Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. The United States: Rhetorical Warfare and Oppression
The United States federal government has a rich history of employing antagonistic rhetorical strategies to define and redefine, qualify and disqualify, and overtly oppress Native people through the power of whiteness. In the case of Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States, 348 U.S. 272 (1955), Justice Stanley Reed’s decision exemplifies such abhorrent displays of racism, oppression, and discrimination found within the ubiquitous forms of rhetoric reserved by the government for indigenous instances. Through juxtapositional language, redefinitions, and placing blame on Native people, an undertone of greed and annoyance in Justice Reed’s decision is made apparent by the specifically situated rhetorical strategies employed throughout his decision. He narrows his scope of attack and discredits the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe by developing an argument based on a charged combination of ad hominem and generalization fallacies that rely on diametrical language and implications, definitions and semantic technicalities, and deflection to justify the decision of the court.
It is not uncommon across the history of indigenous studies to find specifically situated instances of rhetorical manipulation enacted by the United States federal government. By writing with linguistic flexibility, the government has relied on rhetorical strategies to define and redefine, qualify and disqualify, and overtly oppress Native people by the power of whiteness for centuries. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in a court of law. The obvious and abhorrent displays of racism, oppression, and discrimination that plague historical and legal documentation are not only found within the haunting impacts of legislation but also within the ubiquitous forms of rhetoric reserved by the government for indigenous instances.
I have chosen to focus this analysis on an example of such rhetoric as it was employed by Justice Stanley Reed in the court decision of Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States, 348 U.S. 272 (1955). In this case, the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe claimed that the government owed them compensation for stolen timber from Alaskan lands in and around the Tongass National Forest belonging to the Tee-Hit-Ton Indians. Through juxtapositional language, redefinitions and technicalities, and by placing blame on Native people, an undertone of displaced blame, greed, and annoyance in Justice Reed’s decision is made apparent within the specifically situated rhetorical strategies employed throughout his argument. The case identifies five main reasons for upholding the denial of compensation to the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe, all of which are rhetorically strategized to dismantle the ethos of all Native tribes by offering skewed and contextually dependent references to previous court proceedings and/or decisions. In turn, Justice Reed narrows his scope of attack and discredits the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe by developing an argument based on a charged combination of ad hominem and generalization fallacies that rely on juxtapositional language and implications, definitions and semantic technicalities and deflection to justify the decision of the court.
A key strategy that I found in this decision is marked by sympathetic language that is contradicted by the implications of the decision as well as the actions of the government. This juxtaposition is emphasized by the historical contexts that are both provided by the court and referenced by Justice Reed as support for the decision. Despite using specific examples of previous decisions, Justice Reed only places an emphasis on the realities of past and present decisions made to disenfranchise, discredit, and diminish Native tribes. Additionally, the language used throughout the decision is consistently demeaning and derogatory through its implicit use. From the beginning of the document and through to the very end, the contradictory language of the court’s decision is evident, as it unequivocally disrespects and diminishes the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe. Aside from the obvious implications of the decision itself, in which the government recognizes and admits to stealing Tee-Hit-Ton timber but argues that it was lawful to do so, the ways in which the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe is discussed are detached.
Rather than focusing on the tribe itself and their claims, Reed refers to a generalized view and discussion of tribes that encapsulate the colonial perception of Natives. In the very first paragraph of the document, Reed strips the petitioner (Tee-Hit-Ton) of their tribal identity and disregards the specific contexts of their descent and origins by calling them “needy descendants of exploited Indians” (“Tee-Hit-Ton Indians V. United States” 1). As if this doesn’t reveal enough about the attitudes of colonial government and Justice Reed’s implied manner, the language that both precedes and follows that phrase helps depict a clearer picture of the oppression and racism that mark this case. In the introduction, Reed states:
This is not a case that relates to any phase of the policy of the Congress, continued throughout our history, to extinguish Indian title through negotiation rather than by force, and to grant payments from the public purse to needy descendants of exploited Indians. The legislation in support of that policy has received consistent interpretation from this Court in sympathy with its compassionate purpose. (“Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States” 1)
What’s even more telling of the oppressive powers of Reed’s decision and words is his immediate use of the terms “sympathy” and “compassionate purpose.” This use of immediate and juxtapositional language seems to develop a paradox in which Reed (unsuccessfully) attempts to soften the blow of his own blatant oppression of the Tee-Hit-Ton (and other) tribes.
By blanketing derogatory statements with empty rhetoric, Reed emphasizes his own contradictions. Such dichotomous language is continued throughout the case decision. Further into Reed’s clarification and justification of the decision, it is asserted that the “Tee-Hit-Tons’ property interest, if any, is merely that of the right to the use of the land at the Government’s will” (“Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States” 8). Of note here is the use of “if any” in a subtle yet diminishing manner. Found at various other points throughout the document, the continual use of “if any” creates an implied discrediting of the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe’s claims. Although Reed previously acknowledges the validity of the stolen timber and offers context as to why the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe is seeking compensation, the subtle addition of “if any” in the middle of the petitioner’s claim immediately begins to diminish and discredit said claim. By using these contradictory linguistic strategies, Reed lays the foundation to discredit the ethos of the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe and their claims within the case. Not only is the language contradictory, but so are the implied meanings that underpin explicit phrases and argument structure. In his argument, Reed presents and cites various cases and court proceedings that support his justifications, all of which are contextually dependent on the socially ingrained disenfranchisement of Native people and tribes and federally upheld colonial supremacy.
In referencing a slew of past decisions and court cases, one of Justice Reed’s prominent rhetorical strategies used in this decision aligns with those of historically held social attitudes about Native peoples and culture, as well as congruent with previous attempts to diminish tribes and Native rights. By referring to specific words and phrases such as “identifiable,” “if any,” and direct definitions, it is made clear in Justice Reed’s tone that his use of these words and definitions is not meant to evoke professionalism within the law but is an attempt at trivializing and minimizing the presence of the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe—and all other Native tribes for that matter—from U.S. government considerations. The references to definitions and redefinitions unveil Justice Reed’s underlying attempt to, quite frankly, play a game of semantic warfare in which his juxtapositional theme is continued.
Regarding the “question of recognition,” the petitioner previously referenced two statutes to support the argument that “Congress has sufficiently ‘recognized’ its possessory rights in the land in question to make its interests compensable” (“Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States” 9). The two referenced statutes are §8 of the Organic Act for Alaska of May 17, 1884, 23 Stat. 24 and §27 of the Act of June 6, 1900, which was to provide for a civil government for Alaska, 31 Stat. 321, 330. In colonial fashion, these statutes are examined, addressed, and redefined by the court to fit the context of this case and to further diminish and discredit the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe.
Upon review of the Alaskan land statutes, the court apparently combed through the extensive histories and contexts and found “nothing to indicate any intention by Congress to grant to the Indians any permanent rights in the lands of Alaska occupied by them by permission of Congress” (“Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States” 10). The word “intention” is important here because it acts as yet another marker of discredit. Like “if any,” “intention” allows for blurred lines because it cannot be clearly or physically seen. Underlying intent is implicit, and Congress historically employed specific rhetoric that could lean either way if they needed to go back and bend it in their favor. Here, it’s clear that the court is redefining its own words through subjective intention, discrediting the foundational evidence of the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe’s argument. This “intention” of the court contends that:
It clearly appears that what was intended was merely to retain the status quo until further congressional or judicial action was taken. There is no particular form for congressional recognition of Indian right of permanent occupancy. It may be established in a variety of ways but there must be the definite intention by congressional action or authority to accord legal rights, not merely permissive occupation. (“Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States” 10).
Here, the intention is clarified, but only in the terms that suit the exigence of this document. The need to justify this case decision aligns with the need to dismantle and subordinate the Tee-Hit-Ton tribe’s claims and rights to land and resources. This semantic game reveals the ways in which the government has historically and continually altered and skewed past and present laws to fit their own needs at the cost of Native sovereignty, rights, and justice. Within these altered instances of rhetoric, it becomes clear how centuries of oppressive legislation develop layered, almost impossible instances of juxtaposition in which the government exerts colonial power. In the eyes of Congress, and as so clearly demonstrated by Justice Reed, the law of the land does not apply to laws over tribal land.
As a modern society, when we read and reflect on legal decisions such as this one, it is imperative that we do not continue to perpetuate narratives that align with rhetorical manipulations and their subsequent atrocities. It’s easy to take a detached stance and consider cases like these in terms of their chronological relation to where we now stand, past versus present. Old versus new. Regression versus progression. What we must understand, and what I hope to achieve in this analysis, is that the rhetorical strategies and language that created these documents are historically situated within cross-contextual paths. In other words, these specific language choices, tools, and implied meanings were not isolated instances of misjudgment but were collectively intertwined and overarching. They were widespread and are still long-lasting in their impacts.
“The TEE-HIT-TON INDIANS, an Identifiable Group of Alaska Indians, Petitioner, V. The UNITED STATES.” Legal Information Institute, www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/348/272.
My name is Sydney Moore and I am currently a senior at UCF, graduating in December of 2023 with a degree in Integrative General Studies and a focus in Writing & Rhetoric. What I enjoy most about writing is that it provides us a device to articulate the layers upon layers of values, emotions, implications, complexities, and nuances that underpin our every thought, idea, and word. In this rhetorical analysis, I channel that into a rhetorical analysis that identifies the relationships between historic Indigenous legislative rulings and the reflected oppressive values and targeted perceptions of American society through linguistic devices.