiography, “has become our myth” (45). His work is compelling to me here, particularly as he speaks about the practice of marking a past both “to make a place for the dead” and to establish “a place for the living” (100). Derrida comes to mind too, though, who would remind us that “the dead can often be more powerful than the living” (60; emphasis mine). How? Well, the West cannot avoid the secret movement, the surreptitious return, of what it effaces nor the form this movement and return takes in the living bodies of the racialized and minoritized who today can haunt back (see Certeau 96-97). Reverberating in the words of Cherokee scholar and poet Qwo-Li Driskill: here I am,[24] present, a brown(ed) body emerging from the shadows of coloniality, in and with the traces of humanity left in the palimpsest of settler subjectivity, whiteness, and settler intimacies looking, thinking, writing, and haunting back. Perhaps the greatest significance of a decolonial praxis project is the opportunity to look back as the perceived object. Perhaps the greatest amendment I can offer here above all then is to be present, to say, We Are Here, Elsewhere and Otherwise!

Works Cited

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—. 1950. F381. “Lon Hill, Sr., Had Vision to Found Empire in Valley.” University Library, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Edinburg, Texas.

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—. N.d. F381. “Builders with Vision and Confidence.” University Library, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Edinburg, Texas.

Cameron County. 1907. “Gulf Coast Line Magazine: Lon C. Hill.” University Library, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Edinburg, Texas.

—. 1923. “The American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company.” University Library, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Edinburg, Texas.

—. N.d. “The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.” University Library, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Edinburg, Texas.

—. N.d. “Cameron Once Called ‘Wild Horse Desert’.” University Library, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Edinburg, Texas.

—. N.d. “Land of Hearts Delight.” University Library, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Edinburg, Texas.

—. N.d. “Cam’n History.” University Library, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Edinburg, Texas.

—. N.d. “The Treasure Land of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.” University Library, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Edinburg, Texas.

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[1].  In our discipline rhetoric matters because it “demands engagement with the living” (Eberly 296). Rhetoric matters in my community because it demands an exchange amongst the living and non-living.

[2]. The term settler archives is informed by a process of settler arrival into and settlement of preoccupied lands, as well as Patrick Wolfe’s definition of settler colonialism: “settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure not an event (388).

[3]. Victor Villanueva and Malea Powell speak to being thrown into colonial legacies and being forced to learn how to address oneself to hauntings (and ghosts). Pondering Villanueva’s question — “What does one do when one becomes fully conscious of the alienation…of knowing something ain’t right…” (84) —the only recourse of the archivist and composer of histories, haunted by imperial archives, would be to look back, as the “objectified…making knowledge about the process that led to…objectification” (Powell 117, emphasis mine).

[4]. See Sharon Holland (4).

[5]. In this context, Nelson Maldonado-Torres reintroduces the damné and writes, “The damné exists in the mode of not-being there, which hints at the nearness of death, at the company of death” (257; emphasis mine).

[6]. See Anibal Quijano “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality” for how a macro-historical subject is endowed with a historical rationality and sense of direction (176).

[7]. See Enrique Dussel for insight into how the colonizer assumed a managerial position (11).

[8]. See Ann Stoler for a conversation on the colonial order of things vis-à-vis archival productions (87) and Ellen Cushman for more insight on the ways in which archives reaffirm the law of the present and the dead (120). Both speak, to an extent, on how archives give a nation-state temporal and teleological grounding.

[9] . Coloniality and a modern/colonial world system, it is important to note, are not synonyms, but part of the same historical complex. In “Delinking,” Mignolo differentiates: modern/colonial is a statement that coloniality is constitutive of modernity (464), while “The ‘colonial matrix of power’ is the specification of what the term ‘colonial world’ means both in its logical structure and its historical transformation” (477).

[10]. “The coexistence of diverse ways of producing and transmitting knowledge is eliminated because now all forms of human knowledge are ordered on an epistemological scale…By way of this strategy, scientific thought positions itself as the only valid form of producing knowledge, and Europe acquires an epistemological hegemony over all cultures of the world” (Castro-Gomez 433).

[11]. See Appendix A.

[12]. His family migrated from Tennessee to Texas in 1854 with a “large number of slaves” (“Lon Hill Sr., Had Vision to Found Empire in Valley”).

[13]. “Cameron Once Called.”

[14]. “Story of Lon Hill”.

[15]. The task of Company A (Texas Rangers) was to “take up the job of making the ‘Valley’ a safe place in which to live and rear families” (n.p.).

[16]. Another similar settler document notes: “No section of the United States is undergoing more solid development than the Lower Rio Grande Valley” (“The Missionite”).

[17]. As one settler document puts it, “The development of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is perhaps unparalleled in the history of the nation” (“Sharyland As a Place to Live”).

[18]. Scholars such as Margo Tamez have brought to light the ways in which settler colonialism impacts indigenous communities in Texas. Herein out I predominantly offer a discussion that focuses on “The Mexican” problem. This is reflective of my area of research. It is the limitation of this essay.

[19]. In “Cam’n History,” a genealogy of the creation of Cameron County, which includes modern-day Harlingen, is provided. In all the expeditions of the lands–Alonso Alvarez’ (1520), Nuno de Guzman (1528), Jose de Escandon (1747)–each was met by an encounter with indigenous and Mexican people. In “Sharyland As a Place to Live,” it is noted, “a few thousand people, mostly Mexicans,” lived in the LRGV in and around 1921, however, they perhaps were overlooked because they lived in “clusters’ of “jacals” (n.p.). The land was not empty. Historical records, such as the U.S. Census of Texas (1850), suggest that over 200 Mexican and Texas Mexican American families owned land in the LRGV (see Cardenas n.p.).

[20]. A similar rhetoric can be found with John Shary, who also writes about his colonization projects: “During my extensive colonization career I have converted approximately a quarter million acres of wild land…” (“To Prospective Investors”; also see Appendix C).

[21]. I reminded of a haunting passage that directly connects: “the colonial mother protects her child from itself, from its ego, from its physiology, its biology, and its own unhappiness, which is its very essence” (Fanon 37).

[22]. The other is the anthropoi, while those who possess and produce knowledge are the humanitas (Osamu 260; 269).

[23]. Dussel writes, “Modernity elaborated a myth of its own goodness, rationalized its violence as civilizing, and finally declared itself innocent of the assassination of the Other” (50). Pointing to how the myth of modernity “declares the Other the culpable” (64), he argues, “The myth [of modernity] propagates a sacrificial paradigm which calls for the sacrifice of the victim of violence for human progress (66-67).

[24]. “The archival project was not created for Indians. It was created to consolidate knowledge about Indians. And yet, here I am, an Indian in the archive” (qtd. in Powell 117).

Appendix A
Builders with Vision and Confidence 
Appendix B
The Treasure Land of the Rio Grande Valley (1918)
Appendix C
Colonizer…and Developer



About the Author: 

Romeo García is Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the University of Utah. He teaches and publishes in the areas of decolonial studies, composition studies, and writing center studies. García is co-editor (with Damián Baca) of Rhetorics Elsewhere and Otherwise (SWR). He has also published in the Community Literacy Journal, Reflections, and The Writing Center Journal.


I would like to thank my reading group at the University of Utah (Christie Toth, Jon Stone, and LuMing Mao), the University of Louisville graduate students enrolled in “Key Issues in Rhetoric and Writing Studies,” Gesa Kirsch and Steve Parks, the folks in the Special Collections and Archives at UTRGV (Shannon Pensa and Adela Cadena), the anonymous reviewers, and both constellations managing editor Candace Epps-Robertson and editor-in-chief Alexandra Hidalgo for engaging with and supporting my work, providing critical and generative feedback.


Copyeditor: Sophie Schmidt

Editorial Assistant(s): Lauren Brentnell, Catheryn Jennings

Reviewer(s): José Cortez, Sonia Arellano

The University of Utah “Utes:” Towards Increased Rhetorical Sovereignty

Cassidy Hoff, University of Utah

November 2018


PDF Version

I have lived in Salt Lake City my entire life, and as a result, my childhood was filled with “Ute” gymnastics meets, basketball games, and the like. Swoop, the “Utes’” red-tailed hawk mascot, once picked me out of the crowd at a volleyball game to receive a volleyball signed by the team.

Fig. 1 Swoop from: Catron, Scott. Swoop, the red-tailed hawk, the mascot of the Utah Utes (the athletics teams of the University of Utah). Wikimedia Commons. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. Digital image.

I was accepted at the University of Utah, or the “U of U,” the “U,” to pursue an undergraduate degree. As I walked around campus, I passed imagery such as the “Ute Brave” statue outside of the student union and the occasional “drum and feathers” logo on passers-by—I always believed Swoop, the drum and feathers, and the “Ute” nickname were related.

Yet, as my time on campus progressed, I began to realize how little I understood about the namesake of my home, university, and sports teams, the “Utes.” This lack of knowledge was compounded by questions that emerged through game attendance: What does Swoop have to do with the Ute Indian Tribe? Why was my one-handed “chop” an acceptable practice while in the students’ section at a basketball game? Additionally, I had heard of a scholarship program developed for Ute students, but I knew of few Native American students on campus. I came to realize that my ignorance likely reflected a majority of the student body—if not a majority of external “Utes” sports fans. How could we be “Ute proud” while knowing so little about the tribe we were, in part, representing?

In my pursuit of these answers, I began to work on the Utes Nickname Project, which is dedicated to studying the storied relationship between the University of Utah and the Ute Tribe. Through my work for the Utes Nickname Project, I researched the beginnings of the university’s use of the “Utes” nickname. The University of Utah associated itself with “Indians” as early as 1907, using monikers from “R*dsk*ns”[1] to “Indians,” and even adopting an “Indian” mascot named Ho-Yo in the 1940s and another mascot called the Crimson Warrior in the 1980s.[2] The University has had permission from the Ute Tribe to use “Utes” as a nickname for the university and associated athletic teams since 1972 (Wodraska and Piper). Furthermore, the University continually addresses concerns brought up by the Ute Tribe, students, faculty, and staff at the University. For example, the U of U removed their mascot, “The Crimson Warrior,” a student dressed in stereotypical Native American garb, in 1993 following complaints (Kenney), and replaced it with Swoop in 1996. More recently, the university and the Ute Indian Tribe renegotiated their Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2014 (Wodraska and Piper). While the Ute Indian Tribe negotiates the terms of the MOU with the University, it fails to address the materials and iterations in which the “Utes” nickname, circle and feathers logo, and Swoop mascot are presented, leaving significant gaps in how the Ute Tribe is presented by the “Ute” brand through media guides. These media guides are not the only means of representation but can serve as a representative anecdote for the “Utes” presentation as a whole (Burke). Through the theoretical lens of the tension between rhetorical colonialism and rhetorical sovereignty, I address whether the University, the Ute Indian Tribe, or another audience altogether is served through the University’s use of the “Utes” nickname, circle and feathers logo, and red-tailed hawk mascot. This “constellated”[3] view of a Native American nickname and a relationally associated mascot and logo has not previously been addressed, and adds yet another layer to the discussion of “Native American” sports brands and the use of Native American nicknames in sports.

Fig. 2 Circle and feathers logo from: Rock, Preston. Utah Utes – Blues Brothers Theme – Lady. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 28 Oct. 2009. Digital image.
Historical Context

The Ute Indian Tribe inhabited the Salt Lake Valley long before the University of Utah, which was established in 1850 as Deseret University (“Deseret University…”). According to Ute Tribe historian Fred A. Conetah, while it is unknown how long the Utes lived in the Great Basin prior to explorers’ arrival, the Utes remained in the region as explorers came through from 1550 onwards. The greatest upheaval to the Utes’ way of life came from the 1830s on, when settlers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints began to occupy present-day Utah. The settlers were too numerous, and with their cattle, began to disrupt the Utes’ hunting practices. Efforts to establish farms for the Tribes were futile and resulted in starvation. In 1861, the Uintah and Ouray Tribe were allotted reservation land in the Uinta Basin that had been deemed “‘unsuitable for farming purposes’” (Conetah, 41). The Uintah and Ouray Tribe occupy the Uintah and Ouray Reservation to this day.

As federal laws currently stand, the Ute Tribe is sovereign, or self-governing, enabling them to grant the U permission to use their Ute name as a nickname. This sovereignty complicates outsider attempts to negate or weigh-in on the Ute Tribe’s relationship with the University of Utah. Danielle Endres (“American Indian Permission…”) found the University and tribe’s situation to represent a “double-bind.” The “double-bind” encompasses the rhetorical colonialism that can occur through the University’s use of the Ute nickname, and also the rhetorical sovereignty of the Ute Tribe who allow the U to use their name as a nickname (Endres). [4] Endres’ “double-bind” informs two key goals of this study: to respect the sovereignty of the Ute Indian Tribe, while critically analyzing the power structure inherent to the university-Ute relationship that intersects with ongoing systems of rhetorical colonialism and oppression.

The contemporary relationship between the University of Utah and the Ute Tribe takes the form of the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU. The Ute Tribe has been concerned with appropriate representation of their name through the U of U (Wodraska and Piper). The MOU is discussed in an annual meeting and is up for renewal every five years (University of Utah). This document serves as the basis for their ongoing relationship, outlining the goals and expectations of the relationship for each party. The MOU is intended to legitimize the University’s use of the nickname, following scrutiny from the NCAA. Yet, the MOU only addresses the “Ute” nickname, while failing to mention the circle and feathers logo (also known, unofficially, as the drum and feathers logo), or the Swoop mascot (University of Utah). Additionally, the MOU designates “the Ute name as a representative symbol of [the university’s] athletics organizations” but maintains a distinction between the athletics logo and the academic side of the U’s use of the Block U logo (University of Utah).

The University and Ute Indian Tribe’s focus is solely on the “Ute” nickname in the MOU fails to address the influence of the circle and feathers logo and Swoop mascot on the “Ute” athletic brand. All three elements of the brand are relationally associated, despite the Ute Tribe’s support of a sole element through the MOU. The Memorandum’s focus on the nickname alone leads to miseducation about the circle and feathers logo and the Swoop mascot. This miseducation enables complicity with the system of rhetorical colonialism, as fans, faculty, staff, and external audiences of the U of U are shown representations of Ute identity, and more broadly a generic “Native American” identity, that are removed from the Ute Tribe’s traditions, customs, and beliefs. The MOU is a sort of modern day “treaty” that limits the Ute Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty by maintaining a power imbalance and enabling the University of Utah to reap more from the agreement than the Ute Tribe.

The University of Utah Department of Athletics’ (or University of Utah Athletics Department) media guides released from 1990-2016 in the sports of gymnastics, men’s and women’s basketball, and football highlight the way the university utilizes the “Utes” nickname, circle and feathers logo, and Swoop mascot to construct a “Ute” brand. This “Ute” brand encompasses the logo, mascot, and nickname, and also a “Ute” identity that can be assumed and performed by athletes, fans, spectators, and media. Media guides are promotional documents containing statistics, history, and rosters, etc. for the given year, intended for use by media. As they are written for an external audience (outside of the university), the media guides illustrate how the “Utes” brand is constructed—who obtains “Ute” identity, where references to such identity occur, what characteristics are associated with the identity—among other means of constructing the identity on campus through songs and game-time traditions. The “Ute” brand is tied to the Ute Tribe by association, yet distinct from it. This interplay of identities creates a grey area wherein fans “play Indian.” Thus, the guides demonstrate how sports teams at the U have utilized the “Utes” nickname, the circle and feathers logo, and the Swoop mascot throughout the 1990-2016 timeframe in order to construct a particular “Ute” identity and brand that is complicit in rhetorical colonialism. My aim is to attempt to support decolonization, or the suggesting of non-Eurocentric ways of thinking and being, to increase the Ute Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty.

I struggled with the role I serve as a White, non-Native scholar writing about the relationship between the University of Utah and the Ute Indian Tribe. How could I produce a meaningful assessment of “Ute” identity at the University of Utah without speaking to a Ute? Without being Native? My goal isn’t to reconcile these potential limitations, but to instead recognize the importance of narrative and story to Indigenous ontologies (Hunt) and constellate the identity constructed by the University of Utah Athletics Department with the Ute Tribe’s identity to pinpoint modern-day, ongoing colonialism.

Rhetorical Colonialism

Considering the expansive history of the “Utes” nickname at the University of Utah, I decided to study documents closely associated with U of U sports teams—media guides—to examine the rhetorical relationship between the two entities. Rhetorical and discursive choices can and often do reinforce existing power structures. Jason Edward Black (“Native Resistive Rhetoric…”), Danielle Endres (“The Rhetoric of Nuclear…”), and Casey Ryan Kelly tied the perpetuation of such power structures more explicitly to rhetoric through their explication of rhetorical colonialism. “Rhetorical colonialism undermines the political and cultural influence of Native Americans and asserts control over their lands and resources,” especially through the act of naming (Stuckey and Murphy 85). For example, Native Americans have been rhetorically colonized through the naming of their lands by European settlers and the appropriation of Native names for mascots and sports teams (Stuckey and Murphy). The dominant power in a rhetorically colonial relationship is capable of marring identity, personhood, and personal sovereignty, effectually dehumanizing the rhetorically colonialized by means of misrepresentation.

Rhetorical sovereignty can be used to combat the oppressive effects of colonialism. Scott Richard Lyons, Matthew Dennis, and the aforementioned authors, discuss Native American rhetorical sovereignty as a means of “decolonizing” dominant rhetoric. Rhetorical sovereignty is essential to undoing and opposing rhetorical colonialism. As Lyons writes, rhetorical sovereignty is to “allow Indians to have some say about the nature of their textual representations” (458). As the Ute Indian Tribe has “say” in only one element of the “Ute” brand—the nickname—the “Ute” identity remains incomplete. It remains isolated from the logo and mascot and perpetuates racial stereotypes while limiting Ute rhetorical sovereignty. I recognize the interconnectedness of the logo, mascot, and nickname to identify ongoing colonialism and suggest ways to increase the Ute Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty.

The Effects of Rhetorical Colonialism

When I turned to literature on the impact of Native American nicknames, mascots, and imagery on Native Americans’ lives, I uncovered a wealth of studies. Authors such as Lawrence R. Baca, Mary Jiang Bresnahan and Kelly Flowers, Jeff Dolley, Sudie Hofmann, C. Richard King, Christine Rose, Synthia S. Slowikowski, Ellen J. Staurowsky, Brenda Farnell, Stephanie A. Fryberg et al., Angela R. LaRocque et al., the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Jesse A. Steinfeldt et al., and Heather A. Vanderford have discussed the negative impacts of Native American mascots on Native American lives. Yet, none of these authors discuss a tripartite brand. The loose association of the red-tailed hawk mascot, circle and feathers logo, and “Utes” nickname is evidence of rhetorical colonialism that is distinct from solely mental and emotional impacts of Native American mascots, imagery, and nicknames on Native Americans. The tripartite “Utes” brand reflects on the Ute Indian Tribe as a whole in a way that conveys transience and racial stereotypes. This relationship between the “Utes” and Utes identities implicates that the Ute Indian Tribe is rhetorically colonialized through the creation of “Ute” identity. To this end, I explore the ways in which mascot, nickname, and imagery converge to illustrate modern-day colonialism.

Mascots stereotype and highlight particular aspects of the depicted race or species (Nothen and Atkinson), embodying characteristics the athletic teams of universities wish to uphold. The negative impacts of Native American mascots include perpetuating racist stereotypes as well as general detriment to Natives’ lives (Davis; Baca; Fryberg et al., LaRocque et al.; National Congress of American Indians; Steinfeldt et al.; Vanderford, Bresnahan and Flowers; Dolley; Hofmann; King; NCAI; Rose; Slowikowski; Staurowsky). The University of Utah Athletics Department’s mascot, Swoop, is not a Native American. Yet, Swoop’s existence can be seen as a way to decontextualize the “Utes” nickname from association with a mascot. I discuss the impact of Swoop’s existence on the “Ute” identity as a way to illustrate the ongoing rhetorical colonialism through discussion of the Ute-U relationship.

Native American nicknames given to sports teams detach tribes’ identities from their lived realities. Black, Mark R. Connolly, Brian R. Moushegian, and Frank Nuessel focused their research on these nicknames. Black, a non-Native American, described his experience as a Florida State University Seminole, which he branded a “misrepresented identity, a Seminole persona I do not understand but apparently assume through attending football games…” (605). During my childhood, I always believed I was part of the sports team—one of the “Utes.” Yet, this assumed identity colonializes the Ute Tribe, as they are separated from tradition, language, and culture while under the umbrella of the “Ute” brand.

Furthermore, Black noted “university strategies for control, arguing for the Native as a symbol rather than a mascot” (606). Black’s recognition of the “symbol” status as a key strategy for the implementation of institutional dominance illuminates the University of Utah’s attempt to distance the “Utes” nickname from its historical status as having once been a mascot (Ho-Yo and the Crimson Warrior). Additionally, the University and Ute Tribe’s Memorandum of Understanding designates the “Utes” nickname for athletic application only, while the U recognizes the nickname as “more than just distinctive shorthand for Utah” (“Ute Proud”). Thus, the application of the “Utes” nickname reaches a symbolic level, further insinuating an attempt to distance the nickname from association with a mascot. As Kenneth Burke and James P. Zappen identified, most relationships are rhetorical and, as such, lend to identification of some elements as part of a larger whole. With this in mind, the attempt to use the “Ute” nickname for solely athletic purposes fails, as it is relationally associated with Swoop and the circle and feathers logo. As Shawn Wilson notes, an Indigenous paradigm is founded in relationships. Yet, the “Ute” brand is devoid of relation to the circle and feathers logo and Swoop mascot. This disconnect leads to miseducation and perpetuated colonialism as the Ute Tribe is represented by a “Ute” identity constructed by a loose association of a “Ute” brand mascot, logo, and nickname. Further, the brand represents a means of capitalizing on the Ute Tribe’s relationship with the U of U without the Ute Tribe being sufficiently compensated—not just monetarily, but through accurate, appropriate representation. In order to decolonize the MOU and increase Ute Indian Tribe sovereignty, I assess the relationships between the circle and feathers logo, the Swoop mascot, and the “Ute” nickname in University of Utah media guides. This assessment attempts to decolonize the “Ute” brand and re-associate the Ute Tribe with tradition and permanence.

University Media Guides

When I began searching for media guides for my analysis, the breadth of documents available and the history within them took me aback. I was surprised, for example, to see what looked to be a colored pencil sketch of Indians on horseback on the cover of a media guide from 1927. To contemporize my analysis, I chose to assess guides from more recent years, from which I would be able to analyze more material. My selections were the gymnastics, football, and men’s and women’s basketball guides from the 1994-1995 and 2015-2016 seasons.

My first foray into the guides revealed inconsistencies throughout. The men’s guides were the only ones with any description of the Ute Indian Tribe’s relationship with the University of Utah. In addition, the page describing the Ute-University relationship was housed behind pages highlighting new buildings for the athletic programs. Thus, information about the Ute Indian Tribe’s relationship was either omitted or backgrounded within all of the guides. Additionally, the “Utes” nickname was continuously coupled with words such as “current” and “former,” illustrating the “Utes” identity’s transience. (See example media guide page below with the phrase “former Ute” at the end of the “Personal” section). This transience and backgrounding is suitable for a sports-team brand and “pseudo-identity,” but not an identity linked to a real, living people.

Fig. 3 Sample Media Guide Page from  of Utah Department of Athletics: 2015-16 Utah Women’s Basketball Media Guide. J. Willard Marriott Digital Library. Web. 2015-16. Digital image. Used with permission.

The Swoop mascot was seldom mentioned within the media guides, despite his presence at sporting events. Within the “Ute Proud” and “Utah Traditions” pages, the football and men’s basketball guides discussed the presence of Swoop and his introduction in 1996 (see Fig. 4 below). By extension, there was no explanation of Swoop’s introduction within the women’s guides of the same seasons. The insufficient explanation and integration of Swoop indicates a lack of rationale for the mascot, other than a non-human animal stand-in to distract from associations of the “Utes” nickname with a mascot.

Examples outside of the media guides that continue the perpetuation of racial stereotypes include: The phrase “ki-yi!” is in the “Utah Fight Song,” a game-time anthem, and the “U of U chop,” a game-time arm movement (University of Utah Department of Athletics, University of Utah 2016 Football… 17).The circle and feathers logo was inconsistently used within the media guides, as well.

While commonly used as a page header, as in Fig. 4, the logo sometimes appeared on athletic gear in photos. The symbolism of the logo was never described. In a similar situation to that of the Swoop mascot, the circle and feathers logo is used without explicit permission from the Ute Tribe. Indeed, the lexical choice to name the logo the “‘circle’ and feathers” could be an attempt to avoid perpetuation of racial stereotypes associated with Native American traditions involving drums. The colloquial nickname for the logo, the “drum and feathers,” indicates this lexical choice ineffectively distances the logo from such stereotypes.

Within the University of Utah, attempts are being made to increase campus education about the Ute Tribe. The “Ute Proud” campaign was launched in 2014 for such a purpose and to sell special merchandise that supports Ute scholarship efforts. The campaign continues to this day, with the “Ute Proud” game in October of 2018 featuring the annual Ute Tribe halftime performance (Baldwin). The “Ute Proud” campaign was intended to “[teach] more about the Ute culture, heritage and the history of our region” (“Ute Proud”). Yet, the University of Utah Athletics Department’s media guides were unreflective of this goal. Connolly explains, “Defending Native American-related nicknames and images as being respectful of Native Americans” is not a new tactic and maintains objectification of Native American symbols (534). The “Ute” identity is one piece of the “Utes” brand, a marketing tool. This branding mechanism relegates Ute identity and culture— a culture cannot be accurately represented by a brand. The inconsistent inclusion of the Ute-U relationship, the inconsistent inclusion of the history of the Ute Indian Tribe, the lack of explanation of the circle and feathers logo’s symbolism, the inconsequentiality of Swoop, and the transience associated with the “Utes” nickname implicate rhetorical colonialism and indicate a disconnect between the University of Utah’s goals and the content of the Athletics Department’s media guides. While the U of U maintains that their use of the “Utes” nickname is respectful of the Ute Indian Tribe, the construction of the “Utes” brand and identity falls short of enabling Ute rhetorical sovereignty or the cessation of rhetorical colonialism.

Fig. 4 Sample Media Guide Page from University of Utah Department of Athletics: 2015-16 Utah Men’s Basketball Media Guide. J. Willard Marriott Digital Library. Web. 2015-16. Digital image. Used with permission.

In effect, the media guides construct an incomplete, sport-centric “Ute” brand and identity that enables fans, students, athletes, and others to “play Indian” (Deloria). Philip J. Deloria writes, “The self-defining pairing of American truth with American freedom rests on the ability to wield power against Indians—social, military, economic, and political—while simultaneously drawing power from them” (191). “Playing Indian” is thus an assumption of Native American identity that allows the identity’s reconstruction by a non-Native entity, enabling misrepresentation of the Native American identity. The university’s sports-centric “Ute” brand and identity pulls power from the Ute identity while the university is simultaneously controlling the “Ute” brand and identity construction. In this way, despite the rhetorical sovereignty exercised by the Ute Indian Tribe to permit the U of U to use their name as a nickname for athletic teams, the relationship illustrates a deep-set power imbalance and “playing Indian.”

While it is up to the Ute Tribe to determine whether or not the actions performed by members of the university—fans, athletes, and others—are inappropriate or offensive, recognizing the potential harm of these actions (perpetuating racial stereotypes through a lack of community education) is critical to the continued use of the “Utes” nickname with an eye to increasing rhetorical sovereignty of the Ute Tribe.

Towards Increased Rhetorical Sovereignty

For what audience was the “Ute” identity constructed in the University of Utah’s media guides? Overall, the media guides constructed the “Ute” identity, through their use of the “Utes” nickname, circle and feathers logo, and Swoop mascot, for the media. While this appears a reasonable construction on the surface, the guides leave many gaps in the Ute identity, focusing on certain aspects of the university’s past while dismissing others. Such deliberate rhetorical choices illustrate rhetorical colonialism, as the media guides construct a more complete “Ute” identity for money-generating and male sports teams at the University of Utah, while the identity is far more incomplete within the women’s guides. Additionally, the U of U rhetorically colonizes the Ute Tribe through its failure to sufficiently educate external audiences about the tribe and its relationship with the university. Furthermore, the “Utes” nickname’s association with a brand and “pseudo-Ute-identity” perpetuates colonization of the Ute Tribe. I suggest increasing rhetorical sovereignty for the Ute Tribe through further education and recognition of all three elements as pieces of a collective “Ute” brand on campus as a means to improve the current relationship. However, I advise an eventual severance of the “Utes” nickname from the U of U.

The “Utes” nickname has become synecdoche for the U, despite the Ute Tribe and university’s attempts to restrict the nickname to athletic venues. Additionally, many fans, like I used to, assume “Ute” identity by attending sports games, not realizing that the nickname is only for athletic applications. The university has failed to explicitly inform students they are not “Utes,” further illustrating a disconnect between the intent of policy and reality, and further enabling fans to “play Indian.” Additionally, the means with which elements of the “Ute” identity are shown within the media guides—often kept to headings and game recaps, with any history of the nickname secluded to a single page, if included at all—reflect the brand’s incoherence and incomplete construction.

Without the permission of the sovereign Ute Tribe, the U of U would be unable to use the “Utes” nickname—this fact is overlooked within the women’s media guides and appears as a means of appeasing those who may ask, “What is a Ute?” in the men’s guides. This failure to recognize the sovereignty of the Ute Tribe within the media guides overall exhibits rhetorical colonialism, as the power held by the Ute Tribe is unacknowledged. The Ute Tribe’s government is recognized within the football and basketball media guides, however without any note of their sovereignty. There is no mention whatsoever of the Utes’ governmental workings in the women’s guides. Indeed, there is no apparent reason why the Ute Tribe and University of Utah’s relationship is missing from the women’s media guides, other than men’s sports being associated with more prestige in our society.

Despite the introduction of the “Ute Proud” campaign in 2014, there are significant gaps left in the construction of the “Utes” brand and educational material about the Ute Tribe within the media guides. The sovereignty of the Ute Tribe is left unmentioned and there is no explanation of Swoop’s connection to the Ute Tribe. As such, Swoop seems to exist to distance the “Utes” nickname from associations with a mascot. Additionally, the circle and feathers logo’s symbolism is not described within any of the guides, leaving room for uneducated assumptions about the symbol’s connection to Ute traditions.

As I first started my research into the Ute Tribe and University of Utah’s relationship several years ago, I decided to take a brief look at a more recent media guide. See Fig. 5 below for a sample page from a 2018 football guide. The content of the “Utah Traditions” page gives the same description of the Ute Indian Tribe as the 2015-16 men’s basketball guide in Fig. 4 above. While the guides appear to no longer have the circle and feathers logo as page headers, some athletic gear still sports the symbol. There is still no explanation of the logo within the guide I reviewed.

Fig. 5 Sample from a 2018 Media Guide from University of Utah Department of Athletics: University of Utah, 2018 Football Media Guide. J. Willard Marriott Digital Library. Web. 2018. Digital image. Used with permission.

The University of Utah’s unique relationship with the Ute Tribe represents a commitment and responsibility to create a respectful and prideful “Ute” brand on campus. With the introduction of the “Ute Proud” campaign, the U seems committed to contribute to education and awareness of the Ute Tribe. Additionally, their commitment to the campaign indicates no intent to remove the “Utes” brand and identity. Yet, through the media guides produced by the University of Utah’s Department of Athletics, the “Ute” brand constructed for external audiences is neither cohesive nor representative of “What is a Ute.” From inconsistent explanation of the Ute-U relationship across media guides; to rhetorical choices creating improper associations between “Ute” identity and racial stereotypes, the media guides are complicit in the system of rhetorical colonialism. There are no improvements that could be made that would entirely erase the rhetorical colonialism inherent to the relationship, and accordingly the “Utes” nickname should be removed.

However, given the University of Utah’s intent to keep the “Utes” brand and identity, and the Ute Tribe’s continued support of the MOU, the university can illustrate the “Utes” brand and identity in a more ethical fashion. Policy changes at the university could begin to increase the Ute Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty, without dropping the nickname completely. For example, through the removal of racial stereotype performances: the “U of U chop” and “Ki-yi!” in the “Utah Fight Song.” Furthermore, the University of Utah Department of Athletics can cease referring to current and former athletes as “current” and “former” “Utes,” and refer to them as current and former U of U athletes, instead. This slight change would help to communicate the permanence of the associated Ute identity. Also, the media guide contributors can describe the circle and feathers properly—what it stands for and represents—in order to increase understanding of why the logo is used, and how it reflects, if it does, Ute traditions. This would contribute to a more cohesive “Ute” identity, and support the rhetorical sovereignty of the Ute Tribe by accurately representing their traditions and beliefs through university-produced publications. Finally, the media guide authors can create a page dedicated solely to the history of the “Utes” nickname as it pertains to the U’s athletic teams. This page will not only increase understanding of the Ute Tribe, but also represent, more accurately, the pride the U feels when using the “Ute” nickname with the permission of the sovereign Ute Tribe.

In my analysis, I found that the media guides constructed the “Ute” identity primarily for male and money-producing sports, such as basketball and football. Beyond those sports, the “Ute” brand overall was not tripartite and exhibited inconsistent uses of the Swoop mascot, circle and feathers logo, and “Utes” nickname. Hence, given the university’s continued use of the “Utes” nickname, and no apparent intention to stop, a compromising way forward that will increase the Ute Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty is this: Recognize the unavoidable association of the tripartite elements of “Ute” brand on campus. Additionally, increase the cohesion behind each element of the “Ute” sport identity by implementing detailed descriptions of each element’s connection to the Ute Tribe, written by Ute Tribe members, which will contribute to a more realistic and curated “Ute” identity on campus. This can be achieved in a number of ways, including but not limited to: 1) explaining the purpose and symbolic meaning behind the circle and feathers logo—if there is none, then the Block U should be implemented as a replacement logo, 2) adding a page solely dedicated to the Ute Tribe within the media guides, explaining their sovereign status and recognizing their permission to use their nickname as a privilege—thus reflecting the pride that the U feels to use their nickname, and 3) ceasing the use of words such as “current,” “former,” and otherwise in conjunction with the “Ute” nickname. With these implementations, the University of Utah can improve education about Ute traditions in relation to the “Ute” nickname, circle and feathers logo, and Swoop mascot, at least within media guides, and thus increase the Ute Indian Tribe’s rhetorical sovereignty.

Yet, even with these improvements, fans and spectators are likely to assume the “Utes” identity—the media guides are only a small piece of the “Ute” brand. Thus, the question remains: How can a sports team identity and brand appropriately and adequately represent a dynamic, rich culture? If it cannot, then the sports identity enables fans, students, and athletes at the university to “play Indian,” drawing power from the Native Americans’ identity while the athletics department exerts power over the identity and brand’s construction.

In effect, although the rhetorical sovereignty of the Ute Tribe is evident through their Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Utah and could be increased through the proposed initiatives described above, there will be ongoing rhetorical colonialism within the relationship. These findings reflect the enduring struggles of Indigenous peoples within the United States of America. While formal agreements have been struck between Indigenous peoples and universities to continue their use of either mascots or nomenclature, the sports identities enable spectators and fans to “play Indian.” Though Native American nicknames that are inoffensive, such as the “Utes” or the “Seminoles,” have been suggested as a means to continue the association of Native American cultures with sports teams, the usage of these identities in association with a sports team nickname cannot sufficiently or accurately represent a people’s identity.

I grew up with the “Utes.” I understand that it would be sad for many to see the nickname go. Yet, through my research, I have discovered and explored the historic evolution of the “Utes” nickname and the ways in which the brand and identity rhetorically colonizes the Ute Tribe. Ultimately, the continued use of the nickname enables fans to play Indian and use the “Utes” identity disparately from the Ute Tribe—the Ute Tribe will always be underserved by the University of Utah’s use of their name as a nickname. I encourage “Utes” fans to consider their love and passion for other sports teams. A name change for the University of Utah’s athletics teams would change the name, but not the teams and not the passion fans bring to every game. Further, I encourage the University of Utah and the Ute Indian Tribe to revisit their Memorandum of Understanding and cease the use of the “Utes” nickname. A people’s identity does not belong in association with a sports team nickname, brand, or “identity.”

Works Cited

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Black, Jason Edward. “The ‘Mascotting’ of Native America: Construction, Commodity, and Assimilation.” The American Indian Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 4, 2002, pp. 605-622.

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Burke, Kenneth, and James Philip Zappen. “On Persuasion, Identification, and Dialectical Symmetry.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 39, no. 4, 2006, pp. 333–339., doi:10.1353/par.2007.0000.

Catron, Scott. Swoop, the Red-Tailed Hawk, the Mascot of the Utah Utes (the Athletics Teams of the University of Utah). Wikimedia Commons. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. Digital image.

Conetah, Fred A. A History of the Northern Ute People. Uintah-Ouray Ute Tribe, 1982.

Connolly, Mark R. “What’s in a Name? A Historical Look at Native American-Related Nicknames and Symbols at Three U.S. Universities.” Journal of Higher Education, vol. 71, no. 5, 2000, pp. 515-547.

Davis, Laurel R. “The Problems with Native American Mascots.” Multicultural Education, vol. 9, no. 4, 2002, pp. 11-14.

Dennis, Matthew. “Red Jacket’s Rhetoric: Postcolonial Persuasions on the Native Frontiers of the Early American Republic.” American Indian Rhetorics of Survivance: Word Medicine, Word Magic, edited by E. Stromberg, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006, (pp. 15-33).

Deloria, Philip J. Playing Indian. Yale University Press, 1998.

“Deseret University, 1850-1892.” J. Willard Marriott Library – The University of Utah, www.lib.utah.edu/collections/photo-exhibits/deseret-university.php.

Dolley, Jeff. “The Four R’s: Use of Indian Mascots in Educational Facilities.” Journal of Law and Education, vol. 32, no. 1, 2003, pp. 21-39.

Endres, Danielle. “The Rhetoric of Nuclear Colonialism: Rhetorical Exclusion of American Indian Arguments in the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Siting Decision.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2009, pp. 39-60.

—. “American Indian Permission for Mascots: Resistance or Complicity Within Rhetorical Colonialism?” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 18, no. 4, 2015, pp. 649-690.

Farnell, Brenda. “The Fancy Dance of Racializing Discourse.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues, vol. 28, no. 1, 2004, pp. 30-55.

Ford, Steven. “Utah Athletics Kicks Off Ute Proud Campaign.” BlockU.com, 21 Aug. 2014, www.blocku.com/2014/8/21/6053511/utah-athletics-kicks-off-ute-proud-campaign.
Fryberg, Stephanie A., et al. “Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 30, no. 3, 2008, pp. 208-218.

Hofmann, Sudie. “The Elimination of Indigenous Mascots, Logos, and Nicknames: Organizing on College Campuses.” The American Indian Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 2005.

Hunt, Sarah. “Ontologies of Indigeneity: The Politics of Embodying a Concept.” Cultural Geographies in Practice, vol. 21, no. 1, 2014, pp. 27-32.

Kenney, Amy. “Committee Formed to Search for Performing Mascot at U Games,” Daily Utah Chronicle, November 3, 1993.

Kelly, Casey Ryan. “Détournement, Decolonization, and the American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969–1971).” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, 2014, pp. 168-190.

King, C. Richard. “Defensive Dialogues: Native American Mascots, Anti-Indianism, and Educational Institutions. SIMILE: Studies In Media & Information Literacy Education, vol. 2, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1-12.

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Lyons, Scott Richard. “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want from Writing?” College Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no. 3, 2000, pp. 447.

Moushegian, Brian R. “Native American Mascots’ Last Stand? Legal Difficulties in Eliminating Public University Use Of Native American Mascots.” Villanova Sports and Entertainment Law Journal, vol. 13, 2006, pp. 465-492.
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Nothen, Guilherme, and Michael Atkinson. “In Defense of Non/Humans: Mystification and Oppression in the Sports Mascoting Process.” Screening the Nonhuman: Representations of Animal Others in the Media, edited by Amber E.
George & J. Schatz, Lexington Books, 2016, pp. 169-184.

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Staurowsky, Ellen J. “’You Know, We Are All Indian’: Exploring White Power and Privilege in Reactions to the NCAA Native American Mascot Policy.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues, vol. 31, no. 1, 2007, pp. 61-76.

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University of Utah Department of Athletics. 2015-16 Men’s Basketball Media Guide. J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, 2015-16.

—. 2015-16 Utah Women’s Basketball Media Guide. J. Willard Marriott Digital Library. 2015-16.

—. University of Utah 2016 Football Media Guide. J. Willard Marriott Digital Library. 2016.

—. University of Utah, 2018 Football Media Guide. J. Willard Marriott Digital Library. 2018.

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[1] “R*dsk*ns” is the mascot and nickname for the professional football team from Washington, D.C.

[2] Information about the early years of the University of Utah’s mascots and nickname traditions was obtained from the Utes Nickname Project website: https://institute.communication.utah.edu/yearly_themes/utesnicknameproject.php.

[3] Here I use “constellated” to indicate a synthesis of the disparate elements of the “Utes” brand and identity.

[4] The Utes’ negotiation of the MOU represents Endres’ “double-bind:” The MOU represents Ute rhetorical sovereignty, however, also complicity with systems of rhetorical colonialism, as elements of Ute identity are missing from the document, which leads to misrepresentation.

About the Author:
Cassidy Hoff works at the Center for Technology and Venture Commercialization at the University of Utah, where she supports the commercialization of intellectual property generated by University faculty and staff. A Utah native, she graduated from the University of Utah with a Bachelor’s Degree in Writing and Rhetoric Studies.

About the Mentor:
Steven Alvarez is associate professor of English at St. John’s University in Queens. He is the
author of Brokering Tareas: Mexican Immigrant Families Translanguaging Homework
Literacies and Communities Literacies en Confianza: Learning from Bilingual After-School
Programs, both published in 2017. Dr. Alvarez’s current research studies Mexican migration in
New York City through the prism of food, specifically “taco literacy.” The research project
examines how foodways narratives demonstrate a literacy of care for Mexican communities
across the five boroughs, through stories of bilingual learning, literacy practices, and community


Copyeditor(s): Sophie Schmidt

Editorial Assistant(s): Lauren Brentnell, Catheryn Jennings

Reviewers: Christina Cedillo and Steven Alvarez

The Historical Work of Cultural Rhetorics: Constellating Indigenous, Deaf, and English-Only Literacies

Sarah Klotz, Holy Cross

November 2019

PDF Version

Tweet by Daniel Heath Justice reading "Ignore the archive at your own peril."


Founded in 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School is notorious as the site where the U.S. government went beyond territorial theft to colonize the language and literacy of North America’s Indigenous nations. At Carlisle, director Richard Henry Pratt created the first curriculum for tribal language extinction. What did Native students do when they faced that curriculum? How did they winnow their language through cracks in the assimilation structure to make the school a site of pan-Indian identity even as the government poured resources into Pratt’s mission to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man?”[2] (Pratt 260). To understand language and literacy at Carlisle, the binary of assimilation and resistance that so often structures scholarly accounts of the off-reservation boarding school is insufficient. I turn instead to the emergent theorizing of scholars working in cultural rhetorics[3] to make sense of Carlisle’s earliest curriculum, which was based in the Deaf education movement. In particular, I am building on the notion developed by Phil Bratta and Malea Powell that “a cultural rhetorics approach to comparative study always requires an examination of issues of power, both those that arise within each cultural site of practice, and the power relations between the cultures involved in the comparative analysis” (“Introduction”). At Carlisle, the federal government invented new methods for a centuries-old project: land and resource theft in the Americas. But other important changes were occurring following the Civil War, including a shift across educational reform movements towards assimilation and standardization. In the interest of national unity and Darwinian notions of social progress, the Deaf education movement united with the Indian education movement to enforce increasingly standardized forms of English.

In what follows, I provide one model for a comparative, historical cultural rhetorics methodology by reading Carlisle’s earliest literacy curriculum, which was based on John Keep’s First Lessons for the Deaf and Dumb. To make sense of the constellation of Indigenous, Deaf, and English-only literacies, we need a methodology that accounts for the conditions in which intercultural rhetorics emerge and interact. As the Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab has articulated, a constellation allows for all of the meaning-making practices and their relationships to matter. It allows for multiply-situated subjects to connect to multiple discourses at the same time, as well as for those relationships (among subjects, among discourses, among kinds of connections) to shift and change without holding a subject captive. (CRTL 1.2)

As we do the work of writing histories through a cultural rhetorics methodology, this means casting a broader net in our engagement with a historical landscape. Academic disciplines are not often hospitable to work at the intersections, and yet intersecting oppressions are crucial for understanding the inter-group relations from which human subjects make meaning. In the Assimilation Era, settler society cast American Indians as culturally disabled in order to justify violent land grabs, and Indian educators responded to this colonial logic by creating a curriculum based on another group they viewed as communicatively disabled: the Deaf.  Historical cultural rhetorics work calls us to a constellated understanding of how different bodies and social identities are shaped and understood through language. Students at Carlisle were subjected to new forms of colonial violence, and they developed new rhetorics of survivance in response. As Malea Powell has written, they used language to refigure the “Indian” from object to subject status in colonial discourse (“Rhetorics of Survivance” 400). Bridging so many categories of analysis—race, colonization, Indigeneity, Deafness, disability—is no easy task, but as scholars and teachers of writing, we do our work in spaces where rhetorics of racial identity and disability coalesce to structure pedagogy and curriculum. This is an essay about how educators from a dominant culture understand difference, how they (or we) get it wrong, and how students resist becoming subject to the categories that their teachers apply to them.

As a scholar working in the history of rhetoric, I aim to understand and articulate how social conditions emerge from daily practices of communication and meaning making, and conversely, how larger social and cultural shifts trickle down to structure the day-to-day acts of writers in educational environments. The archive is a crucial site for primary research to capture these dynamics. The Carlisle archive is particularly rich, as it has allowed me and many others to explore how Indian education changed after the Civil War and how the off-reservation boarding school restructured relations between settler and Indigenous peoples. The pedagogical and curricular writings of Carlisle’s first educators demonstrate their belief that Indigenous languages were holding students back from learning how to be American citizens. By examining these materials and practices for their intersection with theories of embodiment and disability, it becomes clear that assimilationist literacy education is rooted in nineteenth-century beliefs about embodied difference and national belonging.

While off-reservation boarding schools devastated indigenous language and kinship structures, they also generated inter-tribal coalitions that laid the groundwork for new waves of Indigenous activism in the twentieth century. In what follows, I read a series of artifacts from the Carlisle archive to explore how comparative cultural rhetorics work can benefit from the fine-grained inquiry that archival research affords. Part 1 lays out the paradigm shift that occurred from missionary-sponsored to boarding school education at the end of the nineteenth century, and how changing views of social evolutionism brought heightened scrutiny to the embodied literacy practices of Deaf and Native Americans. Part 2 looks at the meeting of Carlisle director Richard Henry Pratt with educators from the Deaf education movement that resulted in a gesture-based, English-only curriculum for Native students. Part 3 constructs a constellation of literacy, disability, and race to contextualize Carlisle students’ lived experiences within broader logics of race and disability at the end of the nineteenth century. Part 4 examines how Plains Sign Talk became a rhetoric of survivance as students realized that their teachers would sanction gestural Native languages while banning those languages when spoken. Finally, I close with some preliminary thoughts for how this particular history might impact the pedagogies and curricula of contemporary literacy educators. Ultimately, I hope readers will take away how archival methods in cultural rhetorics work we can make settler-colonial violence visible in the minutiae of day-to-day classroom practices, while also capturing the acts of negotiation and resistance that allowed students to survive boarding school with their tribal identities and their nations’ futures intact. 

Part 1: From the Mission School to the Boarding School


Prior to the opening of the first off-reservation boarding school, settler society approached Indian education beneath the broader umbrella of missionary efforts toward Christian conversion. In this paradigm, bilingualism or multilingualism did not present a problem, so long as religious conversion and biblical literacy were the end result. Christianizing Indians had been a concern of Euro-American settlers since the early 1600s with Puritan John Eliot’s first proselytizing efforts with the Massachusetts nations. After the founding of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in 1810, Protestant missionaries played a central role in the printing and teaching of the bible from the Cherokee Nation to the Kingdom of Hawai’i.[5] Missionary-sponsored Indian education was formalized as a national interest in 1819 when Congress established a “civilization fund” that went primarily to missionary societies (Spack 4). Ruth Spack writes, “classes were typically conducted in vernacular to promote understanding of biblical teachings, although most mission schools eventually added English-language instruction (4). The long history of missionary education resulted in countless primers and other teaching materials in Indigenous languages as well as many experienced teachers who spoke Indigenous languages.

In the same period, missionaries also took an interest in Deaf education with Congregational minister Thomas H. Gallaudet opening the first American school for the Deaf in 1817. Douglas Baynton has argued that Protestant missionaries saw an overlap in Indian and Deaf education because they romanticized these two groups as preliterate. Based on their belief that God had created oral language and gesture before humans adopted writing, they considered so-called primitive languages and gesture to be closer to the divine because they preexisted the fall of man (Forbidden Signs 37). This belief in the purity of pre-alphabetic forms allowed multiple literacies to thrive. As Darwinian evolution grew in prominence, however, reformers in both the Indian and Deaf education movements wanted to unite the nation under a standardized English literacy. They believed that European speech and writing were ultimately the most evolved forms of human expression. Tribal languages and deaf sign languages became indicative of barbarism and savagery, with “Darwin himself [writing] of gestures as a form of communication ‘used by the deaf and dumb and by savages’” (Forbidden Signs 42). If these literacies were allowed to persist, Darwinian thought proposed that they could reverse evolution and delay national progress. Pratt shared the beliefs of his contemporaries that English was the language of individualists, and that by learning English, Indian students could better acculturate into Euro-American society (Spack 29). As social evolutionist thought gained prominence, Pratt built a literacy program in explicit opposition to earlier missionary efforts. Pawnee student Samuel Townsend represents Pratt’s views in the following opinion piece from the School News, a student newspaper,

The English language is much better than any Indian language. Some missionaries have spent much time in making books in the Indian language. There are a great many words in English that the Indians have no word for so the white people who make the Indian books have to make new Indian words. So the Indians have to learn the new Indian word.  Now we don’t know much about it, but we believe the Indians can all learn to speak the same as the whites.

[6]Pratt views the English language as more developed, efficient, and specific than any Indigenous language. He argues that tribal languages lack sufficient vocabulary to be accurately translated into writing. Even more importantly, the labor of translating English to a Native language was inefficient and burdensome to White educators. To be included in the U.S. nation, students would have to use a language that shared the imagined superior characteristics of Euro-American culture—efficiency and intellectual advancement. By viewing tribal languages as under-developed, Pratt disqualified all preexisting teaching materials and all trained, multilingual missionary teachers. He now had to design an Indian education policy from scratch. It was certainly lost on Pratt that the far more expedient method for English education would be to engage existing bilingual texts to teach students to speak in both English and their Native tongues. Only the twisted settler-colonial logic of “destroy to replace” makes the Native language seem inefficient in this scenario. Pratt thought he could prevent students from speaking their home languages at school by replacing those languages with signs. His educational philosophy is an eerie mirror to the settler-colonial project wherein the settler state destroys Indigenous nations to replace Indigenous presence in perpetuity (Wolfe 388).

Pratt was not alone in his view that a program for English-only education was in the national interest. Indigenous nations represented a troubling irregularity in U.S. sovereignty and had since the nation’s founding. When Indian wars broke out in the Southern Plains and the Dakotas after the Civil War, there was a public outcry for a less violent approach to settlement of the West. As a result, the late 1860s saw a shift in colonial strategy to the “Peace Policy,” which argued that “it costs less to civilize than to kill” (Spack 17). The English language was the linchpin of the Peace Policy. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Nathaniel Taylor argued that English could erase differences between Anglo-Saxon and Indigenous peoples, creating “one homogenous mass” that could be more easily controlled by the government (17). The notion that English could unite diverse and opposing groups led ultimately to the belief that a standard language, or a standardized English, was a crucial component of national cohesion. Taylor’s beliefs echo those of many reformers known as the Friends of the Indian but also resonate with emerging thought in the Deaf Education movement. When reformers from both efforts noticed that Native Americans were using sign language to assist in inter-tribal communication and the Deaf were using sign language to communicate with other deaf people, this commonality rebounded negatively on each group.

As English became the accepted standard for national belonging, sign languages began to be seen as evidence that Deaf and Native Americans were culturally, linguistically, and cognitively behind the Euro-American citizen ideal. This paradigm led educational reformers to attempt to eradicate all communicative forms they viewed as non-standard Englishes, including Indigenous spoken languages and Deaf sign languages. The late nineteenth century move to eradicate linguistic difference is an example of how, as Lomawaima and McCarty have argued, “standardization has segregated and marginalized Native peoples and others as it has circumscribed a narrow zone of tolerable cultural difference” (5). What follows will illuminate how educational reformers understood different forms of languaging and how Carlisle students manipulated those understandings to create culturally sustaining linguistic opportunities for themselves. There are so many ways that this nineteenth-century paradigm of enforced monolingualism persists in today’s writing classrooms, perpetuated through the fantasy of benevolence that Pratt and his contemporaries operated within. By returning to pedagogical and curricular materials from the earliest national efforts to standardize English education, scholars and teachers of writing are forced to attend to how cultural beliefs about literacy become a tool of colonization. The archive of the Carlisle school’s early curriculum demonstrates how important it is for writing teachers to act as vigilant defenders of non-standard Englishes in their classes as they convene in the legacy of these colonial roots.

 Part 2: Literacy Training and the Indian[7] Body

Because Pratt rejected the missionary model of Indian education, he had no model to follow, so Carlisle’s earliest English training was a trial and error endeavor. Pratt turned to the Deaf Education movement for guidance. He wrote about how he developed his new curriculum in the first edition of the school newspaper, the Eadle Keatah Toh:

Professor Keep and Dr. Porter, well known educators of the deaf and dumb, during a recent visit here, were struck by the many features held in common by the Indians and the deaf and dumb in their sign languages. The teachers received a number of valuable hints from the learned gentlemen with reference to the way of teaching the dusky pupils of English.[8]

When Pratt, Keep, and Porter collectively witnessed Plains Sign Talk, they decided that it was a parallel language to Deaf sign language. But Pratt had been familiar with PST for many years and had not previously viewed the language in this way. He encouraged the use of PST at Hampton Institute where he first hoped to house his Indian education efforts. When he was warden of prisoners from the Southern Plains at Fort Marion in Florida, he had employed an interpreter fluent in both Cheyenne and PST, even having one of his prisoners give a talk in “Indian sign language” to raise money for the prisoners’ education (Battlefield and Classroom 163, 188). Pratt was not fluent in PST, but he was forced to negotiate with this language in a way that decentered his own English-language literacy as he lived and communicated with the prisoners at Fort Marion and Hampton. He clearly viewed the language as an effective way to communicate across linguistic barriers and an important intercultural tool in the space of the Southern Plains. Yet in 1880, Keep and Porter’s visit caused Pratt to reinterpret his understanding of PST. Alongside changing theories of Deaf education in the Postbellum period, Deaf sign language and Plains Sign Talk were collapsed and decontextualized so that Pratt could enforce an English-only policy.

When Porter and Keep visited Carlisle, they made recommendations based on a historically specific set of logics around race, embodiment, and disability. They ascribed cultural deficiency to Native students because of the racialized ways they interpreted the students’ embodied language practices. Amelia Katanski has studied how educational reformers in the late nineteenth century, particularly those “Friends of the Indian” involved in the boarding school movement, espoused the theory of social evolutionism, imagining “a linear, hierarchical relationship among races. The ideology was accompanied by a ‘replacement’ model of identity, which claimed that education would totally transform student as they ‘progressed’ from tribal ‘savagery’ to Western ‘civilization’” (4). Again, the settler-colonial project of “replacement” emerges in language education. Because reformers believe that the English language can transform Indians into American citizens, vestiges of Tribal languages constitute a direct threat to the advancement of the civilizational program. Hence, pedagogies grounded in social evolutionism encouraged extreme standardization of English structure and usage. As Porter wrote to Pratt,

There is a point upon which I should think there would be need of very determined effort on the part of the instructors. I refer to the tendency to employ broken English. I think that may prove one of the greatest difficulties you will have to contend with. With this also, and of course the tendency to use Indian idioms and Indian order of words, the only way must be not even to allow, except in extreme cases, any such violation of correct usage to go uncorrected.[9]

Porter insists that all tribal language features must be extinguished in order for students to learn English. His word choice emphasizes Native language as a problem or a pathology to be rooted out. Porter fears “broken English,” which he characterizes as the English instructor’s “greatest difficulty.” The notion of broken English makes language a material problem, like a broken bone—non-standard English is a sign that the body is not operating properly. Porter’s word choice of “extreme cases” also indicates that he is viewing language variation as an embodied problem, like an extreme case of a disease.  He seems to suggest that deviance from standard English, whether in idiom or word order, could further disable the students and keep them from achieving the imagined linguistic purity that would demonstrate the success of the social evolution project. To reframe Porter’s point in the language of “replacement” we might say that, just as settler society must replace Indigenous society on the land, so too must English replace all Indigenous languages. There can be no remnant of Indigenous nations left to challenge the righteousness of the settler society’s claim to the land; there can be no remnant of Indigenous language features in the students’ English either.

Porter associates “broken English” with a racialized Indian body that is culturally dysfunctional. Later in his career, Pratt would articulate his understanding of Indigenous cultures as disabled as well. In 1892, He gave a speech at the Conference of Charities and Correction arguing against on-reservation education where Indians:

formulate the notion that the government owes them a living and vast sums of money; and by improving their education on these lines, but giving no other experience and leading to no aspirations beyond the tribe, leaves them in their chronic condition of helplessness, so far as reaching the ability to compete with the white race is concerned. It is like attempting to make a man well by always telling him he is sick. (265)

Porter uses the language of disability to describe the Carlisle students’ non-standard English and Pratt applies a similar language to describe on-reservation education. He refers to the “chronic condition” of helplessness and suggests it is impossible to “make a man well by always telling him he is sick.” Here, Pratt blames Indigenous peoples themselves for their dependence on government annuities, failing to recognize that those annuities were stipulated in treaties when these nations ceded, or were forced to remove from their ancestral lands. Instead, Pratt believes that there is something inherent in Indigenous cultures that leads to these “sick” notions of helplessness and dependence. Only by taking children away from their culture and kin can this sickness be cured. As such, English-only education at boarding school becomes the solution to the imagined disability of Indigenous languages and promises to end the reservation system forever, creating a single language, culture, and land-base for the settler society.

Given the overlap in Pratt and Porter’s beliefs about Indigenous languages and cultures, it is not surprising that Deaf educators greatly influenced Pratt’s development as an Indian educator. In August of 1880, about six months after Keep and Porter’s visit, Pratt reported to the Congressional Indian Committee that teachers were using Keep’s First Lessons for the Deaf and Dumb.[10] This instructional method illuminates the day-to-day procedures that enacted settler notions of Native disability with material results for Native students’ learning. In Keep’s curriculum, students first learn nouns and names by associating physical objects with words. One sample lesson from Keep’s textbook asks a teacher to hold up a sponge, write the word sponge on a slate, and then ensure that the correspondence between word and object is clear to the students. They reproduce the word on their own slates or spell it aloud. The relationship between signifier and referent here is primarily alphabetic, which makes sense in a classroom of deaf students who would not hear a word spoken orally. It does not make sense, however, for a class of Native students who can certainly access language in its spoken form. The “word method,” as Pratt calls is, circumvents oral language entirely, stripping students of their communication and, paradoxically, disabling their means of communication. This is an educational example of how, as Senier and Barker have noted, “settler colonialism is implicated in the production of Indigenous disability, discursively and materially” (125). This pedagogy constructs Native students as people with no concept of the relationship between words and things. It privileges the alphabetic at the expense of the oral. Students are asked to spell the word aloud so that the oral is subsumed beneath the logic of the written. Pratt embraces Keep’s method because he believes it will allow him to block students from speaking in their Native languages and more quickly extinguish tribal oral literacies.

Another key effect of this curriculum is to center linguistic authority and the power of naming on the teacher. In the lesson on verbs, Keep suggests first that the teacher “draw the attention of all upon himself,” centering his own linguistic authority. Then, the teacher takes the sponge and throws it, writing immediately upon his own large slate, Mr. ______ threw a sponge. A sponge they know, and Mr. ______ they know. As they look at the sentence, some of the brighter members of the class will show that they understand what the new word means, by making the sign for throwing. (6) In this example, oral language is again sidestepped, this time in favor of both gesture and alphabetic text. This lesson attempts to block Native students from associating a new word, “throw,” with their existing term for the same action. Unlike bilingual pedagogies, Keep’s text does not add to students’ existing means of communication but attempts to block students from the act of translation. At the same time students are blocked from accessing their oral literacies, the Euro-American teacher is placing him- or herself at the center of meaning-making.

This relationship between language and authority is mirrored in the object lesson, a method that Pratt used alongside Keep’s text. The object lesson was a popular nineteenth-century pedagogical method for infants and young children where an image represents an object which is accompanied by an explanatory text (Crain 119). Pratt used Janet Byrne’s object-lesson book Picture Teaching, arguing it was “especially adaptive to Indian work.” [11] According to Patricia Crain, object lessons had “the effect of emphasizing the material objects while increasing the authority of the voice” (121). While the object lesson was designed to center the authority of the mother in the White, middle-class home, at Carlisle that authority rested with the White teacher who gained the power to order things in the world. In the context of Euro-American teachers and Native students, the picture-teaching method attempts to re-orient language relations that position Euro-American teachers at the center of language acquisition. The teacher replaces the parents and extended kinship networks that students drew upon to access to what Lomawaima and McCarty refer to as “language-rich contexts for education” where instruction was embedded in names, songs, and stories (31). Lomawaima and McCarty argues that “centuries of plain language, perplexing myths, lyrical songs, demanding questions, scolds and lectures, words of comfort and love and more—all have contributed to the language-rich life surrounding and nurturing Native people. Language has been a key, but not exclusive, medium of instruction in Indigenous educational systems” (36). At Carlisle, Euro-American teachers replace the kinship networks that allowed Indigenous languages to pass from one generation to the next. This colonial strategy disrupts tribal continuance through literacy training.

Byrne’s text works in a very similar way to Keep’s method. Both circumvent oral communication and translation. In Picture Teaching, Students see alphabetic text alongside a picture of an object, such as an egg or an ax. These lessons try to prevent students from translating their existing words into new English words. They are not adding new language but replacing their language with English. In this way, English-only education achieves sweeping colonial outcomes through day-to-day techniques of linguistic disruption. The racial assumptions at work in the settler society structure literacy lessons, which then create a feedback loop to replace Indigenous rhetorical sovereignty with settler language, literacy, and land rights.

Carlisle teachers established their power to name not only objects, but students as well. Students’ names were often the first victims of the Carlisle curriculum. As Brenda Child explains, “government teachers complained that the Indian names were unpronounceable, pagan, and sometimes even embarrassing” (29). Students were stripped of their names for the same reason that Pratt refused to use primers translated into Native languages—Euro-American educators did not want to engage in the labor of inter-cultural communication and translation. In his memoir My People the Sioux, Luther Standing Bear recalls his first class at Carlisle and the loss of his Lakota name:

Our interpreter came into the room and said “Do you see all these marks on the blackboard? Well, each word is a white man’s name. They are going to give each one of you one of these names by which you will hereafter be known.” None of the names were read or explained to us, so of course we did not know the sound or meaning of any of them. (136)

Students took on such peculiar titles as Rutherford B. Hayes and George Washington. In a sense, the first alphabetic literacy lesson (“these marks on the blackboard”) required students to obscure their identities and kinship ties with new, Euro-American names. What is also striking about Luther Standing Bear’s memory is that he recalls a translator being in the room. Bilingual communication and teaching in translation were always available options and must have been used when students first arrived, but all communication had to be re-oriented and contorted to fit the English-only orthodoxy at the center of the school’s mission.

This pedagogy discounted a bilingual alternative that would have done much to distribute authority between Euro-American and Indigenous epistemologies. To justify the departure from the far more practical precedent of multilingual education, Pratt and his fellow educators had to view Native students as disabled by their language and in need of drastic intervention to achieve the imagined cultural advancement of the settler society that wanted to absorb them.

The rhetoric of disability was not the only sense in which literacy education at Carlisle was an embodied process. Pratt believed that Indian students would best learn English by expressing the language with their bodies. In a report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1882, he had his head teacher, C.M. Semple explain their teaching methods. She writes:

Almost from the first, by the use of slate and blackboard the pupils were taught to write and read the names of objects, or short sentences—using script—describing actions. “Harry ran.” “Mattie ran.” “Ina ran.” written upon the board by the teacher, following the action by the child, copied upon the slate, at first almost illegibly, was one of the first lessons given a class of little Pueblos who came to us ignorant of English and without previous schooling . . . Running, jumping, ball throwing, paper throwing, drinking, eating etc. afforded amusement and exercise, alternating with the really difficult first lessons in writing. To expedite the process of learning to write, the sentences, or words, were written upon the board by the teacher, and after being almost erased, the little hands were guided in tracing the characters. This device, and a judicious amount of commendation and criticism secured success in the manual effort which in this method presents the only real difficulty.[12]

The report references Keep’s textbook as the source of their curriculum two years after his initial visit, suggesting that this remained the primary approach for the entirety of the first students’ three-year term at school. In order to learn verbs, children must enact the word with their own bodies, running, jumping, ball throwing etc. It is as though the English language enters the bodies of the students to create a racial transformation. In this way, the students’ bodies become conduits for the English language. Through this process, all other acculturation is meant to naturally follow. Writing English is also an embodied process guided by the white educators—students trace sentences written by their teachers and the teachers go so far as to physically guide their “little hands.” The English language-learning curriculum aims to change the very movements of the pupils. If language is a racialized trait in the English-only schema and race is seen as residing in the body, a certain alchemy occurs in this embodied training where the student is imagined to shed their culture as the English language enters and inoculates the Indigenous body making it fit for entry into the Euro-American citizenry.

Literacy development is an embodied process. Learning to write letters and create sounds with the mouth and tongue are bodily acts through which children learn the English language in its spoken and written forms. Semple reports on how the teachers manipulate the students’ mouths to teach them proper annunciation: “It is often necessary to show the Indian pupil the proper position of the teeth, tongue, and lips and insist upon his imitation. When he finds that it is possible to make the difficult sounds, a great deal is done toward success in English speaking.” One can imagine teachers not only modeling their own tongue and lip positions but also touching the students’ faces and moving their mouths into the shapes that create standardized English sounds. The emphasis on the words “show” “insist” and “possible” indicates a power dynamic where the teacher imagines herself as the authority figure who must “insist” upon her students’ bodily conformity in order to make English “possible” for them. Again, the body is the crucial site for English-language training, and the racialized body comes fully under the control of the Euro-American teacher who holds the power to make her students’ bodies and words fit within the settler polity.

To study the rhetorical dimensions of literacy, according to John Duffy, is “to chart the symbolic environments in which reading and writing take place, and to look at how these environments influence the practice, dissemination, and meanings of literacy” (3). During the allotment period, Indigenous languages and literacies accrued meaning within discourses of social evolutionism and attendant ideas about the racialized and disabled body. Pratt’s literacy project was both assimilationist and genocidal. The pedagogy through which he enacted that project aimed to eradicate Indigenous lifeways and nations in North America by destroying not only language but the kinship lines through which language was passed down. Language assimilation has not been fully understood as an embodied process. Because Carlisle students’ bodies were racialized through their languages, English-only training sought to move, shape, and alter them to destroy Indigenous identity and replace it with settler culture.

Part 3: Constellating Literacy, Disability, and Race

When Carlisle students used Plains Sign Talk, they drew on a familiar and expedient language to communicate with each other in an unfamiliar environment. When Pratt, Keep and Porter observed PST, they did not see savvy students drawing upon their rhetorical repositories to engage the basic human need to communicate. Instead, they made sense of PST within late nineteenth century theories about fixed racial characteristics that classify human groups in a taxonomy of cultural development. To make sense of this constellation of racialization, disability, and language, we need to understand how intercultural rhetorics emerge and interact in a site of vastly uneven power, where one group can enforce their own interpretations of language onto the other. As Powell and Bratta have argued, cultural rhetorics is a field that can take on the comparative analysis required here, provided that the approach takes on “an examination of issues of power, both those that arise within each cultural site of practice, and the power relations between the cultures involved in the comparative analysis” (Introduction n. pag.). Cultural Rhetorics acknowledges that the study of rhetoric as a Western phenomenon is not hospitable to sense-making at the intersections of multiple identity categories and power dynamics. These intersecting oppressions are crucial for understanding the inter-group relations from which rhetors make meaning in the off-reservation boarding school.

At Carlisle, PST accrued meaning during the assimilation period as settler society cast American Indians as culturally disabled in order to justify a new wave of territorial expansion. Indian educators responded to this colonial logic by creating a curriculum based on another group they viewed as communicatively disabled: the Deaf. Historical cultural rhetorics work calls us to a constellated understanding of how different bodies and social identities are shaped and understood through language. Bridging so many categories of analysis—race, colonization, indigeneity, Deafness, disability—is no easy task, but as scholars and teachers of writing, we continue to do our work in an environment where theories of racial identity and disability influence literacy pedagogies. By engaging the history of English language and literacy education as an assimilationist project, we may begin to construct a new paradigm that honors the culturally rich and expedient languages our students use to communicate as they enter new and unfamiliar rhetorical situations.

Given the many ways that theories of race and disability show up in the Carlisle curriculum, it is worthwhile to zoom outward to late nineteenth-century developments in education that made it possible for the eradication of Indigenous languages to be seen as a benevolent project. Multilingual education was not prohibited for all American students at this time. As Malathi Michelle Iyengar has argued, Western European immigrants were able to become citizens without surrendering their home languages through the 1790 Naturalization Act category of “free white person.” As an example of the implications of this act, bilingual public education for German students flourished from the 1830s through World War I (42). But for Pratt, even Europeans languages within the national boundaries presented a problem. In his third annual report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1882, he wrote “ignorance of our language is the greatest obstacle to the assimilation of the Indians with our population. It will be better for all when tribal names distinctions and languages are obliterated. The plan of exclusive schools for Germans was tried in the state of Pennsylvania and found to be foreign to the interest of the commonwealth in that it banded together a large mass of people to peculiar and special interest in each other rather than in the general welfare.”[13] Pratt believes that language is one of the only ways to bind together a nation-state with such disparate populations and expansive territory. In his argument, federal law allowing immigrants that fit within the category of whiteness to maintain their national tongues was failing. Native Americans especially had to learn English because their languages threatened the racial-linguistic purity of the United States. Like Native Americans, the Deaf fell under eugenic logics that blocked them from access to the full benefits of U.S. citizenship. Unlike other Western-European immigrants, the Deaf were viewed as undesirable entrants to the United States.

Douglas Baynton writes that the Immigration Act of 1882 denied entry to any “lunatic, idiot, or person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge” (“The Undesirability of Admitting Deaf-Mutes” 393). Deaf people were sent back to their countries of origin at U.S. ports under the category of “person unable to take care of himself or herself.” Baynton explains that deaf people were “culturally defined as social dependents rather than social contributors” and eugenicists increasingly swayed policy with their view that the Deaf were “bearers of potentially defective heredity” (395). Like Native Americans, known legally as “domestic dependent nations” following the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia[14] decision in 1831, deaf people were considered insufficiently individualistic to enter the body of American citizenship. This notion of dependency characterized Native and Deaf cultures as childlike and created a paternalistic dynamic that the state exploited to institutionalize these two groups.

While Pratt certainly believed in the linguistic purity of the American nation, in other ways his racial views were out of step with the social evolutionism of his contemporaries. While social evolutionism takes a racialized—that is, fixed and biological—view of indigeneity, Pratt tended to embrace a much earlier notion of indigeneity as largely cultural[15]— that is, mutable and subject to change through immersion in settler society. Pratt’s view of indigeneity led him to dismiss the possibility of educating Native Americans with emancipated African Americans shortly after the Fort Marion prisoners arrived at Hampton. He quickly came to believe that Indians would benefit more from exposure to White families than from intermingling with African Americans. During Pratt’s stay at Hampton, he and Hampton director Samuel Chapman Armstrong went on long walks at night debating the question of how to educate the two races. Pratt later summarizes his views on the topic in his 1892 address “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites.” He says of enslaved Africans, “they became English-speaking and civilized, because forced into association with English-speaking and civilized people; became healthy and multiplied, because they were property; and industrious, because industry, which brings contentment and health, was a necessary quality to increase their value.” Indians, on the other hand, “remained savage, because forced back upon themselves and away from association with English-speaking and civilized people, and because of our savage example and treatment of them” (263). For Pratt, slavery benefitted African Americans because it exposed them to the English language and habits of industry. The greater evil, he argues, was an Indian policy of removal, reservations, and war. We can see that Pratt’s approach to Indian education emerged from his extreme views of environmental racial identity formation. The most important thing was to expose Indians to settler culture. He viewed the off-reservation boarding school and slavery as parallel benevolent institutions because they had the potential to “civilize.”

As a result of Pratt’s uneven views of race, two competing and overlapping logics of indigeneity came into play in the early Carlisle curriculum. One the one hand, Pratt believed that the students’ very bodies were disabled by their language and culture—a social evolutionist view to be sure. On the other hand, Pratt pushed forward with his conviction that the Indian “is born a blank, like all the rest of us,” characterizing students not through fixed, racial characteristics, but through a mutable, cultural framework (268). If Indians were Lockean blank slates, then they could learn to be industrious Americans through education. This conviction shaped the school program in many ways. Students had to be taken away from their communities—as far away as possible—and they needed to spend time with white families on “outing” or long periods of farm labor away from school. Pratt’s policies were shaped by the notion that “the way to break up the tribe was to break up the Indian family and to cultivate children’s allegiance to the United States rather than to the tribe” (Piatote 5). By implementing a curriculum based on pedagogies in schools for the Deaf, Pratt created the “blank slate” conditions that he believed would allow his students to unlearn and relearn language, unlearn and relearn culture. If students could not speak, but learned gestural language instead, they would be primed for full exposure to English without a trace of their previous linguistic knowledge. Only in this frame can we begin to understand why perfectly standard English was necessary. Any idiom or syntax from their native tongues would indicate that the students had not erased their cultural knowledge completely in order to start again as Euro-Americans. The project of destroying to replace would never be complete if students did not speak standard English.

Porter’s letter to Pratt indicated his affiliation with a growing movement for standardization in the Deaf education movement as well. In the 1870s, Deaf language and literacy education shifted from a bilingual/bicultural model known as manualism to an assimilationist model known as oralism. Like the Carlisle curriculum, this emergent approach demanded embodied and mental conformity to norms of an imagined standard English. Oralist schools would eliminate signing “by teaching only in speech, and by providing training in lip reading and articulation” (Edwards 184). Like the Carlisle students, Deaf students were forced to change their embodied language practices to fit within an imagined national ideal. In the previous paradigm, Deaf educators generally recognized signs as “the natural language of deaf people, both as the language that they most commonly used among themselves and as the language that originated from the deaf community itself” (Edwards 34). By coming together in large numbers for the first time in the missionary schools of the Antebellum period, physically deaf people formed a Deaf community with its own language, culture, and values. These schools for the Deaf allowed students to develop their language without the attendant need for assimilation into standard spoken English.

By the 1870s, proponents of the Oral method began to attack Deaf sign language. Prominent Deaf scholar and activist Paddy Ladd has referred to oralism as linguistic colonialism, a term that elegantly maps the parallels between Native and Deaf education at this time. Ten years before Pratt opened Carlisle, oralists were insisting that Deaf Americans pass as hearing, an educational shift that went hand in hand with racialized views of language development. As Douglas Baynton argues, “sign language came to be seen as a language low in the scale of evolutionary progress, preceding in history even the most ‘savage’ of spoken languages and supposedly forming a link between the animal and the human” (Forbidden Signs 40). As early as 1844, Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe pressed for the oral method. When Howe became chairman of the Massachusetts Board of State Charities in 1863, he persuaded the state legislature to charter an oralist school. By 1880, a transatlantic congress of deaf educators (all hearing), committed to the Treaty of Milan, which stated that sign-language restricted deaf children and should be replaced by oral training (Branson and Miller 43). Like Native students, the Deaf were forced to abandon their literacy practices to perform the dominant mode of language in America—standard English.

This overlapping history of Postbellum Indian and Deaf education demonstrates how the concept of disability stripped Native Americans of their culture and language as the concept of the Indian savage was stripping Deaf Americans of their culture and language. The overlap between the understanding of Deaf and Native literacies shows how, as Jay Dolmage’s has argued, power circulates through communication.[16] The shifting curricular methods at schools for the Deaf and off-reservation boarding schools further demonstrate how cultural meanings of literacy can radically shape the experiences and worldviews of human beings (Duffy 193-200). Indigenous and Deaf sign languages came to threaten the racial-linguistic purity of the United States and literacy education began to demand monolingual, spoken, and standardized English. The legacy of that standardization retains its power today. Despite language revitalization movements in both Native and Deaf communities, public literacy education remains stubbornly reliant on a standard English paradigm in which difference is a problem to be solved rather than an inherent characteristic of all communication.

Part 4: Plains Sign Talk as Survivance

To enact an English-only curriculum, Carlisle made an imagined hierarchy of literacy real. Reformers used social evolutionism to justify colonial desires for land and a monocultural society. These colonial impulses materialized in English classrooms where teachers were throwing sponges and teaching object lessons. Carlisle teachers produced linguistic disability in their students by stripping them of their rich communicative forms and then treating them as if they had used sub-standard communicative practices all along. To standardize has historically meant to diminish a student’s available means of communication, and yet, Native students persistently refused to submit to the curriculum designed to eradicate their rhetorical practices. Gerald Vizenor’s landmark term, survivance, combines survival and resistance to characterize how Native American cultural identities persist in the face of colonial violence. At Carlisle, students used Plains Sign Talk to take advantage of their teacher’s misunderstanding of their communication systems and push back against the curriculum that sought to strip them of their identities and languages.

While Pratt and his teachers worked hard to block students from using their tribal languages, students continued to communicate in their native tongues. Two years after teachers implemented their English-only curriculum, Stephen K. White Bear wrote about the persistent use of Siouxian languages in his editorial “Speak Only English.” Because the editorial opens with a justification for why White Bear has been “talking Indian,” it is likely that he was assigned this editorial as a punishment. He writes,

I hear everybody talk Indian. So I suppose that is the reason I have been talking my own language but great many of the boys say only the Sioux boys talk Indian continually but I don’t believe them because I hear the other tribes talk Indian too but every boy and girl would like to know how to talk Sioux very much. They do not learn the English language they seem to want to know how to talk Sioux and I know some of them have been to school about eight years or six years but they do not learn so very fast and they do not want to speak English they just want to know how to talk Sioux. [17]

Because the majority of the first students came from the Rose Bud and Pine Ridge agencies, Lakota would have been the most common spoken language between 1879 and 1883. It is clear that this has become a privileged language at the school among the students, with many wanting to learn Lakota more so than English. This trend has come to the attention of the teachers, hence their assignment of the editorial to Stephen White Bear as a punishment.

Later in the editorial, White Bear reveals that students have also continued to use Plains Sign Talk: “so many boys who are trying to speak only English they do not speak out in the English. They just use signs to each other they looks like a sick man they don’t hold their heads up they hold their heads down continually.” I read this moment as evidence that students are using PST covertly to talk to each other and block the teachers from understanding what they are saying while also ensuring plausible deniability because they are using signs, which have been previously endorsed by their teachers. The teachers may view this language as evidence of disability— “they looks like a sick man”—but signing has been an important part of Pratt’s curriculum, and students have strategically continued to use Plains Sign Talk to communicate within the constraints of the total institution where they are detained.

To be sure, this a sophisticated rhetoric of survivance.[18] Students are using their teachers’ interpretation of PST as an unsophisticated series of gestures to keep their language alive and communicate in secret. According to Kay Yandell, while PST “served to protect privacy between the two signers within earshot but out of sight of others, it also functioned to relay messages throughout or across a group” (536). It was also widely used by children as part of their everyday communication (535). Plains Sign Talk allows students to communicate privately with one another or share information quickly across the entire group without their teachers understanding what they are saying. Their teachers have unwittingly endorsed these covert communications within their English-only environment because they failed to understand PST as a communicative system with the same level of complexity as any European language. These students are taking advantage of their teachers’ low cultural expectations of them in order to maintain their languages. Because they will certainly be punished for “speaking Sioux,” sign talk is a powerful method of survivance for Carlisle’s earliest students.

Another indication that students continued to covertly use their languages and subvert their education in other ways appears in Pratt’s report at the end of the school’s first three-year term. On September 30, 1882, he writes “three years in school is not education and judgments based upon the success or failure of those who have made this mere beginning can only be imperfect.[19]”As he attempts to manage the Indian Bureau’s expectations, we note a hesitancy in his usually bombastic prose. Pratt knows that many students are returning home without achieving the full measure of “civilization” that he hoped for. He also writes that the classroom model has become “Make haste slowly,” another indication that the promise of the three-year language-transformation has turned out to take longer than expected. Perhaps the delay is due to the students who continue to “speak Sioux,” or those who have decided to learn Lakota as well as English, or those who use Plains Sign Talk to communicate covertly with one another. It seems that most students are not speaking perfectly standardized English as they prepare to return home. In fact, many may be speaking new Indigenous languages as well.

Hazel Hertzberg has argued that twentieth-century Pan-Indian movements emerged from off-reservation boarding schools (18). At Carlisle, Native students from dozens of tribes met one another and were exposed to Lakota and Plains Sign Talk for the first time. These languages became shared strategies for surviving the boarding school experience and allowed students to resist the English-only curriculum while they were at school. Linguist William Leap has written that Indian student varieties of English were “codes under construction, codes students were creating, as individuals and as a group, on the basis of the knowledge of language they had acquired in their home/tribal communities, were learning from their teachers, and were learning from each other” (162). While their teachers believed they were destroying tribal languages and replacing them with English, they were in fact witnessing the creation of rhetorical and linguistic strategies for a new era of Indigenous survivance. When students used these languages strategically and at great risk of punishment, they sowed the seeds of Indigenous resistance for the twentieth century.

Part 5: Concluding Notes for Educators

In 2014, I took a job as a writing teacher at a community college in Butte County, a rural region in the far north of California’s central valley on the unceded lands of Maidu-speaking nations. During that time, I thought a lot about how important it is for scholars and teachers of writing to historicize our curricular decisions. I would often talk with my colleagues about Standard Written English as a colonial project, and they would argue that students need grammatical correctness and perfect usage to succeed in our society as students and then workers. As Mya Poe et al. have recently argued, the social justice imperative demands that we move from these elementalist logics to ecological views of student’s writing capacity. Part of that ecology is the history of how standard English emerged from the American colonial project. Without this history, “the fallacy of a universal linguistic standard results in replicating the existing social hierarchy under the false promise of opportunity” (Poe et al.8). When we invoke the specter of Standard English, we replicate and reproduce the colonial relations of power on the American continent that Pratt so powerfully translated into language curricula.

In 2016, Californians passed Proposition 58, a law that overturned the English-only mandate in public education. The ongoing influence of English-only policies is evidence of literacy as one of the most potent tools deployed by colonial governments for territorial control. The earliest English-only policies stem from the U.S. annexing California after the Mexican-American War. In 1855, the state of California declared that English would be the only language used in schools, and by 1879, California became the first state to establish English as its official language in legal and civic contexts. In the same year, Indian educators on the East coast established the first English-only boarding school for Native Americans just as oralist educators were arguing that deaf children should speak rather than sign. U.S. imperialism instantiated the standard English and English-only policies that remain with us today.

This essay is a call for writing educators to engage in cultural rhetorics praxis grounded in historical inquiry. Our understanding of difference shapes the means of communication that our students can safely deploy in our classrooms. Our beliefs about language difference structure how students enact and maintain their resistance to the assimilating processes of our education systems. In reflecting on the strategic use of Plains Sign Talk by students at Carlisle, I am pushing us to think about how we can surface our students’ practices of survivance in our classrooms and the broader institutional spaces they are navigating. The curriculum we use in first year writing, rhetoric, and professional and technical communication courses can center survivance as a foundational practice in the fight for social justice. As we prepare students for the rhetorical situations they will face in their majors, let us point them to the histories of racism, ableism, and settler-colonialism that live at the center of every academic discipline. Let us use the writing classroom as a space for students to experiment with their own rhetorics of survivance in collaboration, community, and coalition with others subject to systemic oppression in our schools and our society.

At Carlisle, students took advantage of their teachers’ cultural bias to maintain private communications in Plains Sign Talk. Because teachers and students had completely different understandings of this language, students navigated both challenges and opportunities to maintain their linguistic identities. Ultimately, the rhetorical history of Carlisle shows us how a standard English policy constructs difference as disability in order to reproduce colonial relations of power. It is up to us as educators to reframe students’ language difference as strategic and productive for their survivance within the institutions that seek to assimilate them.

Works Cited

Bratta, Phil and Malea Powell. “Introduction to the Special Issue: Entering the Cultural Rhetorics Conversations” enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture 21 (2016): n.p. Web http://enculturation.net/entering-the-cultural-rhetorics-conversations

Baynton, Douglas C. Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language. Chicago UP, 1996.

— “The Undesirability of Admitting Deaf Mutes”: U.S. Immigration Policy and Deaf Immigrants, 1882-1924. Sign Language Studies, vol. 6, no. 4, 2006, 391-415.

Branson, Jan and Don Miller. Damned for their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled. Gallaudet UP, 2002.

Byrne, Janet. Picture Teaching. New York: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 1869.

Child, Brenda J. Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families 1900-1940. Nebraska UP, 1998.

Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. 30 U.S. 1. p. 2. Supreme Court of the United States. 1831. Supreme Court Collection. Legal Information Inst., Cornell U Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/30/1

Crain, Patricia. The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from the New England Primer to the Scarlet Letter. Stanford UP, 2000.

The Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab (Malea Powell, Daisy Levy, Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, Marilee Brooks-Gillies, Maria Novotny, Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson). “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics Practices.” enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture 18, 2014, n.p. http://enculturation.net/our-story-begins-here

Dolmage, Jay. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse UP, 2014.

Duffy, John. Writing from These Roots: Literacy in a Hmong-American Community. Hawai’i UP, 2007.

Edwards, R.A.R. Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture. NYU Press, 2012.

Hertzberg, Hazel W. The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements. Syracuse UP, 1971.

Iyengar, Malathi Michelle. “Not mere abstractions: Language policies and language ideologies in U.S. settler colonialism.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014, pp. 33-59.

Katanski, Amelia. Learning to Write “Indian”: The Boarding-School Experience and American Indian Literature. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2005.

Keep, John Robinson. First Lessons for the Deaf and Dumb. Hartford: Case, Lockwood, and Brainard, 1875.

Lomawaima, K. Tsianina and Teresa L. McCarty. To Remain an Indian: Lessons in Democracy from a Century of Native American Education. Teachers College Press, 2006.

Piatote, Beth. Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature. Yale UP, 2013.

Powell, Malea. “Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 53, no. 3, 2002, pp. 396–434.

Poe, Mya, et al. “Introduction: The End of Isolation.” Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity. Edited by Mya Poe, Asao Inoue, and Norbert Eliot. UP of Colorado, 2018. 3-38.

Pratt, Richard H. “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites” Americanizing the American Indians. Harvard UP, 1973. 260-271.

Battlefield and Classroom. Yale UP, 1964.

Senier, S. & Barker, C. “Introduction.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2013, pp. 123-140.

Spack, Ruth. America’s Second Tongue: American Indian Education and the Ownership of English, 1860-1900. University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Standing Bear, Luther. My People, the Sioux. University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Vizenor, Gerald. Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance. Nebraska UP, 1994.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409.

Sarah Klotz is assistant professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross, where she teaches courses in Rhetoric, Academic Writing, and Native American Studies. Her book, The Fantasy of Benevolence: A Rhetorical History of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School is forthcoming with the University Press of Colorado.

Emily Legg is a Cherokee Nation citizen and an Assistant Professor of Intercultural Rhetorics at Miami University (Ohio). Her research centers Indigenous knowledge-making practices and storytelling as a decolonial and materialist research methodology in areas such as historiographic recovery work, user experience design, pedagogy, and digital rhetorics. Her current book project specifically engages Indigenous storytelling methodology in archival research to recovery nineteenth century Cherokee student writing as a sovereign practice, to counter/resist assimilationist narratives associated with the Cherokee National Seminaries, and to put us back in relation with artifacts that have been colonized through archival practices. Her work has appeared in journals, like College Composition and Communication, as well as edited collections on feminist historiography and social justice issues in technical and professional communication.

Managing Editor: Candace Epps-Robertson

Copyeditor: Sophie Schmidt

Editorial Assistants: Lauren Brentnell, Catheryn Jennings

Reviewer(s): Emily Legg

[1] Tweet 2:36 PM – 6 Jan 2018

[2] In 1892, Pratt delivered a speech to the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction in which he articulated his now famous motto: “a great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Pratt’s speech is included in the Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference

of Charities and Correction, pp. 46-59. See works cited for full citation.

[3] See the special issue of Enculturation on Cultural Rhetorics http://enculturation.net/21, constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space http://constell8cr.com/, and the Cultural Rhetorics Consortium http://cultrhetconsortium.org/

[4] School Room at Carlisle

[5] For more on the history of bilingual missionary literacy efforts with Native American tribes, see Hilary Wyss, Bernd Peyer, Kristina Bross, and Jennifer Monaghan.

[6] The School News Vol. 1 No. 11 April 1881 p.2

[7] Whenever possible, I refer to the peoples making up the first nations of North America as either Indigenous or Native American. I use the terms relatively interchangeably in an attempt to be inclusive to the largest scope of intellectual traditions in the fields of Native American, American Indian, and Indigenous studies. I use the term “Indian” to represent a figuration of settler society. The term “Indian” appears often in the writings of Richard Pratt, for example, and when referring to his writing, I use the term to underline his racialist and colonial views. The term “Indian” also allows me to talk about the rhetorical construction of Indigenous peoples, and I often use the term to indicate how settler society creates shifting images of Indigenous peoples to justify their ongoing, unjust occupation of the American continent and the land grabs of the late nineteenth century.

[8] Eadle Keatah Toh Vol. 1 No. 1 Jan. 1880

[9] Eadle Keatah Toh Vol. 1 No.1 January 1880

[10] Eadle Keatah Toh Vol. 1 No. 5 August 1880

[11] Eadle Keatah Toh Vol 1. No. 5 August 1880

[12] Report from Richard Henry Pratt to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price. 25 January 1882. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA. Manuscript.

[13] Report from Richard Henry Pratt to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price. 25 January 1882. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA. Manuscript.

[14] Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. 30 U.S. 1. p. 2. Supreme Court of the United States. 1831. Supreme Court Collection. Legal Information Inst., Cornell U Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/30/1

[15] Pratt’s view of indigeneity can be traced back to the first Indian Policy in the United States. George Washington’s Secretary of War, Henry Knox, believed that a civilization program would eventually subsume all tribal identities beneath the purview of American citizenship. Drafted in 1789, Knox’s program planned a fifty-year window for Indians east of the Mississippi to integrate into Anglo-American society. By extinguishing titles, denationalizing tribes, and leaving only “individual Indian landholders scattered as farmer-citizens among the whites,” Knox believed that the question of relations between whites and Indians would be resolved (McLoughlin 4). This policy reflected the cultural rather than racial divide between Euro-Americans and Indians. Indians were seen as uncivilized simply because they had not been adequately exposed to Euro-American cultural practices. For more on Knox’s civilizational program see William G. McLoughlin’s “Experiment in Cherokee Citizenship, 1817-1829.”

[16] In Disability Rhetoric, Dolmage characterizes rhetoric as “the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication” (3). He believes “we should recognize rhetoric as the circulation of discourse through the body” (5). Following Aristotle’s famous definition of rhetoric as “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion,” Dolmage argues that “the body has never been fully or fairly understood for its role in shaping and multiplying these available means” (3).

[17] “Speak Only English.” The School News Vol. II No. 8 January 1882 p. 4

[18] See Powell, Malea. “Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 53, no. 3, 2002, pp. 396-434.

[19] Report from Richard Henry Pratt to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price. 30 September 1882. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA. Manuscript.

“The Dirt Under My Mom’s Fingernails”: Queer Retellings and Migrant Sensualities

Alejandra I. Ramírez and Ruben Zecena, University of Arizona

October 2019


PDF Version  

Rhetorics of the Flesh

…are the cracks at the edges of my lips
Que me merecí from holding smiles for too long
The bite marks on the inner flesh of my cheeks
Trozos que me arranqué out of fear from running
Rhetorics that I’ve silenced because callused hands have wrapped themselves around
My heart
My mouth
They are the
bodies of women that lie under wooden crosses, under mesquites,
under oath
Because they too often did
“The best they
Because they are
far too explicit to put into words.
Screams in the
night that erupt when everything has been said
And we remain
El cuerpo sabe.

This co-written article proposes “rhetorics of the flesh” as an analytic framework and queer writing method that (re)tells stories about Latina migrant mothers within and against the violent, dominant, and forceful narratives of U.S. citizenship that criminalize their existence. Furthermore, our article serves as a place to build on the growing corpus in rhetorical studies that weaves together queer theory, embodiment, and intergenerational violences. Our theory of rhetorics of the flesh is a strategic writing act rooted in the assumption that el cuerpo sabe, the body knows, and it is through the senses and embodied knowledge wherein one remembers and can retell stories. Through a queer intellectual practice that arouses the senses and draws lines between small and large social issues and artifacts, we draw imaginary scribbles that connect the themes in our essay about intergenerational migrant trauma and pleasure: embodied knowledge, sensualities, and migration (Rodríguez 69).  

Importantly, this article began over a coffee shop conversation about our migrant mothers. It began in graduate seminar classes, discussions on social justice movements, common readings on poetics, and conversations before and after class. In short, the project is an amalgamation of voices, thoughts, and feminist ‘wonders’ that imbricate us in a queer sociality (Ahmed, Cultural Politics 180-181). The conversation about the lived experiences of migrant mothers began when we were children. It began in the womb before we were even born. It began with the generations of subtle and explicit brutalities of institutional, colonial, and patriarchal violence, now sustained in the increased media depicting migrant women with children as “bad mothers” and “bad citizens.” It also begins in the bodies of our mothers and in their mothers before them, extends to our bodies, and in one of our cases, to the bodies of my children. We wonder what it might take to imagine and to (re)tell the stories our mothers told us. We wonder about the historicity of what has been forgotten or untold—what we know and cannot know for certain (Ahmed, Cultural Politics 82; Purdue 8). In other words, we critically theorize, through an intergenerational and embodied analysis, the extent to which dominant ideologies and policies affect migrants, their children and their children’s children.

Figure 1. Tomasita Balderas-Hermosillo with her late mother, Irene Balderas-Leal. Carrizo Springs, Texas, 2015.

We write our memories of our mothers at a moment when once again migrants, particularly Latina mothers, are represented as threatening to the nation-state. Our mothers became central to our conversation, and we continue to sit with tensions about the ethics of retelling their stories. We resist the benevolent or paternalistic researcher-position when writing about their experiences. Therefore, we draw upon queer women of color feminisms to provide a critical method of retelling that recognizes and honors our mothers’ many labors and their complexities as women with dreams, desires, and pain. 

In our weaving of the narratives, discourses, and experiences that migrant mothers and their children have to endure in the U.S., we draw attention to the rhetoric that influences derogatory labels such as “welfare queens,” “anchor babies,” and the overall framing of migrant mothers as problem subjects in national media and U.S. politics. On a personal level, we also illustrate how our mom’s stories and their working conditions have shaped us, their children. 

By eliciting sensual, performative, and queer collaborative writing practices, this essay offers rhetorics of the flesh as a vital contribution and intervention within the study of rhetoric and the criminalization of Latina migrant mothers. Such analytic framework intervenes in the erasure of embodied knowledge as a valid means of knowing; furthermore, it recognizes the complexity of migrant mothers and acknowledges that they are sensual with shared desires, not only as laborers, migrants, and mothers, but also as complex human beings. 

The purpose of this essay and rhetorics of the flesh is to situate the body, and the intergenerational embodied stories shared among migrants and their children, as central to alternative meaning-making practices and rhetorical imaginaries (Chávez 31). In the following section, we demonstrate how Cultural Rhetorics enables us to tell painful stories through embodied knowledge, and we propose the concept of a rhetorics of the flesh as our main intervention for retelling our migrant mothers’ stories, a practice influenced by the work of Chicana and transnational feminists; a theory in/of the flesh (Moraga; Trujillo; Facio and Lara). This concept enables us to explore the importance of embodied knowledge and argues that an engagement with the body and the senses arouses critical reflections on migration. We therefore situate our essay within cultural rhetorics, informed by literature on gender and migration, as critical interlocutors for our methodological practice.

Rhetorics of the Flesh

Rhetorics of the flesh is a poiesis—a poetic and embodied way of knowing and being. It is a collision between poetry and rhetorics, and of bodies communicating in space. Our project builds on Theories of the Flesh, cultural rhetorics, and U.S. women of color feminism to conceptualize a rhetorical maneuver that does not speak for or about migrant mothers, but accounts for the complexities and contradictions of our experiences as queer children of migrant mothers (Cruz; Téllez). Rhetorics of the flesh helps us to think, feel, and write about the body’s seemingly “silent” ability to narrate desire, trauma, violence, pleasure, dreams, and resilience in the lives of migrant mothers and their children.

Our project title, “The Dirt Under My Mother’s Fingernails,” is a reference to Cherríe Moraga’s play, Watsonville. In this play, Moraga explores issues related to the cannery worker’s strike in the mid-1980s in California coupled with environmental destruction and the appearance of the Virgen de Guadalupe on a tree in 1992. In Moraga’s play, many of the leaders in the strike are Mexicana and Chicana activists whose voices play an important role in challenging labor exploitation, land degradation, and anti-immigrant rhetoric. We are drawn to a particular scene where Susana, a physician’s assistant at the community clinic, asks Lucha, one of the cannery workers, if she is ever afraid to strike. Lucha responds by reminding Susana that if she had the courage to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, then she has the courage to strike until the cannery workers’ demands are met. Later, Lucha asks Susana why she chooses to work in Watsonville when she says “[If I had gone to college] you wouldn’t find me with the dirt under my uñas [nails]…I’d move to a big city” (37). She later speaks about her dreams for her children to obtain a college education and leave the town. Both women express ambivalence about their relationship to Watsonville, but Susana offers an important response that allows us to work through our own mothers’ stories and the rhetorical forces that render their bodies deviant when she says: “Maybe [your children] won’t be able to forget the dirt under your fingernails” (37). Towards the end of the play, Lucha confesses her love for Susana and asserts that she wants to be Susana’s partner, a lesbiana, “un nombre sensual” [a sensual name] (104). The dirt under her fingernails, the traces of caring for the land, is the metaphor that guides our essay as we retell the memories we have of our migrant mothers, their care, their labor/s, and their fight, as well as the gendered criminalization of migrants in the U.S. We, like Susana, are invested in acknowledging the traumas of migration that are marked on our mothers’ bodies and thus insist on remembering and retelling their stories. And just like Lucha, we do so queerly by insisting on the politics of desire, pleasure, and sensuality in our queer retellings.

Figure 2. Image of Sandra Elizabeth Cartagena de Zecena working at Banco Agrícola in San Salvador, El Salvador, 1983.

Trying to articulate sentimientos y conocimentos that we have inherited, we opened a cherished and foundational text to our queer and feminist upbringings, This Bridge Called My Back. We did so quietly, hoping for some illumination as we recalled childhood memories of our mothers, their life stories, their struggles, their migrations. Max Valerio’s essay, “It’s In My Blood, My Face – My Mother’s Voice, The Way I Sweat” helped to remind us of the purpose of our essay, asking how our bodies tell stories, how they shape stories and are shaped by them (36). The power of a mother’s presence, her gaze, her posture, and all the in/visible traumas of migration, as well as the joys and pleasures, are part of their migrant histories. Our migrant histories. These painful and embodied rhetorics fuel our desire to situate our mothers’ stories, and our queer retellings of their stories, as a form of liberatory praxis. Embodied political theory articulates experiences that transcend the written text. As Cindy Cruz elaborates, “our production of knowledge begins in the bodies of our mothers and grandmothers, in the acknowledgement of the critical practices of women of color before us” (658). Rhetorics of the flesh further delves into the layers of “flesh,” below the surface, to theorize the body as a feeling and thinking site of knowledge production. A site of articulation and manifestation of politics—indeed, a place of meaning-making where narratives collide. Building on the work of Karma Chávez, we understand queerness as a “coalitional term, a term that always implies an intermeshed understanding of identity, subjectivity, power, and politics located in the dirt and concrete where people live, work, and play” (7). Queerness asks us to reach below the skin and down to the very soil in which we stand, the dirt from which this story begins.

Significantly, these rhetorics of the flesh are in critical dialogue with cultural rhetorics. The Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab defines cultural rhetorics as the telling of stories about how the world works (Powell et al.); it is a methodological practice that challenges how academic disciples have traditionally conceptualized culture “as an object of inquiry” that is static and open to interpretation (Powell et al.). In other words, object-oriented approaches to “culture” erase, omit, and isolate the actual bodies within culture. Cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall defines culture as a “set of practices” where people make sense of the world, arguing that meaning-making practices have real effects on the social organization of everyday life (3). We situate rhetorics of the flesh in dialogue with cultural rhetorics because these theoretical and methodological practices argue that the traces of the body, like the dirt under our mothers’ fingernails, have the capacity to re-story and reconfigure dominant narratives about migrants and mothers. Through a rhetoric of the flesh, we challenge a dominant culture that underestimates the power of story and the power of the migrant narrative. Our essay elucidates a queer methodological practice, which queer of color and performance theorist José Esteban Muñoz describes as the “remaking and rewriting of a dominant script” (23). In a similar vein, cultural rhetorics and rhetorics of the flesh tell a different story that challenges the rhetorics of the U.S. empire. As Daisy Levy proposes, cultural rhetorics pushes for transdisciplinarity as a methodological practice, positioning the body as a site of knowledge (8-9). 

Cognizant of the problems that Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” poses for theories that attempt to speak for or let the subaltern speak, we insist on a rhetorics of the flesh that engages the body as a site of knowledge (78). Such rhetorics of the flesh enable us to analyze normative discourses about migrant mothers and disrupt anti-immigrant rhetoric that renders migrant mothers as always already criminal and abject. In positing the body as a site of knowledge, we ask: how can a rhetorics of the flesh re-story the criminalization of migrant mothers in the U.S.? (Driskill, Asegi Stories, 4) And what can this queer retelling reveal about the embodiment of migrant, intergenerational histories? Ultimately, rhetorics of the flesh enables us to see queer paths and queer pasts. It dislodges the heteronormative and racist rhetorical forces of anti-immigrant legislation and allows us to imagine an elsewhere within academia—expanding the intellectual space necessary to “make the world bigger” (Herrera y Lozano). 

Structural Inequalities and the Criminalization of Latina Migrants

U.S. homonationalist rhetoric plays a central role in the creation of anti-immigrant legislation whereby mothers of color are blamed for social inequalities; and thus, those rhetorics create a cultural and political discourse that invisibilizes the role of the state in the creation of these structural conditions. Because this essay focuses on our queer retellings about our migrant mothers’ labor, it is grounded in transnational feminist theory that equally informed our growing understanding of their (im)material conditions. Rhetorical forces, as we understand them, have material and violent effects on migrant mothers.

Gender and migration literature demonstrates how immigration and welfare reform policies of the 1990s worked to extract labor from poor migrant women while criminalizing their bodies. For example, Grace Chang identifies how cultural and political structures disproportionately target poor migrant women’s mobility within the U.S. neoliberal imagination. As Chang argues in Disposable Domestics, immigrant women’s reproduction is rhetorically imagined as a threat to the national body (4). In connection to the disproportionate criminalization of migrant women, Lynn Fujiwara sheds light on how the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) functioned to limit Asian and Latina migrant’s access to citizenship, safe working conditions, and social services through nativist discourse (128-130). Neoliberal legislation such as PRWORA relies on the discourse of “personal responsibility” to privatize public resources away from those who most need them, namely migrant mothers and their children.

Martha D. Escobar goes on to describe the racialized policies of criminalization in the U.S. against Latina migrants and writes that Latina sexualities are “constructed as racialized national threats” (11). Furthermore, Escobar writes that migrant mothers’ “irrecuperability is made viable because their origins are outside the US nation-state and their entrance is consigned to the realm of (il)legality since the dominant imagination equates the figure of the (im)migrant to that of the ‘illegal’” (5). Such “irrecuperability” subjects migrant women to precarious working conditions and makes their access to citizenship impossible. In addition to the criminalization of migrant women, Tapia alerts us the rhetoric utilized in popular media, politics, and law to blame mothers for social inequalities; and thus, it creates a cultural and political discourse that invisibilizes the role of the state in the creation of these structural conditions (51). 

In spite of migrant women’s labor for the nation, their own bodies and sexualities have historically been regulated through eugenic rhetorics and policies where their labor, and reproductive capacities, are controlled by the state. The recent film No Más Bebés directed by Renee Tajima-Peña (2015) captures/documents the ways institutions of power control the bodies of Latinas. The film connects issues of gender with eugenics in the U.S. by providing testimonios from the mothers of the 1975 civil rights lawsuit against the University of Southern California Medical Center. This lawsuit brought visibility to the forced sterilization of Latinas in the 1960s and 70s. Overall, images, literature, and film on gender and migration provide historical and theoretical accounts of the ways U.S. anti-immigrant discourse “obscures the fact that the modern family—as an offspring of imperialism—was always an institution structured by and productive of inequalities based on gender, race, class” (Tapia 51). Such literature productively maps the effects of gendered U.S. racist rhetorics against migrant mothers and serves as a starting point for our own rhetorical engagement as we deconstruct our experiences as children of migrant mothers. 

As a contribution to the literature on gender, sexuality, and international migration, a rhetorics of the flesh maps the memories of our mothers’ stories and our eye-witness accounts of the “traces” of their working conditions on their bodies. Traces that include smells, scars, and pain, all of which speak to the title of our piece: the dirt under my mother’s fingernails. 

Queer Retellings and Textual Intimacies

“Learning happens through our bodies, through embodied practice, through doing.”

-Qwo-Li Driskill (“Decolonial Skillshares” 57).

For our mothers, learning also happened through forced migrations, land dispossession, sexual violence, and inhumane labor conditions. Through our discussion of the body as a story, we posit that a rhetorics of the flesh reveals traces of violence on the migrant body. Thinking through rhetorics of the flesh is a queer decolonial practice that enables us to offer a re-storying of the colonized migrant body (Driskill, Asegi Stories, 4). A story that occurs both on the body and below the skin; a “happening” to the body. A body that sheds its skin. A body that knows from within—visceral knowledge. With the permission of our mothers, we discuss rhetorics of the flesh through their stories of migration, labor, and parenting, which offers an important contribution to academic discourses of queerness, heteronormativity, and cultural rhetorics.

Figure 3. Image of Sandra Elizabeth Cartagena de Zecena receiving an appreciation recognition award for her work at a Washington State Inspire Development center, Pasco, Washington, 2017.

Through centering the body, rhetorics of the flesh is a counterpoint to the criminalization of migrant mothers explicit in today’s popular media, heteronormative anti-immigrant legislation, and what Nicholas De Genova calls the deportation regime (2010). These structural conditions and embodied realities necessitate a queer retelling, and contestation, of the material realities of Latina migrant mothers and their everyday experiences. In this next section, we offer our mothers’ stories and our own reflections as the theory that we call rhetorics of the flesh: embodied practices of meaning-making that present opportunities for a nuanced analysis of migrant kinship structures, a critique of labor exploitation, and a turn to the senses as a means to remember and retell.

El cuerpo es una historia y tiene historias que contar. 

“For our bodies to be sites of theory, they must be honored as sites of desire.”

-Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano (“What Courses Through My Veins”).

Ruben: Where to begin? I could start with a story about the time when the big open-secret in my family was “revealed.” Or the time when my mom told my dad that she would not leave El Salvador without both of her children. But instead, I want to start with a scene that I remember thoroughly and mainly through my senses. I was in middle school working on homework when my mom came home, and she was emphatically relieved to be out of work. She was a line worker whose job was to cut out the rotten parts of a potato, sort them, and do so under a quick pace.  She sat at the kitchen table and told me that her supervisor threw a potato at her because she could not keep up with the speed of the line. And because she was undocumented, she did not report this incident out of fear that she would be fired, or much worse, reported to la migra. As I listened to her story, I looked and tended to her hands. They were usually swollen from long periods of cutting potatoes. These are hands that have been marked by the experiences of migration and agricultural labor. It was these swollen hands that were always there to encourage me in my pursuit of higher education. My undocumented mom, her loving hands, were reduced to body parts at the factory that day, and all I was able to do was listen to her story.

Figure 4.  Tomasita Balderas-Hermosillo, with her cat, Lucille. Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2019.

I recount this story because I remember the touch of my mother’s hands, the smell of potatoes on her hair, the sound of her voice, and the resilience that she continues to embody. Her story elucidates a non-normative and gendered critique of power that invokes the field of queer theory. In his articulation of “Quare” as a modality of knowing that differs from the term “queer,” performance studies scholar E. Patrick Johnson asks: “what is the utility of queer theory on the front lines, in the trenches, on the street, or anyplace where the racialized and sexualized body is beaten, starved, fired, cursed—indeed, where the body is the site of trauma?” (5). Johnson challenges ‘queer’ due to its lack of intersectional analysis; thus, situating his piece within the broader field of queer of color critique. The title for his essay is indicative of queer of color material realities, and I thus reflect on his piece to make sense of my mother’s story. As he notes, he learned about Quare, a queer of color analytic, from his grandma. And it is my mother who taught me that structural critiques of power can emerge from the body. In my retelling of her story, I am brief. I refuse to make my mom a spectacle of violence, and there are details that I keep to myself. However, this retelling, a queer retelling, shows that for my mom, the “American Dream” is defined in the moment that a factory supervisor threw a potato at her. Asking to extract more labor from her migrant body, this was a dehumanizing action aimed at reminding my mom of the precarious conditions that structure migrancy. And in particular, the gendered labor of undocumented Latina migrant mothers. While there are no easy answers to this story, I recognize that my mother’s action, a lack of action, was a strategic act that allowed her to keep her job but also enabled a strong critique of the American Dream. 

The rotten parts of the potato, lo desechable as Diana Taylor remarks, act as a metaphor in this story for Latina migrant mothers and their labor (“Performing Ruins” 22). So I ask: how can my mother’s hands represent both violence and refusal? And more abruptly, how has the story about Latina migrants been confined to stories of criminality? In asking these questions I am wary of the “heroic” narrative that this story may present, as my mother is no longer undocumented and currently works as a family advocate for a migrant seasonal Head-Start program in Washington State. But my mother’s story, and the story of her body, is complex and exists in the in-between spaces of the “good” and “bad” immigrant. Furthermore, in my use of memory through the senses, I posit a queer way of discussing and retelling my mother’s story, one that refuses to reenact scenes of violence but also looks at the wounds that migration has inflicted. Refusing to heal and refusing to cause more violence, I reflect on this story because it challenges hegemonic framings of Latina migrants and allows me to think about ways of surviving that, in Johnson’s language, quare our conceptions of migration.

Alejandra: I have to admit: I have mommy issues. I go back and forth with my feelings for her. She has healed me and hurt me. That being said, I know she did the best she could, and that’s all you can do as a parent. Especially after my dad left, and abandoned my mom with six young children, I see my mom as the woman who fed us, clothed us, and saved us. Everything was for us. Sacrifice and duty were constant messages in our traditionalist family. The sacrificial mother who puts her children’s desires, and her man’s desires, before her own. This anti-feminist narrative in patriarchal and nationalist cultures is in part what makes the lives of women and mothers susceptible to domestic and labor abuse.

An odor triggers memories of my mom coming home in the early morning from working overnights at the turkey factory in central Minnesota. I can’t get that smell out of my head. It was the smell of sterilized death, like attempting to purifying old blood, or something like a morgue. Sometimes it makes me sick to think about it. The white garments that she would wear for her job would be stained in pinks and reds. Her brown rubber boots always caused her feet and back aches.

The factories looked like some sort of airport hangar, and at night the lights would illuminate the nearby neighborhood of trailer homes in which many other migrant families lived. 

I thought she was fierce and powerful with her knife sharpening tool, and I imagined her with large knives at work. Though I didn’t want to think about what they were doing to the animals at the factory she worked at. My mom worked at two meat factories: one a turkey factory and the other a chicken factory.

Figure 5. Tomasita Balderas-Hermosillo with her children. Detroit Lakes, Minneapolis, 1990.

The turkey and chicken factories were, in many ways, an economic solution for a lot of the migrant families in the area. My mom and dad worked there; so did my older brother and older sister. Our family friends and conocidos also worked at the factory. It became a hub to socialize and central to the city. Our lives revolved around the factory. 

I remind myself that the work I do in no way comes close to the degree of physical exhaustion and pain my mother endured in order to feed her family and pay the bills. She was on her feet all day for 8 hours, unless she worked overtime, which seemed like an ironic blessing to get to work 12+ hours at a job like this. 

Her labor didn’t just include factory work. It was her scratching my head and humming my favorite rancheras, it was cleaning hotel rooms, and it was making frijoles and tortillas de harina from scratch. Why can’t her parenting, the masa under her fingernails, be celebrated as much as her ability to pay the bills? My mother is not just her labors or her ability to give birth; she’s a sensuous woman first, with dreams and desires. I recall her love of bailes and after parties, and the times when she wiped the sweat from my brow after I’d given birth. 

Sitting, typing this in an air conditioned library at a research one university seems so far away from those early mornings when I would see my mom come home from work, just in time to see us off when the school bus would pick us up in the mornings. 

Amasando: Performing and Laboring Relational/Embodied Theory

Stories untold remain lodged in the throat, tightened Always present, impatiently waiting to be undone Spontaneous gestures of the body Choking on tears because words refuse to come up. To Surface.

Through gendered anti-immigrant discourse, the story that is told about Latina mothers is articulated as always already deviant, excessive, and burdensome on the nation. Those narratives are imprinted on the body. Yet, through a retelling and re-storying of our own mothers’ migration narratives, we have bridged a gap between greco-roman centered rhetorics and corporeal realities (Juárez 13; Hinojosa 5). We do so with deep acknowledgement that our families and communities already have rhetorical practices that speak to our unique experiences. In this collaboration, we embody Anzaldúa’s theory of amasamiento as “an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings” (103). 

This rhetorical practice of the amasamiento of re-storying is like the kneading of masa (103). It is tiresome, repetitive, and physically demanding, and it leaves the same physical and metaphorical traces. For example, working in the garden or in farm fields or labores causes direct contact with the soil, and the dirt lodges itself under your fingernails. It is this “dirt underneath my mother’s fingernails” that we are invested in. Furthermore, amasando causes direct contact with all the organic materials. For example, the corn, manteca, salt, and boiling water: the masa, the dough. It stays under your fingernails and acts as another layer of knowledge and cultural memory. Amasando — working through embodied rhetorics as children of working class migrant mothers — hurts. In our case, this retelling process has been emotionally and intellectually exhausting. It is performative and methodological in the sense that amasando is a cultural practice with cultural memories (Taylor The Archive, 82). 

We are invested in re-storying gendered labor, such as cooking tortillas and pupusas, to give visibility to migrant women’s labor as a feminist rhetorical practice of survival that refuses to engage with the traditional canon of rhetoric. It was, after all, our migrant mothers who taught us how to teach rhetoric not as static, but as relational and embodied. 

A Queer Turn, Indeed: On Performing a Rhetorics of the Flesh at NACCS 2018

In the following and final section, we turn to our experiences presenting this working essay, “rhetorics of the flesh,” at an academic conference to analyze the possibilities, difficulties, and limits of sharing embodied knowledge. A “rhetorics of the flesh” is a scholarly and academic thinking/feeling process; therefore, it makes sense to include the academic conference presentation as part of this intellectual/emotional process. Here we engage our collaborative writing as a queer retelling full of world-building possibilities.

Figure 6. NACCS Panel titled “Encuentros in Translation: Sharing Queer Knowledges accross Borders y Lenguas”. Sandibel Borges, Sebastian Ferrada, Ruben Zecena, and Alejandra I. Ramirez. Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2018

For the 2018 National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the theme was “The Queer Turn.” For us, this theme implies a movement that constitutes the work of feminist “wondering” (Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion 180-181). It weaves in and out and together; we wondered/wandered around the rooms of the conference hotel, the indigenous lands of Minnesota and the Dakota peoples, and even with the table at which we sat and presented. We were “moved” by the theme and purposefully decided to include a performative element to our paper presentation. In the spirit of the “queer turn” and feminist wonderings, like a dance, we decided to maneuver through our essay and to read a paragraph each, and that we would go back and forth, exchanging voices, in a kind of literary dance. A queer reading or performance of our collaborative writing process that is modeled after the cultural rhetorics “storying” tradition (Powell, Levy, et al.). 

We had first performed this paper in a small group setting on our campus. At the presentation white students were our main audience, with the exception of one queer Chicana professor. When it came to the part about retelling our mothers’ stories, we both cried. We cried for one another, and we each cried for our mothers. The tears came as a surprise, but were a deshaogo and cleansing cry.

At NACCS, we performed this paper as part of the panel: “Encuentros in Translation: Sharing Queer Knowledges Across Borders y Lenguas,” which invoked queer couplings and queer affinity forms: the meeting together of bodies, closeness of proximity, friendship, and intimacy in scholarship. We practiced right before and told ourselves that this time we wouldn’t cry. ¡No llores! We joked. Prior to the conference, we discussed how the university has taught us not to cry. Patriarchy has taught us not to cry. Femme-phobia has taught us not to cry. Visible emotion challenges the objectivist tradition, within which subjectivism and embodiment are not acknowledged as valid epistemologies or ways of knowing. The body that cries is feminine—not “civil” or “respectable” or “logical”—because it wonders and wanders too much. It feels too much.

And so we took deep breaths. And our voices sounded strong and bold. Our mothers would be proud. The larger group made up of our friends, colleagues, and esteemed professors and mentors was comforting. It also challenged us to be vulnerable, as the piece hailed us to embrace the powers and politics of emotion. The atmosphere in the room was heavy, almost palpable. The immateriality of emotion in a way created an affective bond. The audience was in sync as we performed. Some were teary eyed, the room was silent with occasional sniffs from audience members. Bodies were leaning forward, listening. We opened the panel by asking for permission to be open.  

Figure  7. Image of Alejandra Irene Ramírez and Ruben Zecena, “before the tears,” presenting this paper at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, 2018.

Though we had promised ourselves that we wouldn’t cry, when it came to telling their stories, again, our voices cracked. Our speech slowed. We had to pause, inhale and exhale. Tears burst, so heavy that they dropped onto the printed essay. Se nos salieron hasta los mocos! We were ugly crying! But we pushed and pushed through the nudos en la garganta, until we finally finished. To our surprise, the performance continued with engagement from the audience, hugs, pictures, and a sense of affirmation post Q&A. Afterwards, audience members approached us. A group of high school students came up to us and told us that our performance reminded them of their mothers coming home after work. The performance continues as we write, months later.

We realize we quite literally poured our hearts onto the writing. We could not have come to this conclusion without having performed this collaboration, and thus performing a rhetoric of the flesh. Still, we ask: What do/can we make of our tears and our corporeal responses?

Queremos Bailar: Dando vueltas, back to the body.

“Queer-inclusive scholarship should set amygdalas on fire as you resist the push, the tug, the prodding of the boundaries of your imagination. Queer-inclusive scholarship should hurt a little, it should be hard, because making the world larger is hard. And what is the point of scholarship if not to make the world larger?” -Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano (“What Courses Through My Veins”).

Due to homophobic violence in the public sphere, for many queer subjects the academic conference does not end at the last panel; it continues on the dance floor at the nearest queer club. In a sense, our bodies are oriented or gravitate toward similar spaces. As Ahmed contends, “Sexuality itself can be considered a spatial formation not only in the sense that bodies inhabit sexual spaces…but also in the sense that bodies are sexualized through how they inhabit space” (Queer Phenomenology 67). The ambiente, the environment, is palpable at the queer club because it is a space of celebration that permits us to be ourselves. 

There is no need to “straighten up,” as Justin Torres reminds us in his poetic rendering of the Pulse shooting (“In praise of Latin Night”), or professionalize our bodies in order to feel liberated—this is the “how” of what Sara Ahmed calls a queer phenomenology. It is through rhetorics of the flesh that we understand such inhabitation of space as venue for embodied knowledge and collaborative meaning-making. This liberating and scholarly dance for us is about how bodies are oriented toward each other, how they come together in motion, in tempo with one another in liberatory ways. We remembered to avoid over-simplifying or romanticizing “dancing,” and honor the threats against queer joy. The Pulse Nightclub shooting reminds us that for the ideologies of homonationalism there is something that is threatening about queer of color joy coming together in celebration of queerness, liberation, and pleasure. 

Similarly, we danced through our writing, thinking, remembering—back and forth, in circles, like cumbias, spinning, and returning. Even after our NACCS panel presentation, audience members noticed the dance and asked questions or approached us to comment on our back & forth presentation style and collaborative writing. A queer intellectual and embodied dance on paper, a textual intimacy, and a remembering or recalling moments of exuberance, pain, and resilience. 

An act of e/motion, (e)motion. 

We remember in our bodies and through our senses, the sweat from jotería night after NACCS conferences, just as we remember the smells and sights of the lives and labors of our migrant mothers. In the process of writing the essay, we shared queer affinities and difficulties but also stories of possibility. We realized that in the performance of co-creating meaning, there is a space for generative growth and new understandings. Our moms, whose seemingly impossible location within the immigrant rights movement (as demonstrated through immigration reform that continues to exclude them), make possible our refusal to be victimized and criminalized. Like the scene in the film Selena, where her mom teaches her to do the “washing machine,” our mothers teach us to make beauty out of seemingly impossible situations. Accordingly, we dance, write, and celebrate together as a liberatory praxis. The retelling of what we previously perceived as bad memories prompted us to conceive of our paper as a dance, one in which we share public space and hold hands with like-minded people. Through dancing we are able to learn from one another and continue writing, thinking, and remembering. We maintain a strong commitment to queer women of color feminisms, wherein intersectionality is central to making sense of how systems of oppression intersect in varying moments at the conference, the coffee shop, and the dance floor.

This is not a conclusion, but a joining of bodies with sentimientos and conocimientos. A continuation. 

Aquí volvemos a empezar. 

Figure 8.  Alejandra Irene Ramirez and Ruben Zecena at Lucce Coffee Shop, Tucson, Arizona, 2016.


Works Cited
Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Routledge, 2004.

——Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press,  2006. 

Anzaldúa, Gloria E. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 4th ed., Aunt Lute Books, 2012.

Blackwell, Maylei. Chicana Power:Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement. University of Texas Press, 2011.

Chang, Grace. Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy. 2nd ed., Haymarket Books, 2016. 

Chávez, Karma. Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities. University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Cruz, Cindy. “Toward an Epistemology of the Brown Body.” Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 14, no. 5, 2001, pp. 657-669.

De Genova, Nicholas. “The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement.” The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement, edited by Nichola De Genoval and Nathalie Peutz, Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 33-65.

Driskill, Qwo-Li. Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory. University of Arizona Press, 2016. 

——. “Doubleweaving Two-Spirit Critiques: Building Alliances between Native and Queer Studies.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 16, no. 1-2, 2010, pp. 69-92. 

Escobar, Martha D. Captivity Beyond Prisons: Criminalization Experiences of Latina (Im)migrants. University of Texas Press, 2016.

Facio, Elisa and Irene Lara. editors. Fleshing the Spirit: Spirituality and Activism in Chicana, Latina, and Indigenous Women’s Lives. University of Arizona Press, 2014.

Levy, Daisy E. This book called my body: An embodied rhetoric. 2002. Michigan State University, PhD dissertation.

Hall, Stuart. “Introduction.” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, edited by Stuart Hall, Sage Publications & Open University, 1997, pp. 1-12.

Herrera y Lozano, Lorenzo. “What Courses Through My Veins: Forging and Forcing Space for Queer Brown Desire and Memory.” Facebook, 5 Apr. 2018,

Hinojosa Jr., Yndalecio Isaac. Cuerpo, or a Spatial-Material Rhetoric: Embodied Approaches Using Chicana Third Space Feminism for Understanding and Teaching Literacy on the Border. 2015. University of San Antonio, PhD dissertation.

Johnson, E. Patrick. “‘Quare’ studies, or (almost) everything I know about queer studies I learned from my grandmother.” Text & Performance, vol. 21, no. 1, 2010, pp.1-25.

Juárez, Marisa Marie. Bodily Force and Rhetorical Function in the Afro-Brazilian Art Form of Capoeira. 2012. University of Arizona, PhD Dissertation.

Moraga, Cherríe. Watsonville: Some Place Not Here and Circle in the Dirt: El Pueblo de East Palo Alto. West End Press, 2002.

Nava, Gregory, director. Selena. Q-Productions, 1997.

Perdue, Theda. Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 (Indians of the Southeast). University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Powell, Malea, Daisy Levy, Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, Marilee Brooks-Gillies, Maria Novotny, and Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson. “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics.” Enculturation, no. 18, 2014, http://www.enculturation.net/our-story-begins-here.

Rodriguez, Juana Maria. Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and other Latina Longings. New York University Press, 2014.

Tajima-Peña, Renee, director. No Mas Bebes. Moon Canyon Films and the Independent Television Service, 2015.

Tapia, Ruby C. American Pietàs: Visions of Race, Death, and the Maternal. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Duke University Press, 2003.

——“Performing Ruins.” Telling Ruins in Latin America, edited by Michael J. Lazzara and Vicky Unruh, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009, pp. 13-26.

Téllez, Michelle. “Lectures, Evaluations, and Diapers: Navigating the Terrains of Chicana Single Motherhood in the Academy.” Feminist Formations, vol. 25, no.3, 2013, pp. 79-97.

Torres, Justin. “In praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club.” The Washington Post, 13 June 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/in-praise-of-latin-night-at-the-queer-club/2016/06/13/e841867e-317b-11e6-95c0-2a6873031302_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.bc2ed3e2e8fb

Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 66-111

Valerio, Max. “It’s In My Blood, My Face–My Mother’s Voice, The Way I Sweat.” This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited byCherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, 4th ed., SUNY Press, 2015, pp. 36-40.


Ruben Zecena is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona. He is a queer migrations scholar whose scholarship focuses on the cultural practices of LGBT migrants as important avenues for imagining the world differently. His work appears or is forthcoming in WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, Border-Lines, and the edited collection Queer and Trans Migrations. 

Alejandra I. Ramírez is a PhD Candidate in the Rhetoric, Composition, and Teaching of English (RCTE) Program at the University of Arizona. Alejandra is an award winning artist and global humanities scholar, and proud parent. Her research on the intersections of rhetoric and social justice have been published in Understanding & Dismantling PrivilegeEl Mundo Zurdo 6, and Present Tense. She has forthcoming work in Xchanges–an interdisciplinary Technical Communication, Writing/Rhetoric, and Writing Across the Curriculum journal, and in anthologies through NCTE Press, Ohio State UP, and the University of Washington Press. 


Kate Vieira is associate professor and the Susan J. Cellmer Distinguished Chair in Literacy in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of American by Paper: How Documents Matter in Immigrant Literacy (University of Minnesota Press, 2016; Honorable Mention CCCC Outstanding Book Award, 2017) and Writing for Love and Money: How Migration Drives Literacy Learning in Transnational Families (Oxford University Press, 2019). She is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award (2018-2019), a Spencer/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship (2015-2016), a CCCC Chair’s Research Initiative Grant (2017), and the Donald Murray Prize for Creative Nonfiction (2018).


We thank Kate Vieira for her fierce support and advice during the publication process, as well our fabulous mentor Adela Licona for providing insightful feedback. Mil gracias to everyone at Constellations for making this issue possible.”


Copyeditor(s): Jessica Gibbons, Sophie Schmidt

Editorial Assistant(s): Lauren Brentnell, Catheryn Jennings

Reviewer(s) Ann-Marie Lopez-Esquivel,

Performing Gender Asymmetry: Material Rhetoric and Representation at the National Museum of American History

Shersta Chabot, Arizona State University

October 2019


PDF Version


Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two, and those who don’t.
— Gloria Steinem

So I am caught in a historical nightmare in which it’s 1970 and many people, activists, writers, academics, students, are asking loudly, “Where are the women?”
— Louise Bernikow

The National Museum of American History (NMAH) in Washington, D.C. is a maze of gender asymmetry. For those who understand museums to be deeply entangled within systems of cultural and political power in the United States, this asymmetry is expressed as a continuation of those systems. Gender inequality in the U.S. has been well documented over the years and is considered by scholars from a range of disciplines to be one of the most fundamental organizing principles, along with race, upon and through which such systems arise.[i] In the museum, however, archaeologist Marie Louise Stig Sorensen has argued that gender gains a materiality and “substance, becomes tangible and has real effect upon people’s lives” (Sorensen 14). This is due to the inherent rhetoricity of the museum and the museum exhibit, or the degree to which the museum and museum exhibit themselves wield influence over the production of meaning. As museum scholar Sharon Macdonald has observed, “[a]ny museum or exhibition is, in effect, a statement of position. It is a theory: a suggested way of seeing the world. And, like any theory, it contains certain assumptions, speaks to some matters and ignores others, and is intimately bound up with — and capable of affecting — broader social and cultural relations” (14).

The public nature of national and historical museums, in particular, imbues them with a power of suggestion that exceeds most other cultural institutions: who or what is included (and excluded), the focus and scope of the exhibits, how objects are arranged and displayed, the tone and content of images, text, and other media – all of these elements become enmeshed in a cultural and political power struggle over public voice, public presence, and public representation. Museums, as all memory places, are inherently and powerfully rhetorical: as Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson, and Brian L. Ott argue in their anthology Places of Public Memory, such places command attention and consideration due to their partiality, intractable presence, and situatedness within an assemblage of other powerful techne.[ii]

Blair’s work, in particular, suggests a more meaningful approach to the study of memory places lies via a consideration of not only the meaning produced, but the way they behave: she asserts that “we must ask not just what a text [or other rhetorical object] means but, more generally, what it does; and we must not understand what it does as adhering strictly to what it was supposed to do” (23).

However, where Blair is still applying a rhetorical “reading” approach to physical objects as though they are another kind of text, I argue that considering the object or artifact in terms of its own materiality results in a more richly textured understanding of the relationships in which it is engaged. This is an approach in line with the tenets of cultural rhetorics, particularly those of story and relations (Powell et al). Using a cultural rhetorics approach requires attending to both meaning-making systems and the practices of which those systems are composed (Powell et al). To separate one from the other would be to lose sight of their inseparability, in the same way that to study a culture without examining its people and what they create would be impossible.

Recognizing the material rhetoricity of an object, exhibit, or museum – asking what it actually does – requires attending to matters of presence and consequence, of story and relations. If, as Blair argues, rhetoric is material, then understanding that rhetoricity requires attending to the interaction of an embodied human consciousness with the environment around it. While the fields of visual rhetorics and material rhetorics have made great strides in recent years, studying the materiality of images and the rhetoricity of the material world, attending to rhetoric’s materiality asks us to go a step farther, to recognize that as embodied beings, we read space and objects with not just our eyes or minds, but with our entire bodies, subconsciously collecting information about the outside world in relation to the position, energy, size, and “feel” of the things we encounter.

This embodied engagement is part of what makes memory places including the NMAH so compelling. Memory spaces are inherently material, requiring us to walk through them, look at them, read and think and use our other senses to understand them. Each of these acts is embodied and carried out in relation to the physical entity or space with which we are engaged. This suggests that an image, text panel, or museum artifact is not only a visual or textual element, but a sensory object, measured and reacted to by the entire body as well as the mind. What rhetorical studies has tended to leave out in the past is this deep engagement between the physical body and its physical environment, and by extension a more inclusive understanding of the ways in which rhetorical presence and consequence are prerequisites to full humanity. As philosopher Hannah Arendt has suggested, to be fully human one must occupy the public sphere.[iii] If this is true, it then follows that the assumptions and values that materialize in an embodied study of national history exhibits both contribute to and are symptomatic of the material, political and cultural conditions of American life.

If Arendt is right, and the occupation of public space is a requisite for full humanity in American culture and politics, then it is past time for the careful and critical scrutiny of the NMAH, an institution that advertises itself as the repository and exhibitor of the histories of an entire nation and its peoples. In the availability, arrangement and presentation of the material traces of a national past – in the exhibits of the NMAH – gender is made material, performing asymmetry in ways that profoundly influence the myriad publics which grace the museum’s halls each year. To better understand this relationship between performance and influence, in 2015 and early 2016 I conducted a close investigation of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), paying particular attention to the performance of gender as constituted by the museum’s material and practical configurations. Following Carol Blair’s notion of the materiality of rhetoric,[iv]I sought to engage each exhibit as a productive entity, as a “partisan, meaningful, consequential” entity (Blair 18), attending to the presence and consequence of gender – and the story and relations of the culture that produces it – to better understand the meaning and narratives each assemblage constructs as well as the consequentiality of that production.

To engage the museum as a productive entity, it is necessary to approach it selectively. While it is true that every element within or related to a museum performs one or more identifiable functions within the whole, for the sake of specificity in this article I have chosen to focus on particular elements within three key museum exhibits (American Enterprise, America on the Move, and The First Ladies) that behave as synecdochical producers of meaning within the whole. My goal was to engage with these exhibits on an embodied level, to sense and record the presence and consequence of women in our national history museum. I then use this engagement as a starting place to examine meaning production through the lens of gender. Gender is particularly productive lens due to the way that gender functions as a fundamental category of American society, circumscribing and limiting meaning production in many ways. It is an embodied category, one made visible through the material traces of things that have, themselves, been gendered. As I discovered, the meanings produced within the NMAH performed an unexpected gender asymmetry that both reified binary gender narratives as well as resisted them. By describing this performance, my goal is to illustrate how a deeper exploration that draws upon embodied perception and material engagement can make visible more of the intricate process of meaning production in memory spaces.

State of the Union’s Past
The National Museum of American History and its exhibits are deeply entangled within complex webs of cultural, political, economic, and other systems of power. Housing over three million artifacts, most of which are not on display, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) is the largest repository of historical objects in the United States. Construction of the museum began in the late 1950s and opened to the public in January 1964. Originally known as the Museum of History and Technology, the massive 750,000 square foot building was designed by renowned architects McKim, Mead and White and cost $36 million to complete (in 1950s currency). The sixth Smithsonian building constructed on the National Mall, the museum was renamed the National Museum of American History in 1980. Its location on the Mall qualifies it as a National Historic Landmark, and the building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Beginning in 2006, the NMAH underwent a two-year, $85 million renovation of the building’s central areas, adding a grand staircase, a skylight, a new gallery for the Star Spangled Banner exhibit, and renewals of several other exhibits. Currently, the 120,000 square foot west wing is under construction, part of a larger project to update the structure and exhibits (“Mission & History”).

The museum’s exhibits, of which twenty-four were open at the time of my most recent visit in March 2016, comprise a segmented view of United States history organized around specific themes. The largest exhibits focus on the history of transportation (America on the Move), military history (Price of Freedom), and business (American Enterprise). Smaller but no less intriguing exhibits narrate a history of invention (Places of Invention, Lighting a Revolution), the Food Exhibition, The American Presidency and The First Ladies exhibits, money/coinage, and of course, the incomparable Star Spangled Banner in its dark and hushed display. The African American History and Culture Gallery was present, but closed during my study in March 2016, presumably in preparation for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in September of that same year.

With historical women and their accomplishments largely missing from most national historical sites, popular media, and public memory spaces,[v]

I decided my first task was to locate and engage with representations of women within our national history museum exhibits. One of the first things I realized was that the definition of “woman” in our national historical museums is not only undefined, but unclear. The NMAH deploys the term “woman” as an unexamined category, adopting culturally assumed, hegemonic definitions of “woman” that center white, cis, straight females as the norm.

Given the NMAH’s use of the term, to facilitate my analysis I adopted it as a broad category of not-overtly-male individuals. My engagement with the NMAH exhibits began by asking a series of questions including: Where do women appear in the museum, and in what capacity? Which women appear where in the exhibits? Are women central to the narrative, or marginal? How do representations of women compare to those of men? What gender relationships emerge from the museum narratives? I used these questions to focus my analysis, looking for presence in the material and consequential configurations of gender in selected museum exhibits. Within my larger goal of reading the museum exhibits in an embodied sense, I used gender as a guiding concept through an otherwise overwhelming web of meaning production.

As I attended to presence, story, and relations in the museum space, the gender asymmetries being performed around me began to emerge. Women, as idealized by elite white culture, are everywhere included in the exhibits of the National Museum of American History – indeed, documenting each reference was a far larger task than I anticipated. Some, like the American Enterprise exhibit, managed a relatively diverse presentation of women, men, and diverse ethnicities. At the same time, I found that women are present in the NMAH in ways similar to their status in American culture – contradictory, frequently stereotyped, confined to domestic functions and closely associated with the labor of childrearing or, alternatively, as objects of sexual desire. I also found a pervasive tokenism at work, in which persons of color were vastly outnumbered by white persons, and no discernable references to non-binary genders or LGBTQ individuals whatsoever. In at least one exhibit, Lighting a Revolution, I failed to find a single reference to a historical woman of any kind. Altogether, the representation and performance of gender at the NMAH is far more complex and conflicted than I anticipated, asymmetries built upon dichotomies made strange by their resistance to simple binary opposition.

In what follows, I discuss the presence and consequence, story and relations of materialized gender in three museum exhibits: American Enterprise, America on the Move, and The First Ladies. Out of the twenty-four NMAH exhibits open for viewing in March 2016, these three were among the largest, the most popular (based on observed crowd size), and emphasized elements of gender performativity that were found consistently throughout the NMAH. This degree of visibility is important to museum analysis, as meaning production is often a subtle, even subconscious process. In the last section of the article, I offer an analysis of the relationship between asymmetries of gender constituted by and through the materiality of the museum and the potential consequences such asymmetries have on the material and conceptual conditions of American life.

Performing Asymmetry in American Enterprise
One of the most informative and diverse exhibits in the museum, American Enterprise depicts the history of American business from colonial times through the present day. Even this distinction as the “most” diverse is revealing about the relationships between gender, entrepreneurship, and paid work outside the home; perhaps more so than many of the other exhibits because of the obvious attempts that have been made to achieve a modicum of race and gender inclusivity. I say attempts, because after completing a numerical tally of portions of the exhibit, the numbers show that the central narrative of American Enterprise is focused on the business acumen of elite white cis men. Archaeologist Marie Louise Stig Sorensen has argued that this focus is common in American museums: by and large, “[m]en are used to ‘carry’ the narrative of the past through the exhibition space” (33). Unfortunately, and despite its relative diversity, America’s most authoritative national exhibit on the history of business provides strong support for Sorensen’s assertions.

As I engaged with the exhibit, I was drawn to the long back wall that stretched above my head and the long length of the space, completely covered with a brightly-lit installation of colorful text and image panels highlighting individuals assumedly representative of business success. Laid out in chronological order from left to right, the panels provided a timeline of “Americans” (although some hailed from before the organization of the United States, a fact the museum seems unconcerned about) who purportedly innovated their way into prominence via business excellence.

American Enterprise Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

In standing before and looking at this display, my initial impression was that a relatively large number of women were represented in each of the five eras into which the timeline was divided: in the 1770 segment, 16 individual profiles were included, 4 of which were women (1 Native American, 1 Chinese, 2 White). The 1850 segment was even more diverse: 26 individual profiles were included, 9 of which were women (2 African American, 1 Japanese, 6 White). The 1930 segment, and each segment following, were quite sparse by comparison: out of the 11 individual profiles included for 1930, 4 were women, all White; for 1970 (shown above), which also featured 11 profiles, that number had dropped to just 2 women (1 African American, 1 White); finally, in the 2010 segment, 12 individual profiles were included, with 5 women, 1 Latina, 4 White. Altogether, women of all ethnicities represented approximately 32% of the profiles featured on the exhibit installation; further, approximately 33% of the women represented were non-white. Given the long history of women’s exclusion from land and business ownership and other restrictions foreclosing on high-status business positions in the United States, such numbers initially give the impression of gender inclusivity; after all, in the 250 years represented by this exhibit, women were only full legal citizens for the last century and only gained the right to own property more recently than that.

However, upon closer examination several of the women represented in the American Enterprise installation tend to have tenuous claims (at best) to business success, calling into question the criteria by which individuals were chosen for inclusion: of the 24 women profiled, one of these is Addie Card, a female child laborer; one is Afong Moy, “Exploited Attraction,” noted for the fact that she was brought to the United States in 1834 as a curiosity and exhibited by wealthy patrons for entertainment; another is Tei Shida Saito, “Picture Bride,” whose claim to fame includes being forced into an arranged marriage to a Japanese pineapple farmer in Hawaii. How these women are representative of the history of American enterprise, other than as pawns in the hands of powerful men, remains unclear.

American Enterprise Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Out of the remaining women profiled, most of these are noted for success in occupations that are overtly domestic in nature: clothing construction or design, hair care products, diet programs for women, food preparation, and makers of toys for girls (specifically, the Barbie doll) are all strongly represented among the businesses referenced. These businesswomen are lauded for pursuits still closely tied to the domestic sphere and women’s “traditional” roles as housekeeper, wife, mother, and reproductive laborer, regardless of the century in question: the 2010 group features Dora Hilda Escobar, a restaurateur; Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx (a tight-fitting garment akin to a girdle); Myra Goodman and her husband, organic food growers; and Maria Durazo, a labor organizer. Based on the representations of “enterprise” represented in this exhibit, it is clear that the roles for which American women are and have been venerated have not changed significantly over time; they have simply moved into for-profit arenas.

American Enterprise Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Most curious, the period between 1970 and 2010 featured only two “businesswomen” – Oprah Winfrey and Gloria Steinem. As those of us who lived through it understand, this forty-year period was a time of phenomenal growth for women activists, businesspersons, political leaders, and other innovations and occupations. Yet somehow, a vibrant and widely diverse segment of business history in the United States has been reduced to reference to two women who, however deserving of a spot on the wall, are nonetheless merely a fraction of the successful businesswomen who made a name and a fortune for themselves during this time. Regardless of curatorial intention, the manner in which women have been included in this display is a direct outgrowth of the manner in which white women, women of color, and men are positioned in relation to each other in American society. White men predominate, while women are positioned against them as supplemental, narrative add-ons – marginal. The “diversity” of the American Enterprise exhibit reads like a hierarchy, with white cis men at the top, then white cis women, and finally persons of color, with women of color included in low numbers and only as a counterpoint to representations of white cis women. Representation for LGBTQ individuals simply doesn’t exist within the exhibit space.

It is hard to imagine that just two women (pictured in the first photograph in this section), perhaps carefully chosen for their race, gender-conforming appearance and sexuality, could sufficiently represent all enterprising women of period. Moreover, the particular challenges women have historically faced in the business world are not mentioned, nor are the legal and cultural barriers that linger into the present day. In fact, testing Sorensen’s assertion that simply adding women to a particular historical narrative does not challenge nor alter the message to a significant degree (33), it is entirely possible to imagine the American Enterprise exhibit functioning relatively unhampered even if the women were removed. Somehow, even present in the exhibit, women are still in some ways inessential to the narrative it constructs and, by extension, to the enterprise conducted out in American society.

American on the Move Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Yet at the same time, the presence of women in the American Enterprise exhibit is completely essential to the gender and race hierarchies it constructs. That both men and women engage in business and enterprise, and have always done so, is made clear through the artifacts and information on display. Thus a simple public/private dichotomy is made illogical in the face of the equally significant contributions of both genders. When examined more closely, however, as my example shows, that dichotomy emerges in convoluted ways, made strange by positioning women in business as for-profit domestics in relation to men as simply businessmen. In this way, gender asymmetry is visibly if rather insidiously performed by American Enterprise, limiting the possible futures of women in business by reinforcing the archaic boundaries of the past. Within the walls of this exhibit, women remain the minority, the exception, and the reproductive laborers of a culture run by elite white men.
Performing Asymmetry in American on the Move

Of the numerous exhibits at the NMAH available for analysis, it is important to include an analysis of that is at the heart of the “American Dream”: the history of ground transportation in the U.S. America on the Move is an exhibit on the first exhibition level that moves the museum visitor through the history of transportation in America from horse-drawn wagons to the (relatively) modern automobile. The sensory appeal of this exhibit was quite powerful. Most of us have experience with driving or riding in vehicles of different kinds, and can draw upon those experiences when engaging with vehicles unfamiliar to us. Our bodies remember the feelings of movement experiences while using transportation, the vibrations, acceleration, and centripetal forces that act upon us as we move through space. The size of the artifacts in this exhibit also make for a memorable encounter: locomotives, buses, trolley cars, subway cars, and wagons and vehicles of all shapes and sizes are carefully positioned within narrative vignettes and in relation to groupings of life-size human mannequins (painted a monochromatic grey) in a variety of poses, genders and ethnicities. Walking through the exhibit space, the senses are overloaded with opportunities to understand the displays in relation to the physical body. The exhibit provides a wealth of text and images to accompany and complement the more 3-D artifacts, as well as a selection of digital interactives and audio features. One can not only see, but hear and touch the information on offer as well.

The theme of the exhibit is not overtly gendered; as we are expected to know, men and women have long used various modes of public and private transportation, and in large numbers. While women may have had additional restrictions on their travel (due to a variety of factors), the exhibit shows them riding bicycles, driving cars, and as passengers on trolleys and buses. For this reason, the impressions created here, when compared to American Enterprise, are more difficult to quantify. Women appear in a variety of ways and performing a number of roles, from a text panel detailing the first woman to drive across America (Alice Huyler Ramsey, completing her trip in 1909) to driving a minivan full of children down a modern American highway.

However, given the prevalence of white men, the impression one inevitably makes is that they outnumber women (of all races) by at least two to one. The white men, identifiable by their Anglicized features, are posed as engineers, drivers, and operators; they are present in each and every scenario, whether it be riding a motorcycle, owning a grocer’s shop, or selling a couple a new car. In one vignette, titled “On the Interstate, 1956-1990,” 9 figures are distributed within the vehicles on display; of these, 3 are female, and one is an African American male. In a vignette directly across from this display (shown below), a white couple (one male, one female) sit across from a white male salesman in a car dealership; the “road” directly behind their position is peopled with 8 figures, two of which are female (one driver, one passenger). Based on these two proximal examples alone, women (of all races) represent roughly five out of seventeen, or 29%, of the figures present.

American on the Move Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

But just as a closer look at who the women of American Enterprise were, and how they were being presented, lends a distinct insight into current attitudes about American women and their relationship to the world of business and enterprise, the women of America on the Move overwhelmingly perform roles which are stereotypical and unimaginative; even in the display of a travel trailer, the white male figure sits outside in a lawn chair, reading the newspaper, while an adult female and young girl figure cook and set the table inside (pictured below). His leisure clearly communicates his privilege. Or in the car dealership display, where a pregnant woman sits beside her husband (both white) while he negotiates the price of a new car with a white salesman, the audio playback an animated negotiation between two male voices. While certainly representative of some historical moments, the gender performed in and through America on the Move is insidiously influential in the way that, as Evelyn Nakano Glenn has argued, it renders the category of white male as the transparent but powerful core around which the exhibit weaves its narrative of progress (13). There is no public/private divide here; yet that does little to correct the unequal distributions of power the exhibit reifies and reconstructs.

America on the Move Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Rather, the exhibit performs a kind of gender asymmetry that is echoed across the museum’s other exhibits; where women are represented, they are defined by their relationships to men and a male-centric society, and even while traveling, white women in particular are frequently tied to domestic roles. For example, I was amused to discover a display of a 1980s-era minivan, inside of which sat life-sized figures of a white woman for the driver, an infant in a child safety seat, and two other children, clearly someone’s idea of representative American womanhood. Within the same display, an African American woman drives alone in a two-door car, as well as at least six white men. Elsewhere in the exhibit, a lone figure of an African American women identified as Charlotte Hawkins Brown (pictured below) sits waiting for a bus. The presence of Brown, a key figure in African American education and a strong proponent of an “uplift” strategy in the early 1900s, in an exhibit on transportation seems to be a nod to her activism. Her connection to the exhibit seems to stem from her efforts to “move up” African American people into the norms of white society, a tenuous and deeply troubling link, at best. Yet her very presence requires that we attend, and perhaps even sit next to her, trying to understand her importance within such a powerful memory space.

While white men and even women of color were shown as traveling alone, white women are predominantly shown accompanied by a white man or with one or more children – or both. In this way, white cis women are represented as persons who travel in the course of their domestic duties, counterbalanced by women of color who do not. Like the white men, women of color are often depicted alone, but not as engineers or bus drivers. They inhabit a marginal space within the exhibit, a token inclusivity that, in practice, changes little of the overarching narrative of white male superiority. The white men are always already the historical actors in this narrative; white women, children and women and men of color are participants, essential for the contrast they provide and the supporting role that functions to further elevate the purported innovativeness and exploratory nature of white men. Such positioning echoes the hierarchies of the American Enterprise exhibit, a clear indicator of larger social patterns at work.

“Charlotte Hawkins Brown,” America on the Move Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

America on the Move clearly conveys the idea that innovations in mechanized transportation in the United States have undoubtedly offered freedoms for all who can afford to participate, regardless of gender; however, the terms and constraints upon that participation as produced through the exhibit clearly favor the narrative of the innovative and independent white man conquering both machine and distance with his mettle. The freedom to travel is clearly a privilege provided by white men, a freedom in which women, children and people of color participate, but do not have ownership rights. This, in effect, reifies the normalized hierarchy of power that maintains white males as the dominant figures of American culture, both past and present.

Performing Asymmetry in The First Ladies
Perhaps the most obvious example of overtly gendered exhibits at the NMAH is The First Ladies exhibit. Because this exhibit has been lauded as one of the only national history exhibits to focus exclusively on women, it is an important inclusion. The exhibit’s main draw is the gowns of the First Ladies of the United States, past and present. By using the gowns, which are so closely related to the physical body, the exhibit maintains a lasting popularity for an international public who are curious about the women who lived the moments in history we can now only peer at through glass. The exhibit is also one of the few with such an embodied theme, and as such is best understood in those terms.

The First Ladies Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Centered on Exhibition Level 3, the exhibit shares an entrance and a theme with The American Presidency exhibit: a glimpse of the person(s) who, over the entire history of the United States, held the highest political office in the country.[vi]. The First Ladies exhibit as it exists today is the work of curator Edith P. Mayo, who in 1992 reportedly “developed a bold new exhibition based on political and social history” (Graddy and Pastan, 10). Although the famous dress collection has been displayed in one form or another since 1914, the public’s fascination with the first ladies’ clothes is cited as the major motivation for the continued presence of the gowns in the redesigned exhibit (Graddy and Pastan, 11).

Along with a reconfiguration of the display space, Mayo’s role seems to have been to add further insight into the person and political activity of the featured first ladies, an attempt to shift the focus of the exhibit away from a costume gallery and toward the role of first lady itself. For example, a prominent text panel located in The First Ladies exhibit, “American Women and Politics,” focuses exclusively on the fact that women have always been politically active despite having few legal and civil rights of their own (The First Ladies). The inclusion of such a text panel does offer some insight into the political role of some of America’s first ladies, offering museum visitors a glimpse into the complexity of their lives. However, the words on this panel and other brief mentions of political activity are entirely overwhelmed by the narrative the exhibit’s artifacts generate, the story of women filling a role defined by a contradictory domesticity that is somehow at once both public and private.

The First Ladies Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

The First Ladies exhibit boasts an elegant black and grey color scheme that provides a visual focus for the gowns and china place settings that make up the majority of the exhibit’s artifacts. At the time of my visit in 2016, a row of life-size photographs of five First Ladies and a memorial placard, dedicated to Nancy Reagan (who passed away just before my arrival in Washington, D.C.), dominated the entrance. Other than the text on the memorial placard, which simply reads “In Memoriam: Nancy David Reagan, July 6 1921 – March 6, 2016. First Lady 1981 – 1989,” and the exhibit name, the entrance boasts no other text. The entrance photographs (below) offered a glimpse of the exhibit’s focus and content: dressed in beautiful gowns, four former and one current first lady gaze out at the curious observer. Of the five, Betty Ford on the left and Nancy Reagan in the center were easy for me to recognize, while two of the others pictured were less so. Michelle Obama, pictured with her husband (the only one to be so) was also there, on the right (pictured, below).

The First Ladies Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

The artifacts on display in The First Ladies exhibit are organized along two principal themes: the inauguration or other gowns worn by selected first ladies for official state functions, and samples of the White House china service selected and used by each woman filling this role. The gowns are displayed on life-sized, headless mannequins behind floor-to-ceiling glass panels. Raised slightly off the walkway floor, this large display is divided into several sections and arranged in thematic vignettes, rather than in chronological order. Each gown is accompanied by an information panel beneath it that describes the designer and details of the garment’s construction. For example, in the section of display pictured below, from left to right the gowns of Grace Coolidge (circa 1920s), Mamie Eisenhower (circa 1950s), and Lucy Hayes (circa 1880s) are arranged and described.

Despite the large size of the gown displays, only a fraction of the gowns acquired by the museum are on display at any given time (Graddy and Pastan 11).

As Mayo remarked, public fascination with the gowns in this display continues to be strong. No doubt part of this continuing appeal can be attributed to a cultural interest in fashion and women’s attire; however, a significant factor in the exhibit’s continued popularity may lie in the way that people tend to explore and understand their environment with their bodies, engaging with objects and structures in terms of the size, shape, and functions of the human body. Clothing, as a close proximate and the articles most often in the closest proximity to the physical body, offers an uncanny glimpse into the physicality of an individual long removed from mortality. For this reason, displaying the gowns of women in public-yet-private roles is interpreted as an invitation to relate, personally, physically, to the vanished individual underneath. Encountering history through the body and the body’s attire, visitors to The First Ladies exhibit are offered an illusion of intimacy while keeping any true knowledge of the women represented tantalizingly out of reach. By focusing on gowns, the exhibit also maintains a strong focus on the bodies of the First Ladies, relegating all else about her (including their accomplishments and public activities) to a distant second.

The First Ladies Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

The second main feature of The First Ladies exhibit is the display of White House place settings, which occupy the entirety of two of the exterior walls. Unlike the gown displays, this lengthy procession of china service is arranged in chronological order, starting with Martha Washington immediately to the left of the entrance and ending with Michelle Obama on the opposite side of the room. Text panels below each grouping describe the type and style of service ascribed to each first lady, while on the wall above the display case is situated each woman’s picture, name, relationship to the President, birth and death dates, dates she served as First Lady and her age upon assuming that role. A select few have a second text panel describing the particular entertaining style of the woman shown.

At times, incoming first ladies decided to use the service selected by her predecessor; for others, like Michelle Obama’s state china, the place setting was still in use in 2016 or not on display for other reasons. Thus the actual number of place settings differs from the number of first ladies.

As the current first lady, Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown was also still prominently displayed in the center of the exhibit in early 2016. Alone in a glass case, the gown, shoes, and jewelry worn by Mrs. Obama at President Obama’s 2009 Inaugural Ball are available for the observer to move in close and to examine from all sid

The photograph accompanying the gown is the same as the one at the entrance, showing the Obamas walking together, faces in near-profile. This same photograph occurs a third time, near the back of the exhibit, where another wall-sized version of this image is accompanied by a quotation attributed to Michelle Obama, which reads: “…there is no formal job description for the first lady of the United States, so we have the good fortune of being able to decide what we want to do” (The First Ladies).

This sentiment echoes that of several larger text panels that dot in the interior exhibit space. For example, a prominent panel near the exhibit entrance titled “The First Ladies” reads:

First ladies are unofficial but important members of presidential administrations.

For more than 200 years we have judged their clothes, their parties, their projects, and their roles in the White House…Each one remakes this undefined and challenging position to suit her own interests, the needs of the administration, and the public’s changing expectations of women in general and first ladies in particular. (The First Ladies)

That “remak[ing] this undefined and challenging position” is closely tied to domestic duties writ large is clarified by a second large panel adjacent to the place setting display, titled “The Nation’s Hostess.” This panel states: “As hostess for the nation and the presidential administrations…[e]ach reception or dinner is an opportunity for the first lady to help build America’s international relationships, win political friends and public support for the president, or further his administration’s legislative agenda” (The First Ladies). This text panel sets the tone for the exhibit, which focuses primarily on the hostess aspect of the role of First Lady, the visibility and presentation of her person (through clothing and image) and place setting. Although politics is an important theme throughout the exhibit, the women represented within tend to be linked to their work with or on behalf of children or other charitable causes, rather than on their political or even professional achievements. The information provided about Michelle Obama, for example, focuses on her role as mother and promoter of child welfare, rather than on her ivy-league education, career as a lawyer, or literary publications.

An examination of Hillary Clinton’s profile in the exhibit underscores this tendency: as one of the most politically accomplished women to ever fill the role of first lady, Clinton is still afforded the same brevity as the others. One could argue that Clinton’s political history is necessarily omitted due to space constraints, reducing her and all of the other First Ladies to only that which will fit inside a predetermined box. This distortion is a key aspect of the exhibit, working to omit as much of each person as possible outside of her domestic roles. The only nod to her historic candidacy for President of the United States in 2008, although a small text panel elsewhere in the exhibit asks (and answers): “What will happen when the President is a Woman? She will have to reconsider the duties of the first lady and whether she expects her husband, a family member, or others to assume this role in her administration” (The First Ladies). This panel’s seeming inability to imagine the role of nation’s hostess untethered to the female spouse of the current President (despite other references to this exact situation elsewhere in the exhibit itself) echoes some of the resistance that Clinton faced in her bid for election to the nation’s highest political office.

The First Ladies Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

While many of the women represented in The First Ladies exhibit may not have had a voice in determining the manner of their inclusion, the same is perhaps less true of Michelle Obama, the self-styled “mom-in-chief” who seems to have deliberately chosen to align herself with domestic roles in an attempt to present less of a target to a deeply racist American public. As the first African-American First Lady, Obama recognized a need to cultivate the same domestic image as those liberally applied to previous first ladies as she filled an historically white female role. Unlike Clinton, whose white privilege afforded her some leeway in her attempts to re-shape the mold into a politically active one, Obama’s inclusion is carefully styled to avoid even the appearance of unconventionality. Every photograph of her in the exhibit (except the picture over the china service display), is the same, a photo of Michelle Obama, in profile, accompanied by her husband.

For me, the lack of a direct gaze read as a deliberate attempt to make her appear less threatening, while the tendency to picture her with her husband served to underscore her heterosexual conventionality. As observed in the America on the Move exhibit, the representation of African American women is always already working against a strong cultural desire to mark their bodies as incapable of fulfilling the white elite ideal of wife, mother, cultural leader, or role model. Her presence among dozens of white first ladies challenges the normalization of elite whiteness, reifies its underlying precepts, and reifies the terms of inclusion.

Visitors might assume that because The First Ladies exhibit shares an entrance with The American Presidency exhibit, and that it is devoted entirely to the role of women in the White House, that it is evidence of and represents the equality and importance of women’s contributions to the nation. In practice, however, as the representation of Clinton and Obama both illustrate, this themed exhibit serves to reify the uncomfortable tension arising from women taking on highly visible, public and political roles in American society.

To underscore this point, one need only compare the contents of The American Presidency exhibit next door. The display cases on each president are both far more personal and more complex; their careers and characters are frequently depicted, as are traditions that rose up around their presidencies. Where family is mentioned, it tends to focus on the children, rather than the spouses, of the top political leaders of our nation. What is more, the displays in this exhibit tend to expand on topics related to the office of the presidency, including one alcove featuring a brief history of presidential funerals in America. Selected clothing from the men is displayed, including Abraham Lincoln’s iconic top hat, George Washington’s uniform, and so on, but these are accompanied by other large artifacts – chairs, desks, even caskets – that balance the focus of the displays rather than dominating them.

When compared to the complexity, breadth and depth of the displays next door, as well as the allotment of space, The First Ladies exhibit appears starkly limited in the possible narratives to which it can contribute. At a time when the role of First Lady is an increasingly public and influential one, such limitations reinforce the marginalization of women within politics and justify a continuing distrust of women in powerful, public positions. As Hilde S. Hein has argued, “Objects, like language, serve as principle media for the formation, expression, and confirmation of human relationships, and so museums that preserve objects are mines of knowledge about the workings of human societies” (31). Removing the first ladies to their own exhibit has the unfortunate effect of removing them from the narrative of the American Presidency, both in the museum and in the canon of American history, despite their obvious and public role and position of influence. Focusing on dresses and china reaffirms their status as decorative, superfluous, and ornamental, reducing our understanding of each woman to that which fits within the outlines of a female body. Further, due to the close connections between body and clothing, and the caregiving functions of the domestic sphere and china place settings, The First Ladies positions even extraordinarily accomplished women, past and present, as wives and home-makers, and ornamental complements to the men who hold “real” power.

For these and other reasons, The First Ladies is one of the most aggressive assertions of the white, cis, female norm through gender stereotyping and reification of the domestic role in the museum space. It more than suggests that the role of even our nation’s leading wife and matron of the White House is still largely to host dinners and play a supporting, ornamental role during important functions (as evidenced by the gowns), a message completely at odds with the vital and ongoing work in which most of our politically driven, intelligent and thoroughly capable First Ladies engaged during their lives.

Material Implications
Today, women have claimed public space as their own in many ways, entering business and politics in increasing numbers, earning advanced degrees and, alongside men, influencing policy and directing social and civil rights movements in material and ideological ways. But their hold on public space remains tenuous, always under pressure to regress by patriarchal practices; the unquestioned right to a permanent presence in public life and in public museums is, for women, far from guaranteed. To a significant degree, women of all backgrounds and non-white men in the United States continue to be considered public bodies, rather than persons occupying the public sphere. The same is not true for white men, whose right to occupy the public sphere is a given in American culture and political system. Where women and non-white men do appear, both in the museum and in public, they tend to be so closely associated with the attributes of their physical bodies that they are often unable to transcend that association, the most important criteria by which historical greatness has traditionally been bestowed. This association is clearly visible in the artifacts chosen to represent them: dresses, household appliances, table settings, images of non-white and female bodies performing a variety of manual and reproductive labors.This association is also clearly visible in cultural attitudes and government policies that deny women autonomy over their own bodies and hold them unequally responsible for the childrearing and housekeeping tasks that constitute the tissue of family life.[vii]

Carole Pateman points to this inequality, and to the asymmetrical positioning of gendered and raced bodies, arguing “[w]omen have never been completely excluded…from public life; but the way in which women are included is grounded, as firmly as their position in the domestic sphere, in patriarchal beliefs and practices” (132). To the extent that public life intersects with public representation, this contradictory situation seems well supported by the evidence. In the object-laden space of the history museum, the performances of gender tend to be overtly patriarchal and inherently asymmetrical: perhaps this is because the exhibits and their publics are negotiating both epistemological dichotomies and the material traces of “real” ones (i.e., embodied, practiced) at the same time, contributing to narratives that may be contradictory, paradoxical, even, in the same way that gender in America is a paradoxical function of culture and political technologies of power.

American Presidency Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Within the context of the public history museum, gender asymmetry is performed through the selection and arrangement of its displays and exhibits, the architecture of the building, interior design and lighting elements, and in myriad other ways. It is so pervasive, in fact, that feminist scholar Gaby Porter has argued that the entire concept of the history museum is founded on “embodied assumptions about men and women, masculine and feminine” (63). It is so pervasive, I would add, that the hierarchical positioning of one gender over another is rendered nearly invisible within the ordinary process of meaning-making that occurs within the museum space and, therefore, within the cultural and historical narratives in which it participates.

For this reason, regaining a certain degree of visibility is crucial to understanding and then crafting challenges to a conservative historical tradition based on such inequalities, and issues of representation in and through history museums like the NMAH take on a renewed sense of urgency. As Eilean Hooper-Greenhill has claimed, “[q]uestions of meaning are questions of power, which raise issues of the politics of representation” (19). As an active maker of meaning, the NMAH is deeply implicated in the political processes of visibility and legitimacy explored by feminist theorists including Judith Butler. For Butler, “representation serves as the operative term” in these processes (2). As political subjects, women require sufficient representation to support their status and position within a public; however, in Butler’s view, the “pervasive cultural condition” has guaranteed that “women’s lives were either misrepresented or not represented at all” (2). For museum scholar Bruce W. Ferguson, exhibitions are “publicly sanctioned representations of identity” that use artifacts as “elements in institutionalized stories” (175). Ferguson has further argued that “Exhibitions are the material speech of what is essentially a political institution, one with legal and ethical responsibilities, constituencies and agents who act in relation to differing sets of consequences and influences at any given historical moment” (182). Within this complex network of often competing interests, representation becomes a fraught political process imbued with the beliefs, attitudes, and values of potentially conflicting stakeholders.

In the museum, representations are “purposefully creative and…generate new social and political formations” notes Hooper-Greenhill. “Through the persistent production of certain images and the suppression of others, and through controlling the way images are viewed or artifacts are preserved, visual representations can be used to produce a view of the nation’s history” (25). So when Hooper-Greenhill asks “Who has the power to create, to make visible, and to legitimate meanings and values?” (19), it is a political question, a question of power, status, and publicness. It is a question capable of impacting innumerable facets of public and private life for diverse American publics.

The relationships that are made visible through my study of the NMAH are complex; as I concluded my study, I brought away with me the distinct impression that the gender asymmetry performed inside the walls of our national history museum is quite durable and contributes in significant ways to the practices of gender relations that permeate it and American society.[viii]They are relations made strange through piecemeal challenges to stereotypical or outright misogynistic displays about and toward women in the United States: I expected to see men and women and the material traces of men and women displayed with a certain degree of binary gender relativity. Indeed, I discovered no references to non-binary genders in the exhibits. However, what actually emerged from my study was the conviction that the gender dichotomies constructed by the NMAH position men and women in categorical relation to one another in complex and asymmetrical ways. In fact, although I have prioritized gender in this article, there are many aspects of the performance of asymmetry in the NMAH influenced by and constituted with a range of other categorical inequalities, most visibly race and ethnicity, that are just as critical to achieving a fully textured understanding of the relationships between material representation and the lingering inequalities that hamper women in their quest for full, successful lives.

Judith Butler argues that it is “impossible to separate out ‘gender’ from the political and cultural intersections in which it is invariably produced and maintained” (4-5). If this is the case, then the manner in which gender is constituted and performed within our hallowed historical institutions, positioned at these political and cultural intersections, is one of the most accessible and material indicators of progress toward greater equality and inclusivity. Thus when we find, as my study of the NMAH did, circumstances in which women are positioned (often against their will) as ornamental or inessential to the core narrative of our nation’s history, such circumstances demand rectification. No matter what other materials exist, or in which spaces, until the authoritative representation of our national history includes us all, it will continue to perpetrate the gravest injustice upon those it maligns, misrepresents, or renders silent.

Works Cited
Almendrala, Anna. “Most Americans Still Think Women Should Do The Bulk Of The Housework.” Huffington Post. Huffingtonpost.com. 29 Aug. 2016. Web. 1 Sep. 2016.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958. Print.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

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Blair, Carole, Greg Dickinson and Brian L. Ott. “Rhetoric/Memory/Place.” Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials. Eds. Greg Dickinson, Carole Blair, and Brian L. Ott. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010. 1-56. Print.

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About the Author
Shersta A. Chabot is an Instructor for the Writing Program at Arizona State University. She received her Master’s degree in Rhetoric, Composition, and Linguistics and her Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacies from ASU. Her research focuses on cultural rhetorics at the intersections of digital and material public memory.

About the Mentor
Lisa King is Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her research and teaching interests are interdisciplinary, and include cultural rhetorics with an emphasis in contemporary Native American and Indigenous rhetorics. More specifically, her focus rests on the rhetorics of cross-cultural sites such as Indigenous museums and cultural centers, and theorizing cross-cultural pedagogy through the teaching of Indigenous texts in rhetoric and composition classrooms. She is the co-editor of Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story: Teaching American Indian Rhetorics (2015, with Rose Gubele and Joyce Rain Anderson), and author of Legible Sovereignties: Rhetoric, Representations, and Native American Museums (2017).


[i] See, for example, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor (2002); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990); Marie Louise Stig Sorensen, Gender Archaeology (2000); Shelley Budgeon, Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Gender in Late Modernity (2011); Lenore Davidoff, “‘Regarding Some “Old Husbands” Tales’: Public and Private in Feminist History” (1995); Julie Des Jardins, Women & the Historical Enterprise in America (2003); Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices (1989)

[ii]In their anthology Places of Public Memory, Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson, and Brian L. Ott argue that memory places (including museums) are inherently and powerfully rhetorical and, as such, demand more sustained scholarly attention.

[iii] See also Hilde S. Hein, The Museum in Transition (2000), p. 148

[iv] Blair has argued that “No text is a text, nor does it have meaning, influence, political stance, or legibility, in the absence of material form. Rhetoric is not rhetoric until it is uttered, written, or otherwise manifested or given presence. Thus, we might hypothesize as a starting point for theorizing rhetoric that at least one of its basic characteristics (if not the most basic) is materiality” (18). She has further asserted that “we must ask not just what a text means but, more generally, what it does; and we must not understand what it does as adhering strictly to what it was supposed to do” (23). However, where Blair is still “reading” physical objects as texts, I argue that considering the object or artifact in terms of its own materiality results in a more richly textured understanding of the relationships in which it is engaged

[v] Investigating the material presence of women’s historical sites and landmarks in the United States, Lynn Sherr and Jurate Kazickas found that, as of 1994, “Less than 4 percent of National Park cultural sites and less than 5 percent of all National Historic Landmarks focus primarily on women” (x). Out of the one hundred (of approximately two thousand, total) national historical sites that do focus on women, a rare few include museums.

[iv] I include the “office” of First Lady here because although to date only men have held the office of President of the United States, the role of the first lady, however unofficial, contributes in significant (if often unrecognized) ways to the nature of that office and its temporary occupant. Such a two-for-one situation is also clearly indicated by the manner in which each role is represented by the NMAH

[vii] Gerda Lerner has argued: “The gender-linking of service functions and child-rearing is at the root of woman’s problem in society. The fact that every woman is a housewife, and that every housewife is a woman, structures inequality between the sexes into every institution of society” (111). Despite the many advances made by American women over the years, this seems to remain the case. For example, a new (2016) study out of Indiana University found that gender remains “by far the biggest determinant of Americans’ attitudes toward housework,” with women expected to perform the majority of household tasks regardless of income or employment status (Almedrala).

[viii] durable and contributes in significant ways to the practices of gender relations that permeate it and American society.


Copyeditor(s): Jessica Gibbons

Editorial Assistant(s): Lauren Brentnell, Catheryn Jennings

Production Editor: Ana Milena Ribero

Reviewer(s): Daisy Levy, Marilee Brooks-Gillies, and Lisa King