Now, add the Indian love of observance of ritual, and speech attains the status of oratory. Oration is defined as formal address or discourse, especially of a ceremonial kind.
Chief among the Indian arts was oratory. Everything in their social and cultural organization favored it.
First – they walked. A prominent student of history in a television series noted that the world’s great religious philosophies originated among nomads who followed the animals for sustenance. They had time to think and to shape their thoughts into effective expression.
Second – the Indian was a close and constant observer. His mind was filled with original observations. Moreover, the Indian was much given to meditation. Everyone respected the right of a man to withdraw from others to seek inspiration, or to sit before his tipi and simply think. When he spoke he had something to say.
Third – the Indian had a duty to see that the history of his family was passed on to his children. This was living history – not only the myths and legends of events long past, but the history of today. Therefore after the feast which followed a successful hunt or other exploit, every man was expected to tell his experience, in order that his achievement might pass into the knowledge of the others. So the man told his story. The white men said he was boasting and despised such exhibitionism because the Indian acted out his story. He used not only the gestures of his hands as white men are allowed by accepted good manners to do, but his whole body, illustrating his own, and imitating the actions of his prey or adversary. In this way, eloquence was enhanced by drama. Today we call it creative acting or creative dancing, and it has become respectable in theatre or on the screen. Add serious music and you have an opera!
In the Indians’ world the children were thus encouraged to remember to appreciate, to emulate, and to exceed the exploits of their relatives. The Indian followed the Christian admonition, not to “hide his light under a bushel.” Some of these stories were so dramatic that they were repeated by others in the teller’s honour and he became a hero or legend in his own right.
Fourth – the speaker’s rights were respected. The laws of the lodge, as taught by many of the great leaders, included these rules:
“Never walk between persons talking,” Never interrupt persons Talking.
It was also good manners for a speaker to let the audience know when he had finished his oration. Reported speeches end with some phrase like, “I have said, ” or “I have spoken,” or “I have done with speaking.”
Although all Indian men were expected to speak, certain ones were more gifted than others. One whose gift leaned to religious and ethical exhortations became a “prophet”, an honored place in the tribe. His orations might be chanted as songs, to the accompaniment of his drum.
A mighty hunter or warrior who also had the gift of eloquence might in time rise to be headman as among the Athapaskans, or Chief, as in other peoples like the Cree. In the Peace River Country there were no hereditary chiefs. Thus Attachie of local fame was a mighty hunter, and “Wolf” was able to provide for six wives and their numerous children – yet neither was a “chief” to his people. Pouce Coupe seems to have had such status. When the treaties were signed the ones best suited or chosen to speak for the people became officially “chiefs” to the white men.
To keep his place, a chief or headman had no greater asset than the solemn or spirited harangues he could deliver in the Council Lodge, for he could be deposed at any time when he failed to hold his band together. Ancient law forbade him to strike down his adversaries within his own tribe. Defiling the earth with blood shed in anger was a terrible sin. Therefore, he must hold his followers by his wisdom and his eloquence. In times of great importance, the men and boys would all be summoned to the “council lodge”, and there in their ceremonial dress would take part in the rituals which converted eloquence into oratory. The sacred fire was lit. The sacred pipe was lighted (among the early Athapaskans and Sarcee with a glowing piece of buffalo dung). The pipe was pointed to the earthen altar – to the east, west, north and south, and to the sky. It was passed from man to man around the circle and back. Incense was cast on the fire, prayers were said. Then there would be a period of silence. To speak or leave or enter the tipi in this interval was unforgivable disrespect. At length, the headman would rise and address the council. When he was finished, others were allowed to speak. If by his “golden tongue” he had failed to win the support of the majority, he could be deposed there and then. No wonder the chief cultivated the art of verbal spellbinding!
When the white men – explorer, fur-trader or missionary – attempted to sway Indian opinion, he had to be good for he was in competition with men who, for generations, had been educated in the art of expressing and impressing. With native courtesy, the Indian would listen in what might appear to be stolid silence. The missionary too often mistook this for acceptance of the message. It did not mean that the Indian agreed.