Blog post for the Minnesota Historical Society, teacher cohort on Native American history in Minnesota

Guest blogger: Kirstin Ruth Bratt, St. Cloud State University

January 29, 2017

In a nation that remains deeply divided politically, our understanding of current events is often reflected in our understanding of history. Our understanding of “truth” is often deeply dependent on our political viewpoints.

As a professor of reading and study skills, I was curious to know whether the treaties between the United States government and the Native American governments could provide a chance for students to read objectively. By objectively, I mean that students could put aside their personal viewpoints to read two treaties from the 19th century in a thoughtful and investigative manner, reflecting on both sides of each treaty to consider motives and claims and assumptions.

At the end of the fall semester of 2016, I asked my students to complete a rhetorical analysis of two treaties:

What I wanted to know from their analyses was whether or not students would be able, given a series of steps and guiding questions, to read the treaties in a thoughtful and complex way, as rhetoricians or historians or social scientists might read them.

Besides the typical reading questions about thesis, supporting details, transitions, inferences, patterns of organization, bias, tone, and purpose, I also asked students to think about the treaties in terms of benefits, promises, language, historical changes, assumptions, relationships, gains, and losses[i]

My students were split regarding the bias of the treaties. About half of the students believed that the treaties were biased toward the USA, while the other half believed that they were biased toward the Native Americans. Some students noted that the tone of the documents shifted in the years between 1837 and 1851, becoming friendlier over time, but they disagreed about why this may have happened. Some believed that the US government was becoming more conciliatory, while others felt that the US was becoming more manipulative. A few students noted that the treaties were written and signed in English, and that the use of English was unfair or signaled an illegitimate process.

About half of my students, those who focused more on the financial side of the treaties, believed that the treaties favored the Native Americans. The other half, those who focused on the land itself, felt that the Native Americans were being mistreated and that the United States was taking advantage of a more powerful economic position. Most students recognized that the Native Americans were being asked to cede land to the United States, but some students stated the opposite: that United States was giving land to the Native Americans. All students recognized that payments would go to Native Americans, but they had varied responses about this. Some felt that the payments were high, others low, but none had done any outside research to determine the value of the money or the land at the time of the treaties. A few commented that the Native Americans were between a rock and a hard place: they could accept the terms of the treaties and accept some payment for the land or lose everything later after further aggressions.

The results of my assignment are mixed, as might have been expected from a group of students in a diverse social context, and highlighted for me the fact that I need to teach rhetorical analysis with a variety of primary and secondary documents rather than just the two treaties in isolation. When students read the treaties, they accepted the words at face value rather than reading between the lines, and a lack of prior knowledge and historical context almost assures that a student will not be able to carry out an informed reading of primary sources.

[i] Questions asked included the following:

  • How can you discover the main point?
  • Is the main point explicit or implied?
  • What is the main point of the passage?
  • What are the supporting details? In other words, what details are being used to support and elaborate the main point of the treaty?
  • What are the transitional words and phrases used by the writer?
  • What is the pattern of organization used by the writer?
  • What inferences can be read into the text?
  • What is the purpose of the text?
  • What is the bias of the writer?
  • What is the tone of the manuscript?
  • What are the underlying assumptions of the writer? Provide at least three assumptions (or warrants). What are the claims of each side?
  • What are the benefits of the treaty for each signer?
  • What are the promises in the treaty?
  • What stands to be gained? What stands to be lost?
  • Find words that seem to have negative connotations. What are the words and their connotations?
  • Find words that seem to have positive connotations. What are the words and their connotations?
  • What seems to have changed in between 1837 and 1851?
  • How might you describe the relationship between the parties to each treaty?

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