The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXII. Non-English Writings II

§ 6. Amerind Oratory

Sir William Johnson, the earliest observer of oratory among the Five Nations, that original American centre of political corruption and senatorial sabotage, was impressed by the “Attic elegance” of diction and the compelling rhythm of their orators. The necessity for a unanimous vote on all important measures in Indian councils made the man who could weld the assembly with his voice the great man among them. The exercise of a gift for speech-making was not confined to the formal assembly, however. If a man “felt in his heart” that he had anything to say, he went from village to village claiming an audience, preceded by an advance agent who made all the necessary arrangements. There were prophets in those days, religious enthusiasts and reformers as well as politicians, and successful “spellbinders” who did not decline to teach their art to neophytes. Effects were studied. Apt illustrations and figures of speech would be remembered and appropriated by other orators. The flowing and meaningless gestures, so dear to our own early republican orators, did not enter into Indian speech. Descriptive pantomime and mimicry were used with profound and dramatic effect, as when the Wichita chief, standing before a commission which would have made windy terms with him, stooped, gathered a handful of dust, and tossing it lightly in the air replied: “There are as many ways as that to cheat an Indian.” So seriously was the business of speech-making undertaken, that Powhatan is reported to have instantly slain one of his young men who interrupted him. And, so the chronicler relates, the only interruption to the speech was the carrying out of the body.

Examples in translation from the speeches of Logan, Red Jacket, and the Seneca chief who was called Farmer’s Brother show traces of that balanced and flowing sentence structure which we associate with the Old Testament prophets. Direct observation of Indian speech-making leads the writer to conclude that the aboriginal orator composed his speech in units, the order and arrangement of which were varied to meet the special audience. This, if true,—and the decline of tribal life has occasioned such a decline in the art of speech-making that this is only an inference,—would relate the art of oratory to drama and cover one of the two or three gaps in the development of stanza form. Oratory had, however, an important function in relating literary composition to the audience, for it was the only art practised wholly for the purpose of affecting the decisions of the tribe.