American Indian Eloquence

Posted by on November 24, 1999

Random Thoughts written on a Thanksgiving Day in the year 1999

America’s Thanksgiving holiday originated when the Pilgrims gave thanks to God for sending them an Indian friend named Squanto. This much you already knew. What you didn’t know is that long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, this same Squanto had been captured by two English sea captains, George Weymouth and John Hunt, and abused as a slave for fourteen years. Squanto had been free less than five years when Capt. John Bradford’s Pilgrims arrived on the good ship Mayflower.

Squanto had every reason to organize a killing party and wipe out the pale-skinned invaders, but he chose to help them instead. Gazing with pity at Bradford’s pathetic band of would-be settlers as they huddled around Plymouth Rock, Squanto thought, “If I don’t help these silly white men, they’re all going to die in the coming winter.” And with that, he walked out of the woods and introduced himself.

Squanto died two years later of a disease contracted from these same Europeans.

When I was a boy, all the movies were about heroic cowboys and evil Indians. And in virtually every one of them, courageous settlers had to circle the wagons to defend themselves against unprovoked attacks from ape-like Indians who said things like, “Ugh. Me want’um whiskey.”

Would you like to know how Indians actually spoke back then? Consider the musings of Ispwo Mukika Crowfoot, a Blackfoot Indian who was twenty years old in 1803, the year that Lewis and Clark launched their famous expedition. As he lay dying, Ispwo left us with these last words: “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”

Was Ispwo Crowfoot a particularly eloquent Indian? Not at all. Fifty- nine years earlier, when George Washington was just a twelve-year-old boy, the Collected Chiefs of the Indian Nations met to discuss a letter from the College of William & Mary suggesting that they “send twelve of their young men to the college, that they might be taught to read and write.” The Chiefs sent the following reply:


We know that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in Colleges, and that the Maintenance of our young Men, while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinced, therefore, that you mean to do us Good by your Proposal; and we thank you heartily. But you, who are wise, must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our Ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours. We have some experience of it. Several of our Young People were formerly brought up at the colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a Deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, nor Counselors; they were totally good for nothing. We are, however, not the less obliged by your kind Offer, though we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful Sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take care of their Education; instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them.

I wish I could have met the Collected Chiefs who wrote that letter. I wish I could have known Ispwo Crowfoot.

I’m really glad they don’t make cowboy and Indian movies anymore.

Roy H. Williams

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· Collected Chiefs letter taken from Letters of a Nation (edited by Andrew Carroll, published by Broadway Books, 1997)

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