Date of Award

January 2012

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Kimberly Donehower-Weinstein


American Indian writers in college have a distinct cultural background related to rhetorical agency and language. Particularly for Indian students who grew up on reservations, the effects of official federal policies regarding the use of English for assimilation remain significant. However, in writing classes, we have an opportunity to reverse course and to specifically teach toward what Scott Lyons calls rhetorical sovereignty.

In this project, four American Indian college students demonstrate agency with writing. All four students grew up on federal Indian reservations (Standing Rock and White Earth), and at the time of this study, were enrolled in their first year of college at a state university. The students describe their interest in writing that is personal, relational, and reflective, and they also describe how they use such writing to create change in their lives. One student demonstrates considerable agency by writing what Gerald Vizenor calls a survivance narrative; she explains that she hates words because they are violent and used to brainwash, yet she likes using language when she can use her own words, in her own way.

The concept of multiple subjectivities in postmodern theory provides one way for students to increase their awareness of the power they already have with language. In addition, students can expand their ability to use writing as a means of agency by learning new rhetorical strategies. By studying American Indian and other rhetorical texts as engaged in dialog with each other, students can analyze how rhetors have addressed certain audiences for certain purposes, and assess the ways in which some audience members have responded with rhetorical texts of their own. In particular, students can learn to construct what Malea Powell calls rhetorical alliances, which are relationships between writers who are communicating within interdependent communities. Finally, students who have an increased awareness of agency and expanded strategies for writing with agency will be able to write their own rhetorics of resistance on behalf of cultural sovereignty.