Chief Joseph, who gained fame during the Nez Perce War of 1877, is one of the best-known Indian orators in American history. Yet the two principal texts attributed to him were produced under questionable circumstances, and it is unclear to what extent they represent anything he ever said. This essay examines the publication history of these texts and then addresses two questions about the treatment of Indian oratory in the nineteenth century. First, given their uncertain provenance, how and why did these texts become so popular and come to represent Indian eloquence and an authentic Native American voice? Second, what was the political significance of Indian speech and texts of Indian oratory in the confrontation between Euro-Americans and Indians over land? I argue that the production and interpretation of Indian speech facilitated political subjugation by figuring Indians as particular kinds of subjects and positioning them in a broader narrative about the West. The discursive and political dimensions of the encounter were inseparable, as Indian “eloquence” laid the way for Indian defeat. I conclude by advocating a disruptive reading of Indian oratory that rejects the belief that a real Indian subject lies behind these texts in any straightforward sense. To make this argument, I draw on linguistic anthropology and critical theory, analyzing firsthand accounts, newspaper reports, and descriptions of Indian speech and Nez Perce history.
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Thomas H. Guthrie; Good Words: Chief Joseph and the Production of Indian Speech(es), Texts, and Subjects. Ethnohistory 1 July 2007; 54 (3): 509–546. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00141801-2007-005
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