Native American Oratory

As it is at his meetings of Council, and during the discussions that are there provoked, that the Indian’s powers of oratory come, for the most part, into play, and secure their freest indulgence, that will appropriately constitute my next head.

We are permitted to adjudge the manner and style of the Indian’s oratory, whether they be easy or strained; graceful or stiff; natural or affected; and we may, likewise, discover, if his speech be flowing or hesitating; but it is denied to us, of course, to appreciate in any degree, or to appraise his utterances. I should say the Indian fulfils the largest expectations of the most exacting critic, and the highest standard of excellence the critic may prescribe, in all the branches of oratory that may (with his province necessarily fettered) fitly engage his attention, or be exposed to his hostile shafts.

The Indian has a marvelous control over facial expression, and this, undeniably, has a powerful bearing upon true, effective, heart-moving oratory. Though his “spoken” language is to us as a sealed book, his is a mobility of countenance that will translate into, and expound by, a language shared by universal humanity, diverse mental emotions; and assure, to the grasp of universal human ken, the import of those emotions; that will express, in turn, fervor, pathos, humor; that, to find its complete purpose of unerringly revealing each passion, alternately, and for the nonce, swaying the human breast, will traverse, as it were, and compass, and range over the entire gamut of human emotion.

The Indian’s grace and aptness of gesture, also, in a measure, bespeak and proclaim commanding oratory. The power, moreover, which with the Indian resides in mere gesture, as a medium for disclosing and laying bare the thoughts of his mind, is truly remarkable. Observe the Indian interpreter in Court, while in the exercise of that branch of his duty which requires that the evidence of an English-speaking witness or, at all events, that portion of it which would seem to inculpate the prisoner at the bar, or bear upon his crime, shall be given to him in his own tongue; and, having been intent upon getting at the drift of the testimony, mark how dexterously the interpreter brings gesture and action into play, wherever the narration involves unusual incident or startling episode, provoking their use! What a reality and vividness does he not throw, in this way, into the whole thing! It records, truly, a triumph of mimetic skill. Again, the opportune gesture used by the Indian in enforcing his speaking must seem so patent, in the light of the after-revelation by the interpreter, that we can scarcely err in confiding in it as a valuable aid in adjudging his qualities of oratory. We are, often, indeed, put in possession of the facts, in anticipation of the province of the interpreter, who merely steps in, with his more perfect key, to confirm our preconceived interpretation. It may be contended by some gainsayer, that the Indian vocabulary, being so much less full and rich than our own, gesture and action serve but to cover up dearth of words, and are, in truth, well-nigh the sum of the Indian’s oratory; a judgment which, while, perhaps, conceding to the Indian honor as a pantomimist, denies him eminence as a true orator. This may or may not be an aptly taken objection, yet I have no hesitation in assigning the Indian high artistic rank in these regards, and would fain, indeed, accept him as a prime educator in this important branch of oratory.

The attention of his hearers, which an Indian speaker of recognized merit arrests and sustains, also lends its weight to substantiate his claim, to good oratory; unless, indeed, the discriminating faculties of the hearers be greatly at fault, which would caution us not to esteem this the guide to correct judgment in the matter that it usually forms.

The Indian enlivens his speaking with frequent humorisms, and has, I should say, a finely-developed humorous side to his character; and, if the zest his hearers extract from allusions of this nature be not inordinate or extravagant, or do not favor a false or too indulgent estimate, I would pronounce him an excessively entertaining, as well as a vigorous, speaker.

There are in the Indian tongue no very complex, rules of grammar. This being so, the Indian, pursuing the study of oratory, needs not to undertake the mastery of un-elastic and difficult rules, like those which our own language comprehends; or to acquire correct models of grammatical construction for his guidance; and, being fairly secure against his accuracy in these regards being impeached by carping critics, even among his own brethren, can better and more readily uphold a claim to good oratory than one of ourselves, whose government in speaking, by strict rules of grammar is essential, and whom ignorance or contempt of those rules would betray into solecisms in its use, which would attract unsparing criticism, and, indeed, be fatal to his pretensions in this direction.

Mackenzie, J. B. A Treatise of the Six Nation Indians. Guardian Printing Office. 1882.

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