Indian Oratory

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INDIAN ORATORY. In most Indian societies, skill with the spoken word proved crucial to a leader's effectiveness. Obviously, this was in part because Native Americans are traditionally an oral people. Also, the stress on oratory reflected the general absence of coercive power among the North American tribes. A chief relied on persuasion, rather than force, to direct events. Great chiefs were by definition effective orators.

European orators, accustomed to written notes, were especially impressed with Indians' powers of memorization. Utilizing natural metaphors and sometimes lasting for hours, Indian speeches were well calculated to impress their target audiences. For non-Indian audiences, Indian oratory, even when translated, was often misunderstood. Great speeches of Indian leaders became merely monuments to what whites saw as Indian backwardness and another reason for the Indians' inevitable demise in the face of white settlement. "Logan's Lament," the speech of a Mingo chief who fought against the Virginians during Lord Dunmore's War in 1774, is one such "monument." In a speech that was probably doctored by Thomas Jefferson, Logan grieved over the unprovoked murder of his family and promised revenge. Logan also admitted that his people were doomed to extinction. Such romanticized speeches have often been used to essentialize Indians and excuse conquest.


Vanderwerth, W. C. Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Robert M.Owens

See alsoIndian Oral Literature ; Indian Political Life .