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Indian Oratory (1971)

compiled by W. C. Vanderwerth


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The tribes on the American continent were fairly open to new relationships when white people first arrived. It took repeated disappointments, broken promises, lies, and betrayals before they finally gave up and began warring with the newcomers. You might fault their credulity, but you have to credit their tenacious willingness to believe.

When you read the things that tribal leaders had to say, the first reaction might be shock: one doesn't often think of "oratory" as a typical tribal skill. But it was much valued, though not for its own sake alone -- truthfulness and honor were equally valued.

Kinda makes one regret that the whole thing ever got started...


Excerpts:

  • I will not say any thing I do not know to be true. I make no promises.... I have no more to say at present. -- Keokuk, Sauk tribe (upper Michigan peninsula)
  • You must speak straight so that your words may be as sunlight to our hearts. Tell me, if the Virgin Mary has walked throughout all the land, why has she never entered the wigwam of the Apache? Why have we never seen or heard her? I have no father or mother; I am alone in the world. No one cares for Cochise; that is why I do not care to live, and wish the rocks to fall on me and cover me up. -- Cochise, Apache tribe (Arizona territory)
  • You have now become a great people, and we have scarcely a place left to spread our blankets. You have got our country, but you are not satisfied. You want to force your religion upon us.

    Brother! Continue to listen. You say that you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to his mind; and if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right, and we are lost. How do you know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a book. If it was intended for us as well as for you, why has not the Great Spirit given it to us; and not only to us, but why did he not give to our forefathers the knowledge of that book, with the means of understanding it rightly? We only know what you tell us about it. How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people?

    Brother! You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agree, as you can all read the book? -- Red Jacket, Seneca tribe (New York)

  • Notwithstanding these difficulties, if the cause be just, we should not hesitate to defend our rights to the last man, but before that fatal step is irrevocably taken, it is well that we fully understand and seriously consider the full portent and consequences of the act. -- Pushmataha, Choctaw tribe (Mississippi)
  • It matters little where we pass the remnant of our days. They will not be many. The Indians' night promises to be dark. Not a single star of hope hovers above his horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Grim fate seem to be on the Red Man's trail, and where he goes he will hear the approaching footsteps of his fell destroyer and prepare stolidly to meet his doom, as does the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter.

    A few more moons. A few more winters -- and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to mourn over the graves of a people once more powerful and hopeful than yours.

    But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend with friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see. -- Seattle, Suquamish/Duwamish tribes (Washington)

  • We do not break treaties. We make but few contracts, and them we remember well. The whites make so many they are liable to forget them. -- Satank, Kiowa tribe (Black Hills region)