Lyons' "Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want From Writing?"

Lyons, Scott Richard. "Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want From Writing?" The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: Norton, 2009. 1128-1147. Print.


Lyons argues that rhetorical sovereignty should be a concept taught in writing classrooms to better understand how marginalized communities struggle continually to define and redefine their positions and relations (1130-1131; 1141). Lyons notes the rhetorical moves of the United States government in redefining treaties, nations, and sovereign to maintain hegemony through imperialistic and paternalistic language and writing practices (1133). Lyons writes in “pursuit of social justice,” specifically mentioning the need to avoid teaching stereotypes and instead acknowledge the sovereignty of American Indian people and read and listen to their words (1140-1145).



Lyons argues for rhetorical sovereignty from the hegemony of the United States government which redefined its relationship with American Indians. The United States rewrote the rules in imperialistic and paternalistic language in a way that the American Indians could not do back because of efforts to silence and marginalize their voices. The United States used (and in some contexts still uses) language as a weapon. 

Lyons also calls for people to read American Indian writing to better see that they are spreading a message of sovereignty and working to counter the United States efforts to silence them, but it's hard to know it when it isn't taught in schools. 

I thought it was interesting that Lyons started with the quote about adding words and subtracting truth. We hear about “empty rhetoric” but can see, especially in cases like this, how real the power of language is.  It makes me think about how important it is to be able to think critically about the rhetorics in society. People use language to disempower others, or even themselves; or they find language and writing practice empowering. I think this is why I want to teach writing—to help people know their power.  I think I just read somewhere about how convenient it is to those in power to teach people that words don’t have power—it isn’t really true, but saying so perpetuates the ideology. 

I was particularly interested in how Lyons noted Neil Smith’s idea that gentrifying the inner city and removing homeless people relates to the displacement of American Indians and the frontier-mentality of settlement (1144). I am with Lyons that the writing classroom should be a place of reflection and considering others’ struggles. I think using a current trend in urban geography to help illuminate the long-term struggle of marginalized communities makes sense and I wonder what other ways one could go about similar pedagogy. How we can shine a light on injustice and show it in a cultural context, or in context of another marginalized community, to show how struggles have been fought, overcome or not, or continue?

CompositionKatie Ancheta