Review of Indigenous Rhetorics and Survival in the Nineteenth Century: A Yurok Woman Speaks Out

Review of Indigenous Rhetorics and Survival in the Nineteenth Century: A Yurok Woman Speaks Out

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 2 Winter 2020

Author(s): Emily Legg

Emily Legg is a Cherokee Nation citizen and an Assistant Professor of Intercultural Rhetorics in the Department of English at Miami University (Ohio). Her research centers Indigenous methodologies of storytelling as decolonial and materialist research practices in writing and rhetoric, specifically as it applies to archival research that recovers nineteenth century Indigenous women’s writings and literacy practices.

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Lowry, Elizabeth Schleber. Indigenous Rhetorics and Survival in the Nineteenth Century: A Yurok Woman Speaks Out. Palgrave, 2019. 85 pages.

Elizabeth Schleber Lowry’s book, Indigenous Rhetorics and Survival in the Nineteenth Century: A Yurok Woman Speaks Out, situates Lucy Thompson as an important Indigenous rhetorician whose influence continues in contemporary Yurok culture through reclamation and revitalization efforts. Specifically, Lowry analyzes Thompson’s 1916 book, To the American Indian, which was the first book published in California by an Indigenous author, making it an important rhetorical and cultural artifact from a tumultuous time in American Indian history. In her first chapter, titled “Reminiscences,” Lowry explains that Thompson’s book can be read as autobiographical and is a prime example of nineteenth- and twentieth-century women’s “life writing” practices (6). At the same time, To the American Indian carefully mediates between celebrating daily Yurok life and deftly criticizing the colonial agenda of Euroamerican settlers. As Lowry points out, Thompson’s approach can be troubling to contemporary readers, especially as she invokes Christianity and employs discourse steeped ideas of the “savage” and “civilized” Native (16). While Lowry focuses on specific troubling passages in later chapters, she uses the first chapter to explore how Thompson’s life and her role as a Native woman married to a Euroamerican man shaped her as a rhetorician who was writing for a whiter audience during the early twentieth century. Building on the works of Malea Powell, Ernest Stromberg, and Gerald Vizenor, Lowry explains that Thompson’s writing had to “mediate between Native and Euroamerican worlds” (3). In doing so, Thompson developed rhetorical strategies of “survivance” that rejected victimhood and tragedy and recentered stories through continued existence. In order to highlight Thompson’s rhetorical practices as survivance, Lowry connects Thompson to other Native1 rhetors, such as Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, to highlight similarities in the ways that Native rhetors used biblical references to critique colonization and questioned Christianity’s role in so-called civilizing practices (17). Drawing on Cheryl Walker’s notion of “subjugated” rhetoric, a strategy Walker claims is typical of several nineteenth century Native writers, Lowry argues that Thompson’s goal was to invite a sense of “moral outrage” among her white audiences in order to bring sympathy and “recruit white allies”(14). 

In her second chapter, “The Sacred and the Profane,” Lowry addresses some controversial rhetorical moves that Thompson makes, such as describing an ancient race of Yurok demigods, known to the Yurok as wa-ga, as white. While some scholars have claimed that the describing the wa-ga as “white” was perhaps due to a lack of vocabulary, translation error, or “ill-considered metaphor,” Lowry contends that Thompson was deliberate in her choice of language. According to Lowry, Thompson diverges from the traditional Yurok creation story in order to “teach Euroamericans both about themselves and about Yurok culture” through illustrations of sacred behavior of the wa-ga and profane behavior by the ken-e-ah, the word the Yurok used for white colonizing foreigners. Lowry suggests that Thompson employs what Kenneth Burke calls a “perspective of incongruity,” which is “a rhetorical strategy wherein a word or term is decontextualized and placed in a new—and often unexpected—context” to draw the reader’s attention to the discrepancies in logic “undergirding problematic cultural assumptions” (27). In order to address Thompson’s controversial use of a racialized “white” status of Yurok demigods, Lowry reframes Thompson’s more troubling passages in To the American Indian by highlighting Thompson’s sharp distinction between the benevolent wa-ga and the malevolent ken-e-ah. By connecting the most prevalent profanities of colonialism—domestic abuse, alcoholism, violence, and epidemics—to the ken-e-ah, Thompson recalls the sacredness of the wa-ga, suggesting that there could be an alternate means of Yurok and white settler contact. Thompson’s rhetorical goal in drawing these parallels, according to Lowry, is to reveal to a white audience their own profanities without having to address them directly or alienate them as potential allies (37). Lowry explains that as Thompson negotiates potential cultural conflicts, she continually uses the distinctions between the wa-ga and ken-e-ah as a diplomatic negotiation that teaches white settlers Yurok etiquette while preserving the sacredness of Yurok culture and customs. 

In chapter three, “‘Christianizing’ and ‘Indigenizing,’” Lowry addresses yet another controversial aspect of To the American Indian—that of Christianizing Yurok mythology. Similar to her analysis in the previous chapter, Lowry analyzes the ways in which Thompson’s work uses Christianity to connect to a white audience. Lowry positions Thompson as a “cultural broker” who took on the role of convincing “white power elites that indigenous [sic] people were not an abstraction: they were real human beings who had suffered—and who continued to suffer—horribly as a result of colonialism” (41). Unlike Thomas Buckley, who argues that Thompson was appealing to a white audience by Christianizing Yurok myths, Lowry suggests that Thompson is perhaps doing the opposite in that she is “indigenizing” Christian myths. Furthermore, Lowry suggests that Thompson is not just appealing to a white audience, but is also trying to encourage Natives to question Christianity’s importance (42). In order to support her claims, Lowry turns to the work of Ernest Stromberg to draw comparisons between Thompson and the subversive rhetoric of Susan La Flesche, Sarah Winnamucca Hopkins, and Zitkala Sa, all of whom pointed to the hypocrisy of Christianity (42). According to Lowery, by emplacing Yurok spirituality and rituals into Christian myths, Thompson hope to show her people that their spirituality was complete and that they did not need Christianity to morally guide them. More specifically, Lowry analyzes three of Thompson’s myths—”Our Christ,” a myth about a young Yurok Christ-like figure; “The Deluge,” a tale of a flood; and “Our Sampson,” a retelling of the story of Sampson and Delilah through Yurok cultural references. Lowry explains that, in each of these myths, Thompson asserts her ethos as a Yurok author by illustrating her intimate knowledge of Yurok spiritual practices and landscapes in the supplanted details of each myth. Additionally, Lowry proposes, when read in the context of the full narrative of To the American Indian, these myths go beyond being both Christian and Yurok. Instead, Thompson’s retellings overturn assumptions about Indigenous peoples made by Euroamericans. Lowry ultimately shows that Thompson upheld Yurok spirituality as superior to Christianity and reaffirmed their spiritual connection to the landscape, recovering these landscapes from the Euroamerican claims of a “godless wilderness.” 

The notion of the “godless wilderness is taken up further in chapter four, “Wilderness and Civilization.” In this chapter, Lowry examines Thompson’s tales of “wild Indians” and “Indian Devils.” Much like the rhetorical balancing acts she contextualizes in previous chapters, Lowry addresses the ways that Thompson rhetorically confronts Euroamerican views of wilderness and its supposed counterpoint, civilization, by analyzing Thompson’s work alongside other narratives of “civilized” Natives. Specifically, by comparing Thompson’s narrative to Theodora Kroeber’s account of the “wildness” of Ishi, “the last of the Yahi people” (55), Lowry contextualizes Thompson’s writings as an early counter-narrative to the emerging representations of Natives as created by Euroamericans. Lowry explains how Euroamericans often romanticized Natives as primitive, childlike, and needing care like Ishi, and yet contradicted those views by associating the wilderness of “Indian land” with savagery, barbarism, heathenism, and waste (56-57). Lowry argues that Kroeber’s narrative of Ishi serves as a benchmark to help us understand Thompson’s writings. According the Lowry, Kroeber’s work is a compelling narrative suggests that the real “savage” were the Euroamerican people and that undermines cultural assumptions by celebrating Ishi as embodying the hardworking, polite, formal, respectful, and restrained character traits that are emblematic of the Yahi people and (64-65). Lowry argues that, whereas Kroeber’s narrative takes Ishi (and all Indigenous people by association) out of the “wilderness” and situates them as a “stranger in their own country,” Thompson’s work reminds readers that “white people are the true strangers, they are the ones who are displaced, and they are the ones who upset the world’s balance” (66). The boundaries of Thompson’s “wilderness” are reclaimed through her stories of Yurok community members taking back and recovering their culture from “Indian devils” and “wild Indians” in order to rebalance their lives. 

In chapter five, “Regeneration,” Lowry considers the cultural importance and current impact of To the American Indian by situating the text within contemporary Yurok culture and argues that it is essential to the revitalization and regeneration of that culture. In order to discuss the legacy of Lucy Thompson as relevant to contemporary Yurok culture, Lowry contemplates the role of American Indian reservations on Indigenous rhetorics today. Building from the works of Lynn Huntsinger and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Lowry claims that “the reservations of today present indigenous communities with choices—deciding which ideas and practices from the past might be regenerated or consciously continued, and which could be left behind” (70). To the American Indian, Lowry explains, has become vital in the process of multifaceted regeneration work currently being undertaken by the contemporary Yurok community, work such as creating a traditional tribal village, participating in environmental strategies to reintroduce native plants and animals to Northern California, recovering traditional cultural practices, and developing a Yurok language curriculum aimed at language revitalization. In this final chapter, Lowry also argues that several aspects of Thompson’s text are still issues that the Yurok community is facing, including domestic violence against women and addiction to stimulants and alcohol. She applies Tuhiwai Smith’s postcolonial work on the Maori people to connect Thompson’s work to contemporary Yurok experiences. Despite being rejected by the Red Power movement in the 1960s as a “victim-blaming” text, To the American Indian discusses a healing process similar to current healing processes of Yurok community members facing the court systems on drug and alcohol related charges; for Lowry, this connection helps solidify the text’s legacy (72-74). Lowry also points out that Thompson’s desperate calls for balance in Yurok ways of life are mirrored by Susan Matsen, a former Yurok vice-chairperson, specifically with regards to the salmon restoration efforts underway in the Klamath River region (76). Lowry concludes her book by asking how Thompson would feel about the state of the Yurok people today, given the similarities between Thompson’s own reflections on the long-lasting impact of colonialism during the early twentieth century and the ways that colonialism still operates in the Klamath River region for the Yurok people today. Regardless, Lowry explains, the importance of To the American Indian is clear as it offers pathways to cultural reclamation through stories, practical advice, and ceremony, as much today as it did in 1916. 

While the book title is focused on nineteenth-century Indigenous rhetorics, it is perhaps more accurate to say that Lowry’s book focuses on the rhetorical strategies of Indigenous rhetors during the Era of Allotment and Assimilation, which spanned the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Federal policy at this time shifted from establishing treaties with sovereign Indigenous nations and enforcing removal policies and instead proceeded with the allotment of land for the purpose of assimilating Indigenous peoples. As American Indians were stripped of their culture, Indigenous authors, like Lucy Thompson, developed strategies of rhetorical sovereignty that had to navigate the reality of assimilation with the perseverance of their own cultural practices and community. As feminist historiography, Lowry’s book draws scholars’ attention to the importance of contextualizing American Indian rhetorics in relation to distinctly Indigenous experiences during an era of American Indian erasure. Her work highlights the importance of analyzing Indigenous rhetorics with the understanding that texts that were written with a nineteenth-century audience in mind, rather than analyzing them through a contemporary lens and contemporary audiences. Ultimately, Lowry’s book recovers and celebrates this complex rhetorical navigation and joins the conversation of other indigenous scholars in Rhetoric and Composition, such as Malea Powell, Scott Lyons, Rose Gubele, and Lisa King. While Lowry takes a pan-tribal approach to comparative analysis, Indigenous Rhetorics and Survival in the Nineteenth Century: A Yurok Woman Speaks Out is an important addition to the history of Indigenous rhetorics and is especially relevant to scholars interested in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Yurok rhetorics and the rhetorical histories of Northwest California Indigenous peoples. Additionally, Lowry situates Thompson’s writing as both Indigenous and feminist, providing rhetorical scholars with an intersectional lens to examine a critical area of recovery while acquainting them with an influential Indigenous woman who is an important addition to the list of celebrated women rhetors from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. 


  1. Lowry uses “Native” to refer to Lucy Thompson and the Yurok people, and I will follow her terminology to remain consistent and avoid confusion. Other scholars may use “American Indian” or “Native American” when discussing the Indigenous peoples of the United States.

Works Cited

  • Gubele, Rose. “Unlearning the Pictures in Our Heads: Teaching the Cherokee Phoenix, Boudinot, and Cherokee History.” Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story: Teaching American Indian Rhetorics. Edited by Lisa King, Rose Gubele, and Joyce Rain Anderson, Utah State UP, 2015. 96-115.
  • King, Lisa. “Sovereignty, Rhetorical Sovereignty, and Representation: Keywords for Teaching Indigenous Texts.” Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story: Teaching American Indian Rhetorics. Edited by Lisa King, Rose Gubele, and Joyce Rain Anderson, Utah State UP, 2015. 17-34.
  • Lyons, Scott Richard. “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want from Writing?” College Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no. 3, 2000, pp. 447-468.