Oratory in Native North America

By Allred, David A. | Western Folklore, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Oratory in Native North America


Allred, David A., Western Folklore


Oratory in Native North America. By William M. Clements. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002. Pp. xvii + 187, preface, acknowledgments, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $40.00 cloth)

In Oratory in Native North America, William M. Clements begins the daunting task of reconstructing the performance dynamics of pretwentieth-ccntury Native American oratory. Given that the available sources are textual rather than visual or aural and are often superficial, ethnocentric, or hostile, the project is especially difficult. Still, building on arguments he made in Native American Verbal Art (1996), Clements uses the available sources to their full potential, maintaining that "while concerns about the reliability of the published record are indeed valid, they should not deter us from attempting to learn what we can from that record" (xii). Thus, although his sources may constitute biased and shallow copies of oral expression, the records still contain useful information, and, if used with discretion, can still shed insights into performance. Given this methodological caution, Clements pursues two projects in this book. First, he seeks to explain why Europeans and EuroAmericans have considered oratory to be so central to Native American oral expression. second, he attempts to "sample critically the materials available" and to "learn what we can from the record," despite its limitations (xi-xii).

The book's first chapter addresses the inordinate focus on Native American oratory by outsiders. Several factors are at play, including the genre's relative accessibility to outsiders and the way it could reinforce widespread assumptions that Native Americans were "noble savages" or that they were a vanishing people. In the next chapter, Clements catalogues the types of sources available to the student of Native American oratory (treaties, missionary reports, captivity narratives, newspapers, and the like) and evaluates their usefulness for reconstructing speeches. (Readers interested in performance dynamics may feel that this chapter takes up too much of the book.) Chapters three and four focus on oratory itself, looking, respectively, at the use of figurative language and non-verbal performance keys. Arguing for the efficacy and coherency of oratorical performances in context, Clements also touches on the politics of performance in his extended analyses of several orations. In one of these analyses, a mid-eighteenth-century speech by Thanayieson shows political acumen, rhetorical finesse, and most of all effective political discourse: "Instead of poverty of language and thought, the speech manifests careful calculation using verbal artistry to defuse a potentially inflammatory situation" (98). In these chapters, Clements' detailed analyses of specific speeches are insightful and they constitute one of the strongest parts of his book. Following these chapters, an epilogue presents avenues for further research, and an appendix gives the full texts of several speeches. …

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