To Speak like an American Indian

Good Morning!

Interesting title, huh?  Did you know that the American Indian of the long ago had a different way, different style of speaking than his European counterpart?  Of course there were different languages, and the language of sign, but there were other differences, and I thought we might explore some of those differences today.

By the way I blew this picture up so that you might more clearly see the fellow in the middle.  Recognize him?  Clark Gable?  A very young and handsome Clark Gable.  Okay, back to our topic of discussion today.  To speak like an Indian of the long ago, it’s necessary to think of things in terms of images, rather than the real thing.  In order to make his point, the American Indian might speak of something similar or compare some happening now to something in nature.  For instance:  “My heart is as happy as the sun shining happily upon a field of spring flowers.”

Long ago, when living in harmony with nature, the American Indian studied the wonders of the earth as a carpenter might study his tools.  There was much to observe.  The rhythm of the clouds, the shadows of evening, the light of day, the paths of the animals and birds.  To survive well out in the open, it was necessary to know the changes of nature so well — and to know how to compensate for quick changes in weather or in temperature — one had to be well schooled in the lay of the land.  And so the American Indian was.

Here is a casual speach that was said by Chief Cornplanter:  “I think one way, — my way, but when I talk my thoughts in English, it is like passing a flower over the fire to you.  What I think wilts, and the flower has lost its perfume.”

One comes away really understanding not only that Cornplanter couldn’t use the English language to communicate his thoughts as well as he would have liked, but one comes away with imagery as well as a certain logic.

Often there was rhythm to the Indian way of speaking — but not the sort of rhythm of a poem.  Instead it follows its own path, much like the Native American songs.  And the American Indian had songs for everything.  He had a song of thanksgiving, a song of planting, a song of the warpath, a song of birth, a song of death, a song to go a-courting. 

The European liked to think and talk about the American Indian as though he were a pagan, which I consider almost  ludricous.  Consider this speech by Red Jacket to Rev. Alexander:  “Brother: We do not worship the Great Spirit as the white men do, but we believe that forms of worship are indifferent to the Great Spirit, — it is the offering of a sincere heart that please him, and we worship him in this manner.”  Note the certain and cold logic of these words.  This was a common trait in the speech patterns of the American Indian of the past.

Note also that there was no flowery words, nor anything complex in the speach of the American Indian of the past.  Images that conveyed certain and exact logic, metaphors and comparisons, combined with a rhythm that was as free as the wind itself filled the speech of the American Indian. 

So tell me, do you have any favorite American Indian speaches?  I must admit that one of my favorites is Chief Joseph’s speach as he spoke to the military about his people and their complaints.  His speach as he surrendered to the military was also beautiful, but sad.  I’m not certain I agree with “I will fight no more forever,” because there are things that must be fought for.  However, one can certainly understand and admire the beautiful surrender speach, which was filled with the sting of exact, almost cold logic and many, many metaphors.  And yet it was  poetic in nature at the same time.

So come on in and let’s talk.  Oh, and I forgot to mention — it’s almost become a habit with me now — I’ll be giving away a book to some lucky blogger today.

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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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32 thoughts on “To Speak like an American Indian”

  1. I agree. While researching to write my trilogy set among the Nez Perce I read books with their myths and legends and I’ve read most of Young Chief Joseph’s speeches. The eloquence and harmony they put into their communication was beautiful. I tried to capture that in the first book and now that I’m doing revisions in the third this gave me a kick to make sure I beef this up in the last book.

    Great timing on this post for me! 😉

  2. Not only was the speech poetic in form but often accompanied with hand gestures. It is a flow of words and motion which means more. I can remember being asked if I were french because I often had my hands in motion when talking. In the case of the europeans, it is more of a punctuation mark rather than a flow of motion giving more meaning to the words. It gives the feel of the connection with not only the words, but with what they represent.

    Thanks for another interesting post.

  3. Meant to mention that I haven’t really read many of the speeches, but enjoy the poetry native american writing. Very early in our marriage, my husband gave me a copy of MY HEART SOARS by Chief Dan George. There are many children’s books that also reflect the same poetic flow of words.

  4. What this brought to my mind was in Tony Hillerman books, Hillerman often makes the point that in the native world they didn’t need to always talk. People could sit together in silence for long stretches and it wouldn’t be awkward.
    In the white world we need to fill those silences.
    Those are different ways to be together, to connect with each other.

  5. Hi Paty!

    I so agree with you on Chief Joseph, who was a very wise man. What is the name of your trilogy and where are they available? And what publisher/house do you write for?

  6. Good Morning, Patricia! Yes, the words were almost always accompanied by the gesture of sign language, something that hasn’t survived as well as it might in today’s society, I think.

    Yes, there was beauty and movement and poetry in their everyday speeches — all without flowery words and always with an almost terse logic. 🙂

  7. Thank you, Karen, love this reminder of how Native Americans spoke, and still speak. Some of the says I’ve rooted out stick with me.

    “Listen! Or your tongue will make you deaf.” Cherokee saying.

    “You must speak straight so that your words may go as sunlight to our hearts.” Cochise

    “Good words do not last long unless they amount to something.” Chief Joseph

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Teddy Roosevelt borrowed the cadence and wording for “Speak softly and carry a big stick” from Indians’ harmonious syntax.

  8. I agree, Karen, Chief Joseph’s speech is unforgettable. And there’s another speech by Chief Seattle that’s often used in connection with protecting the environment. Wish I could remember a quote (is it a real speech?).
    Something that’s long fascinated me is the fact that when you hear a Native American speaking English, even when you can’t see the speaker, and even when the grammar is perfect, something about the intonation tells you instantly you’re hearing an Indian. It’s beautiful in its own way.

  9. Hi Joyce!

    Thank you for those beautiful words. I love the quote from Cochise. Again, without flowery language and terse logic, they speak directly to you. Wonderful observation on Teddy Roosevelt, also. Thanks for your coments.

  10. That’s really true. There’s a certain cadence to the way the people from the reservation speak. When I’m there long enough, I slip into it easily, but when I’m at home, I just speak the way I usually do. Thanks for your comments, Elizabeth. 🙂

  11. I enjoyed reading this post. I like Chief Joseph’s speech. I haven’t really read many American Indian speeches, but I have listen to alot of AMerican Indian music.

  12. Always enjoy reading your posts… you give me lovely tidbits to think about and share with others.

  13. And the white man had such nerve to make fun of the way of the Indian when we should have learned more from them. The terms whites used were so derrogative. My daughter and her boyfriend have been interested in the Lakota and other tribes for a while and I’ve been lucky enough to hear many songs accompanied by homemade drums and rattles – it’s very lovely. Always an interesting blog!!

  14. I’m not good at remembering speeches, but I do remember this one:
    If you talk to the animals they will talk with you and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them you will not know them, and what you do not know you will fear. What one fears one destroys.”

  15. The Navajo Code used during WWII provides a good example of the translation of images into military terms.

    As w/ Minna, not good at remembering speeches. Always need to research illusive thought. So looked up “Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard.”~Standing Bear

  16. I like to revisit P & P several times a day when a subject catches my fancy. So here I am again… making a pest of myself! 🙂

    I looked at the first photo again. Yes, I recognized Gable right off the bat, but on second look that’s Ricardo Mantalban on the left. Hispanics were often cast in movies back in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

    Now, blessedly, Native Americans have a real shot at movie making and starring roles. There are several iconic movie roles I think of: Graham Green as Kicking Bird (Dances with Wolves), and I don’t know if anyone remembers Will Sampson as Chief Bromden (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Chief Dan George was almost a staple in movies years ago

    You used Adam Beach, here, Karen. He’s had some meaty rolls the last four or five years. I always portray my Indian heros with hair like his in the this photo, the feather just so. 🙂

    I’ll leave y’all alone now!

  17. Hi Becky!

    The speeches are kinda hard to find, which might be why you haven’t read many. Cause I have my nose in research books so much, I’ve read several and am always impressed with their direct approach,unfailing logic and cadence. 🙂

  18. Hi Catslady!

    I so agree. One thing I find interesting is so many people compare our society to Rome — there was one thing Rome had going for it, however, that this country didn’t — Rome didn’t try to make the races it conquered into the spitting image of themselves. Of course Rome had other faults like slavery and their corn and games, etc. But in this arena, they bettered us, I think — they let others be who they were and didn’t try to change them into their own image not only in styles (clothing) and speech — but also in thought and religion.

  19. That movie that the picture was taken from was something like “Across the Great Divid,” wasn’t it? I’ve seen it — but I don’t remember the name exactly. I love the very first part of the movie, but it loses me toward the end when it becomes scattered with loss after loss. If I remember correctly, there are pictures of Clark Gable and the Blackfeet Indians up there in West Glacier — the train came up there and I believe there were many pictures taken at this time.

    I love that picture of Adam Beach and I use it alot. It’s really a honey. 🙂

    Nice to see you here, Joyce!

  20. I love to read of the “speaches” made by great Native Americans. Better still, I love the actual words because while they said a great deal they used few words. There was not much chance of missing the meaning if you listen with an open mind and heart.

  21. Great post Karen, I really enjoyed it. I can’t say that I listen to a lot of speaches but what I read here was great. Maybe I should start looking up the speaches and pay more attention.

  22. Oh, Connie, I’m so glad that you came here today. I think that you were the winner of one of my books about a month or so back — let me go back in the blogs and see if I can pull this up. (The site is slow for me today so bear with me.)

    Ok, so is it Speaches or speeches — I need to look up this word. 🙂

  23. Hi Quilt Lady!

    Well, you know that I do because I do so much research and so it’s just part and parcel of what I do. I love them, I must admit. They are to the point, logical, and yet beautiful all at the same time — all without being flowery. 🙂

  24. Thank you, Karen. I will contact you. I, too will have to look that up…..I had not even noticed. I am thinking that it really must be speeches.

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