Friday, June 26, 2015

“Will he tell his own crimes?”: Native American Oratory

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature, in which I read through The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and report on what I learn.

One important genre of Native American literature is oratory, that is, speeches given upon important occasions.  The Norton Anthology of American Literature gives a couple examples of such oratory, given by two different chiefs, on the occasion of white expansion into Native lands in the west, in accordance with “Manifest Destiny”.  As you might imagine, these speeches are profoundly heartbreaking, and speak directly to some of America’s great national sins—the death and displacement of millions of Native Americans.  The first speech was given by Cochise (1812-1874), a chief of the Apaches in the southwest.  I have included a fragment of his speech, which eloquently states his concerns…

“The great people that welcomed you with acts of kindness to this land are now but a feeble band that fly before your soldiers as the deer before the hunter, and must all perish if this war continues.  I have come to you, not from any love for you or for your great father in Washington, or from any regard for his or your wishes, but as a conquered chief, to try to save alive the few people that still remain to me.  I am the last of my family, a family that for very many years have been the leaders of this people, and on me depends their future, whether they shall utterly vanish from the land or that a small remnant remain for a few years to see the sun rise over these mountains, their home.  I here pledge my word, a word that has never been broken, that if your great father will set aside a part of my own country, where I and my little band can live, we will remain at peace with your people forever.  If from his abundance he will give food for my women and children, whose protectors his soldiers have killed, with blankets to cover their nakedness, I will receive them with gratitude.  If not, I will do my best to feed and clothe them, in peace with the white man.  I have spoken.”


The second speech is by Charlot (1831-1900), a chief of the Flathead Indians, who lived in the Pacific northwest.  Like the Apaches, and, well, pretty much all native tribes, his people were forced to leave their native ancestral lands, and (adding insult to injury), to pay taxes to the federal government.  Here are some fragments of a speech given in 1876:

“Yes, my people, the white man wants us to pay him—pay him for our own—for the things we have from our God and our forefathers; for things he never owned, and never gave us.  What law or right is that?  What shame or what charity? … He has filled graves with our bones…his course is destruction; he spoils what the Spirit who gave us this country made beautiful and clean.  But that is not enough; he wants us to pay him besides his enslaving our country.  Yes, and our people, besides, that degradation of a tribe who never were his enemies.  What is he?  Who sent him here?  We were happy when he first came; since then we often saw him, always heard him and of him.  We first thought he came from the light; but he comes like the dusk of the evening now, not like the dawn of the morning.  He comes like a day that has passed, and night enters our future with him.  To take and to lie should be burnt on his forehead, as he burns the sides of my stolen horses with his own name…Now, because he lied, and because he yet lies, without friendship, manhood, justice, or charity, he wants us to give him money—pay him more.  When shall he be satisfied?…The white man fathers this doom—yes, this curse on us and on the few that may yet see a few years more…his meanness ropes his charity…Why thus?…Yet they say we are not good.  Will he tell his own crimes?  No, no; his crimes to us are left untold.”


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