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Native American Rhetorical Traditions

An introduction to Native American historical speeches and contemporary debates.

Historical Speeches

 

Searching for historical speeches by Native Americans may call for an advanced search strategy. While several anthologies exist (see earlier pages of this guide), a large portion of oral rhetorical heritage remains in archival collections, reported in the newspapers of the days, presented in eyewitness accounts transcribed and translated in English, written down in diaries, narratives, and poetry, captured in interviews and in oral history projects. 

 

A few starting points are suggested below. Texts are arranged chronologically in order to foreground the historical context of the speeches which were delivered close to each other in time. Speeches by the same author follow the overall chronology. Speeches, addresses, and petition with collective authorship appear unattributed.

PUBLISHED COLLECTIONS

Address to Captain John Smith (1609) by Powhatan

Powhatan (c. 1547 – c. 1618), whose proper name was Wahunsenacawh (alternately spelled Wahunsenacah, Wahunsunacock or Wahunsonacock), was the leader of the Powhatan, an alliance of Algonquian-speaking American Indians living in the Tidewater region of Virginia at the time English settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607. Powhatan, alternately called "King" or "Chief" Powhatan by the English, led the main political and military power facing the early colonists. By initiating the Indian Massacre of 1622 and attacks in 1644, he attempted to force the English from Virginia. These attempts met with strong reprisals from the English, ultimately resulting in the near destruction of the tribe. He was the father of Matoaka (Pocahontas).

On Colonizing Education, 1744 by Chief Canasstego, delivered on behalf of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations.

Chief Canasstego (c.1684-1750) was a leader of the Onondaga nation who became a prominent diplomat and spokesman of the Iroquois Confederacy in the 1740s. He was involved in several controversial land sales to colonial British officials. He is now best known for a speech he gave at the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster, where he recommended that the British colonies emulate the Iroquois by forming a confederacy. Canassatego was reportedly assassinated, perhaps by sympathizers or agents of New France

Speech to an Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Huron Audience, 5 May 1763 by Chief Pontiac

Pontiac, or Obwandiyag, (c. 1714/20 – April 20, 1769) was an Odawa war chief known for his role in the war named for him, from 1763 to 1766. He led Native Americans in an armed struggle against the British in the Great Lakes region. Nineteenth-century accounts portrayed him as the mastermind and leader of the revolt, but some subsequent scholars argued that his role had been exaggerated.

“I Believe It Is Because I Am a Poor Indian”: Samson Occom’s Life as an Indian Minister, 1768 by Samson Occom

A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian, 1772 by Samson Occom

The Reverend Samson Occom (1723 – 1792) was a member of the Mohegan nation, from near New London, Connecticut, who became a Presbyterian cleric. Occom was the second Native American to publish his writings in English, the first Native American to write down his autobiography, and also helped found several settlements, including what ultimately became known as the Brothertown Indians. Together with the missionary John Eliot, Occom became one of the foremost missionaries who cross-fertilized Native American communities with Christianized European culture.

Logan’s Lament, 1774 by Chief Logan.

Logan the Orator (c. 1723–1780) was a Cayuga orator and war leader. After his 1760s move to the Ohio Country, he became affiliated with the Mingo, a tribe formed from Seneca, Cayuga, Lenape and other remnant peoples. He took revenge for family members killed in 1774 in the Yellow Creek Massacre. His actions against settlers on the frontier helped spark Dunmore's War later that year. Logan became known for a speech, later known as Logan's Lament, which he reportedly delivered after the war.

“The Disturbances in America give great trouble to all our Nations,” 1776 by Joseph Brant

Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant (1743–1807) was a Mohawk military and political leader, based in present-day New York. He rose to prominence due to his education, abilities, and connections to British officials. During the American Revolutionary War, Brant led Mohawk and colonial Loyalists known as "Brant's Volunteers" against the rebels in a bitter partisan war on the New York frontier.

Address to Christian Native Americans at Gnadenhutten, 1781 by Chief Buckongaheals. 

Born around 1720, Chief Buckongahelas was a regionally and nationally renowned Lenape chief, councilor and warrior. He was active from the days of the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War) through the Northwest Indian Wars, after the United States achieved independence and settlers encroached on territory beyond the Appalachian Mountains and Ohio River. He became involved in the Western Confederacy of mostly Algonquian-speaking peoples, who were seeking to repel American settlers. Buckongahelas was respected by the Americans as a chief, although he did not have the position to do political negotiations.

The Chickasaws Send a Message of Conciliation to Congress, 1783

Seneca Chiefs Remind President Washington of the Iroquois' Role in the American Revolution, 1790.

"Speech to British Government Concerning Indian Land Claims," Niagara, October 22, 1792 by Joseph Brant (manuscript, from Wisconsin Historical Society)

Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant (1743–1807) was a Mohawk military and political leader, based in present-day New York. He rose to prominence due to his education, abilities, and connections to British officials. During the American Revolutionary War, Brant led Mohawk and colonial Loyalists known as "Brant's Volunteers" against the rebels in a bitter partisan war on the New York frontier.

Speech to the Iroquois Six Nations, delivered before a Gentleman Missionary, 1805 by Chief Red Jacket

Chief Red Jacket (c. 1750–1830) was a Seneca orator and chief of the Wolf clan, based in Western New York. On behalf of his nation, he negotiated with the United States when the Seneca were forced to cede much land. He signed the Treaty of Canandaigua (1794) and helped secure some Seneca territory in New York state. Red Jacket's speech defending religion (1805) has been preserved as an example of his great oratorical style. Red Jacket vehemently opposed missionaries’ living on Indian lands and attempted to preserve Indian jurisdiction over criminal acts committed on Indian property.

Speech to Indiana Territory Governor William Henry Harrison, 1808 by Tenskwatawa

Tenskwatawa (1775 – 1836) was a religious and political leader of the Shawnee, a younger brother of Tecumseh. About 1805, he had a spiritual experience after which he denounced Euro-American settlers and led a purification movement, promoting unity among Native Americans and the pursuit of traditional ways. In 1808 he and his brother, Tecumseh, established a village called Prophetstown, and their followers in the pan-Indian resistance movement reached thousands. As tensions with colonists grew, Governor William Henry Harrison of Ohio marched to Prophetstown with about 1000 men. After engagement between the two camps, Prophetstown was abandoned and burned to the ground by the military. Following Tecumseh’s death in 1813, the resistance movement was defeated, and Tenskwatawa went to exile in Canada. He returned in 1824 to assist with the Shawnee removal to reservation land and died in Kansas in 1836.

Address to General William Henry Harrison at Vincennes in the Indiana Territory (probably, 1810) by Chief Tecumseh

A Call for Native American Resistance, 1810 by Tecumseh

"Sleep Not Longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws," 1811 by Tecumseh

Speech to the Osages in the winter of 1811-1812 by Tecumseh 

Tecumseh (c. 1768 –1813) was a Shawnee chief, warrior, diplomat, and orator who promoted resistance to the U.S. expansion onto Native American lands. In the War of 1812, Tecumseh joined with the British, recruiting warriors and helping to capture Detroit. The following year he led an unsuccessful campaign against Americans in Ohio and Indiana. When U.S. naval forces took control of Lake Erie in 1813, Tecumseh retreated into Upper Canada and was killed at the Battle of the Thames 1813. His death caused a collapse of the pan-Indian alliance and the lands he fought to defend were ceded to the U.S. government

Response to Chief Tecumseh on War Against the Americans, 1811 by Pushmataba

Chief Pushmataha (c. 1764–1824), the “Indian General,” was one of the three regional chiefs of the major divisions of the Choctaw in the 19th century. Pushmataha was highly regarded among Native Americans, Europeans, and white American, for his skill in both war and diplomacy. Rejecting the offers of alliance and reconquest proffered by Tecumseh, Pushmataha led the Choctaw to fight on the side of the United States in the War of 1812. He negotiated several treaties with the United States. In 1824, he traveled to Washington to petition the Federal government against further cessions of Choctaw land. Chief Pushmataha was buried with full military honors in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Address to General Andrew Jackson, 1814 by Red Eagle

William Weatherford, also referenced as Red Eagle (ca. 1781–1824), was a Creek chief of the Upper Creek towns who led many actions in the Creek War (1813–1814) against Lower Creek towns and against allied forces of the United States. One of many mixed-race descendants of Southeast Indians, he was raised as a Creek and achieved his power through his mother's prominent Wind Clan. After the war, he rebuilt his wealth as a slaveholding planter in lower Monroe County, Alabama.

Surrender Speech, 1832 by Black Hawk

Black Hawk (1767 –1838) was a warrior and leader of the Sauk Native American tribe in the Midwest. During the war of 1812, Black Hawk fought on the British side against the US in hopes to push settlers away from the Sauk territory. Later, during the 1832 War, he led a band of Sauk and Fox warriors against settlers in Illinois and Wisconsin. After the war, he was captured by U.S. forces. While in custody, Black Hawk told his story to an interpreter. The first Native American autobiography to be published in the US, his book became an immediate bestseller.

Eulogy on King Philips, 1836 by William Appes

William Apess, or Pequot, (1798–1839) was an ordained Methodist minister, writer, activist, and a political and religious leader in Massachusetts. After becoming ordained as a Methodist minister in 1829, he published his autobiography -- among the first autobiographies by a Native American writer. In 1833, while serving as an itinerant preacher in New England, Apess visited the Mashpee on Cape Cod. Hearing their grievances against white overseers and settlers, he helped organize the Mashpee Revolt of 1833-34. In 1835, Apess published a book about the experience, which he summarized as "Indian Nullification."

“Our Hearts are Sickened”: Letter from Chief John Ross of the Cherokee, Georgia, 1836 by John Ross

Letter from John Ross, principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Indians: in answer to inquiries from a friend regarding the Cherokee affairs with the United States, followed by a copy of the protest of the Cherokee delegation, laid before the Senate and House of Representatives at the city of Washington, on the twenty-first day of June, eighteen hundred and thirty-six

John Ross (Cherokee: ᎫᏫᏍᎫᏫ, romanized: guwisguwi)(1790 – 1866), the son of a Cherokee mother and a Scottish father, was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. During the War of 1812, he served as adjutant of a Cherokee regiment under the command of Andrew Jackson. After the War ended, Ross started a tobacco plantation in Tennessee, built a warehouse and trading post on the Tennessee River, and started a ferry service. In 1816, as part of a Cherokee delegation to Washington, DC, and the only delegate fluent in English, he helped negotiate national boundaries, land ownership and white encroachment. Later, Ross petitioned Congress for redress of Cherokee grievances and worked to build political support for the Cherokee cause. He died in Washington DC in 1866 on a trip to negotiate the Reconstruction Treaty with the U.S.

Speech during the Smallpox Epidemic of 1837 by Four Bears (Mato-Tope)

Mato-tope (also known Four Bears)(c. 1784 - 1837) was the second chief of the Mandan tribe to be known as "Four Bears." The tribe lived in the first half of the 19th century on the upper Missouri River in the contemporary North Dakota. Mato-tope was a brave warrior, famous for killing a Cheyenne chief in hand-to-hand combat. The 1837 smallpox epidemic wiped out most of Four Bears' tribe, leaving a handful of survivors out of a former population of around 2,000. Mato-tope himself died on July 30, 1837 after suffering from smallpox. In his last speech to the neighboring tribes, he denounced the white man for deliberately bringing the disease to his people.

"By Peace Our Condition has been improved in the Pursuit of Civilized Life," 1843 by John Ross [look in upper half of the page]

John Ross (Cherokee: ᎫᏫᏍᎫᏫ, romanized: guwisguwi)(1790 – 1866), the son of a Cherokee mother and a Scottish father, was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. During the War of 1812, he served as adjutant of a Cherokee regiment under the command of Andrew Jackson. After the War ended, Ross started a tobacco plantation in Tennessee, built a warehouse and trading post on the Tennessee River, and started a ferry service. In 1816, as part of a Cherokee delegation to Washington, DC, and the only delegate fluent in English, he helped negotiate national boundaries, land ownership and white encroachment. Later, Ross petitioned Congress for redress of Cherokee grievances and worked to build political support for the Cherokee cause. He died in Washington DC in 1866 on a trip to negotiate the Reconstruction Treaty with the U.S.

Speech of Wa-o-wa-wa-na-onk [Peter Wilson], 1848

Peter Wilson (Waowawanaonk) was a Cayuga physician and possible chief. He was raised on the Seneca Buffalo Reservation and educated in Quaker schools. In 1844, he graduated from Geneva Medical College, one of the first Native Americans to earn a medical degree. Wa-o-wa-wa-na-onk also worked as an interpreter on the Cattaraugus Reservation and was a signatory on a fraudulent land treaty executed in 1838. In 1846, Wa-o-wa-wa-na-onk spoke to the New York Historical Society about regaining Iroquois land lost through fraud. He also petitioned the New York State Legislature in 1853 in order to address the compensation to the Cayuga for the loss of land. Among other causes, Wilson supported women’s suffrage.

Seattle Letter, 1854

Speech Cautioning Americans to Deal Justly with His People, 12 January 1854

Chief Seattle (c. 1786–1866) was a Suquamish and Duwamish chief who pursued a path of accommodation to white settlers. In March of 1854 he gave a speech in regards to Native lands. He reportedly asked to have guaranteed access to the Native American burial grounds. However, what he actually said has been lost through translation and rewriting.

"The Cherokee People Stand Upon New Ground," Address to the Cherokee National Assembly, delivered at Tahlequah, OK, October 9, 1861 by John Ross. [scroll down to the lower portion of the article to read the text of the speech]

From John Ross to Abraham Lincoln, September 16, 1862 [manuscript]

John Ross (Cherokee: ᎫᏫᏍᎫᏫ, romanized: guwisguwi)(1790 – 1866), the son of a Cherokee mother and a Scottish father, was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. During the War of 1812, he served as adjutant of a Cherokee regiment under the command of Andrew Jackson. After the War ended, Ross started a tobacco plantation in Tennessee, built a warehouse and trading post on the Tennessee River, and started a ferry service. In 1816, as part of a Cherokee delegation to Washington, DC, and the only delegate fluent in English, he helped negotiate national boundaries, land ownership and white encroachment. Later, Ross petitioned Congress for redress of Cherokee grievances and worked to build political support for the Cherokee cause. He died in Washington DC in 1866 on a trip to negotiate the Reconstruction Treaty with the U.S.

Account of the Dakota War of 1862, by Big Eagle

Big Eagle (Dakota: Waŋbdí Táŋka, c. 1827 – 1906) was the leader of a band of Mdewakanton Dakota Sioux. In 1862, he and his band took part in a Sioux uprising. Big Eagle eventually surrendered. His account of the Dakota War can be found in Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Account of the Sand Creek Massacre, 1864 by Little Bear

Little Bear was a Cree leader who lived in Canada and the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He reportedly participated in the Great Sioux War/Black Hills of 1876 and in the 1885 in the North-West Rebellion in Alberta and Saskatchewan. After the Rebellion ended, Little Bear and many of his people came to Montana and for a few years roamed throughout the Blackfeet reservation. In 1909, following Chief Rocky Boy, Little Bear and the people he led settled on a new Chippewa reservation within the Blackfeet reservation. He died in 1921, nearly 80 years old.

Speech at a peace council, 1867 by Chief Satanta (as reported in Frontier Magazine, May 1938)

Satanta (ca. 1820 – 1878) was one of the best known, and last, of the Kiowa War Chiefs. He became known for his prowess as a warrior and for his oratorical skills. Satanta helped negotiate several treaties with the American government during the 1860s. In 1871 Satanta took part in the Warren Wagon Train raid in Texas. Invited by General Sherman to Fort Sill, Satanta and a few other chiefs were arrested, tried, and sent to the state penitentiary at Huntsville. In 1874, after a raid on the buffalo hunters' camp at Adobe Walls, Satanta was re-arrested and sent back to the penitentiary. In October 1878, upon learning that he might never be released, Satanta threw himself headfirst from a second story balcony to the prison courtyard. He was buried in the prison cemetery.

Address at Cooper Union Institute, 1870 by Chief Red Cloud

Chief Red Cloud (1822 – 1909), a leader of the Oglala Lakota from 1868 to 1909, was one of the most capable Native American opponents that the United States Army faced in its mission to occupy the western territories. He defeated the United States during Red Cloud's War over control of the Powder River Country in northeastern Wyoming and southern Montana. After signing the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), Red Cloud led his people in the transition to reservation life.

"I am Alone," n.d., by Chief Cochise

Cochise (or "Cheis") c. 1805 –1874) was leader of the Chihuicahui local group of the Chokonen ("central" or "real" Chiricahua) and principal chief of the Chokonen band of the Chiricahua Apache. A key war leader during the Apache Wars, he led an uprising which began in 1861 and persisted until a peace treaty was negotiated in 1872. Cochise was one of the most noted Apache leaders (along with Geronimo and Mangas Coloradas) to resist intrusions by European Americans during the 19th century.

Indian Taxation, Recent Speech of a Flathead Chief Presenting the Question from an Indian Standpoint, 1876, as reported in The Missoula (Montana) Missoulian, by Charlo(t)

Charlot (Claw of the Little Grizzly or Small Grizzly-Bear Claw) (c. 1830–1910) was head chief of the Bitterroot Salish from 1870 to 1910. Charlot, like Chief Victor, his father, before him, followed a policy of peace with the American settlers in Southwestern Montana and the soldiers at nearby Fort Missoula. In November 1891, Charlot and a small remnant of the Bitterroot Salish were forced to move to the Flathead Reservation.

"We Preferred Our Own Way of Living," 1877 by Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse (c. 1840 –1877) was a Lakota war leader of the Oglala band. He fought against white settlers’ encroachment on Native American territory and for the preservation of the Lakota’s traditional way of life. On January 8, 1877, Crazy Horse's warriors fought their last major battle at Wolf Mountain in the Montana Territory. Wrongly informed about Crazy Horse’s intentions to fight, General George Crook ordered his arrest. Stabbed by one of the guards inside the guardhouse, Crazy Horse died late that night. He is commemorated by the incomplete Crazy Horse Memorial carved out of a mountainside near the town of Berne, South Dakota.

Surrender Speech, 1877* by Chief Joseph

[* the linked document features two statements. The second statement is sometimes referenced as Lincoln Hall Speech and is entered below under a separate title. A slightly different text of the surrender speech is presented by Charles Erskine Scott Wood in his account of the pursuit and capture of Chief Joseph.]

Lincoln Hall Speech, 1879 by Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph (1840 –1904) was a leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez Perce in the latter half of the 19th century. He led his band of people during the most tumultuous period in their history when they were forcibly removed by the U.S. from their ancestral lands in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon onto a reservation in the Idaho Territory. A series of violent encounters with white settlers in the spring of 1877 culminated in those Nez Perce who resisted removal (including Joseph's band) to flee the United States in an attempt to reach political asylum.

"We Would Rather Have Died,"1879 by Standing Bear

Standing Bear (c.1829-1908) was a Ponca chief and Native American civil rights leader who successfully argued in U.S. District Court in 1879 in Omaha that Native Americans have the right of habeas corpus. His first wife Zazette Primeau (Primo), daughter of Lone Chief, was also a signatory on the 1879 writ that initiated the famous court case.

The Battle of Little Bighorn, 1881 by an eyewitness account by Red Horse

Red Horse (1822-1907) was a sub-chief of the Miniconjou Sioux. He fought in the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn, and in 1881 he gave one of the few detailed accounts of the event, including pictographs of the Battle. 42 ledger book drawings created by Red Horse are now held in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archives.

Sitting Bull's Report to the Senate Committee from the 48th Congress Senate Report (No. 283, serial 2164 (1883), 80-81)

Sitting Bull (c. 1831 –1890) was a Hunkpapa Lakota leader who led his people during years of resistance against the U.S. government policies. On June 25, 1876 the confederated Lakota tribes defeated the 7th Cavalry under Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, seemingly bearing out Sitting Bull's prophecy earlier that month. In May 1877, Sitting Bull led his band north to Wood Mountain (contemporary Saskatchewan) where he remained until 1881 when he and most of his band returned and surrendered. After working as a performer with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, Sitting Bull returned to the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota. Out of fearing that he would use his influence to support the Ghost Dance movement, Sitting Bull was ordered arrested and was killed during the arrest attempt.

Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, 1883 by Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins. Chapter I. "First Meeting of Piutes and Whites." Chapter VII. The Bannock War

Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (c. 1844–1891) was a Northern Paiute author, activist and educator. When the war erupted between the Pyramid Lake Paiute and the settlers, Sarah and some of her family traveled to San Francisco to escape the fighting. They made a living performing onstage as "A Paiute Royal Family." In 1865, their band was attacked by the US cavalry, killing 29 Paiutes including several members of her family. Winnemucca became an advocate for the rights of Native Americans and traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the release of the Paiute interned in a concentration camp. She also served U.S. forces as a messenger, interpreter, and guide, and as a teacher for imprisoned Native Americans.

Address at The Council Meeting Of The Hunkpapa Sioux, Great Sioux Reservation,” 9 October 1890, by Kicking Bear.

Kicking Bear (Lakota: Matȟó Wanáȟtaka,1845 – 1904) was an Oglala Lakota who became a band chief of the Miniconjou Lakota Sioux. During the War for the Black Hills, he fought in several battles with his brother, Flying Hawk and first cousin, Crazy Horse. Kicking Bear was also active in the Ghost Dance religious movement of 1890 and, together with other leaders, was instrumental in bringing the movement to their people living on reservations in South Dakota.

Speech after Wounded Knee, 1890 by Chief Red Cloud

Chief Red Cloud (1822 – 1909), a leader of the Oglala Lakota from 1868 to 1909, was one of the most capable Native American opponents that the United States Army faced in its mission to occupy the western territories. He defeated the United States during Red Cloud's War over control of the Powder River Country in northeastern Wyoming and southern Montana. After signing the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), Red Cloud led his people in the transition to reservation life.

Lakota Accounts of the Massacre at Wounded Knee, 1891. A narrative presenting the word of Turning Hawk, American Horse and Spotted Horse. 

An Interview with The St Paul Pioneer Press, July 1, 1894 by Big Eagle