Rhetorical Analysis Topic Proposal by Mr. K.

Harjo, Susan Shown. "Last Rites for Indian Dead." in Kennedy, X.J., et.al., eds. The Bedford Guide for College Writers. Boston: Bedford., 2002.

Harjo's piece was originally published prior to the creation of Congress' N.A.G.P.R.A. legislation (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), signed into law under the first Bush Administration in 1991. Harjo's central argument is that Native American peoples should no longer be considered the commodified property of all Americans. She decries the desecration and exploitation of Native American gravesites and holy sites. For far too long, Harjo argues, Native American people have been seen as nothing more than a people ripe for exploitation and plunder, especially since relics and bones can fetch hefty prices at museums or amongst collectors of such rare items. Harjo's intended audience is a lay one; she assumes that most people have been very uninformed and passive about her topic; as such, she makes concerted efforts to inform and persuade her audience that the desecration and exploitation of her people must stop.

Ultimately, while Harjo's essay does a very good job of establishing an ethical and emotional warrant so as to support her initial claim, I contend that she fails to completely convince me as to why studying Indian relics and skulls on the part of scientists is a useless endeavor. She raises up a point about the futility of such ethnographic / scientific studies on the bones, but does not include sufficient counterevidence to support her view. I would argue that the bones and relics do serve a vital purpose--yet Harjo seems to give up halfway through her argument about the issue of the relics' utility.

 Rhetorical Analysis First Draft by Mr. K

Harjo, Susan Shown. "Last Rites for Indian Dead." in Kennedy, X.J., et.al., eds. The Bedford Guide for College Writers. Boston: Bedford., 2002.


I recently read a three page article by Susan Shown Harjo, a Native American rights advocate entitled, "Last Rites for Indian Dead." The article was reprinted in The Bedford Guide for College Writers (2002) and was an article dedicated to the issue of Native American burial rights and repatriations. Harjo contends throughout her essay that her peoples ought not to be treated as the "property" of the United States of America; for Harjo, all too often, Native American bones and relics end up on display at a museum, or even worse, on sale at an auction for private collectors. While Harjo does an exceptional job of eliciting an ethical and emotional response in the reader, I feel that she fails to refute, let alone develop a counterargument to the idea that scientists need to study such relics. Harjo unnecessarily skews her viewpoint so as to make the reader "FEEL" her peoples' pain, without adequately developing a successful refutation.

From the very beginning of her essay, Harjo employs the ethos-based rhetorical appeal; the appeal helps readers to see the horror of Native American burial desecration / exploitation. In her first sentences, Harjo attempts to place readers into her shoes: "What if museums, universities, and government agencies could put your dead relatives on display or keep them in boxes to be cut up and otherwise studied? What if you believed that the spirits of the dead could not rest until their human remains were placed in a sacred area?" (119). The images that these questions evoke are exceptionally brutal--how could a regular reader not help but feel a sense of Harjo's outrage? After all, the mere thought of one's "dead relatives on display" or even worse, their being "cut up and otherwise studied" emphatically elicits a sense of revulsion in the reader. As a result, her ethical appeal helps to emphasize her strong feelings against desecration and study of Native American bones and relics.

Thanks in large part to her ethical analysis, one gets a clear sense that Harjo wants a regular audience, one largely unfamiliar with her topic, to feel sorry about the historical injustices suffered by Native Americans. If the audience were well-informed about this topic, then Harjo would not need to include a passage like the following:

Some of my own Cheyenne relatives' skulls are in the Smithsonian Institution today, along with those of at least 4,500 other Indian people who were violated in the 1800s by the U.S. Army for an "Indian Crania Study." It wasn't enough that these unarmed Cheyenne people were mowed down by the calvary at the infamous Sand Creek massacre; many were decapitated and their heads shipped to Washington as freight. (The Army Medical Museum's collection is now in the Smithsonian.) Some had been exhumed only hours after being buried. Imagine their grieving families' reaction on finding their loved ones disinterred and headless. (120)

This passage, in its entirety, combines the ethos-based appeal with the pathos-based one. Harjo initially demonstrates how she is personally linked to her topic by citing her Cheyenne ancestry, then goes on to show how the U.S. army systematically led a campaign to decimate, then later study her people. Her verb choices are particularly important here: "Indian people . . . were violated"; "Cheyenne people were mowed down"; "many were "decapitated and their heads shopped to Washington as freight" (120). Notice that the verbs move from a more violent sense, from "violate," "mowed down," then finally, the verb becomes very passive and dehumanizing--people's heads are "shipped" merely as freight, much as other packaged items might be sent. Such emotion-laden rhetoric helps the reader to completely empathize with the author.

Harjo calls research on her peoples' relics into question by citing a well-known doctor, Emery A Johnson; Johnson's quote, however, raises more questions than it answers. According to Dr. Johnson, studies into Indian relics and bones are baseless:

 I am not aware of any current medical diagnostic or treatment procedure that has been derived from research on such skeletal remains. Nor am I aware of any during the thirty-four years that I have been involved in American Indian . . . health care. (qtd. in Harjo 121)

Without a doubt, Dr. Johnson's quote seems completely damning to people who would argue against Harjo, that is to say, people who would claim that study of the relics of the bones are important. The real problem that I find with Dr. Johnson's quote is that in recent years, scientists in fields such as forensic anthropology have begun to discover the importance of tracing migratory patterns of Native American groups using D.N.A. samples. Dr. Johnson, while certainly being qualified to speak on this subject as the former assistant Surgeon General, would unlikely be qualified to speak on behalf of other scientists who would find the data from such studies beneficial. I feel that Harjo would have convinced me to her side were she able to successfully repudiate scientists in the fields of cultural anthropology or archaeology; these scientists would probably be outraged to discover said bones buried in the ground, forever.


Thus, Harjo's main problem lies not so much in her ability to win us over as a reader emotionally and ethically; Harjo is primarily unsuccessful in raising counterpoints to her position, then explaining why these are flawed. Had she clearly explained what sorts of medical procedures there were concerning these relics, then demonstrated why such studies were completely baseless, her argument would be exceptionally compelling because of her logical stance. As it stands, however, Harjo's argument more forcefully establishes a sense of outrage and empathy more than a sense of measured logic.