Side by Side
May 13, 1896 — 22nd Indiana State Oratorical Contest, English Opera House, Indianapolis IN
The universe is the product of evolution. An ascending energy pervades all life. By slow degrees nations have risen from the mountain foot of their existence to its summit. In the wild forests of northern Europe two thousand years ago roamed the blue-eyed Teuton. To the lowlands by the northern sea came the war-like Saxon, ere long to begin his bloody conquest of Britain. Ye fierce and barbarous as he was, the irrepressible germ of progress lay deeply implanted in his nature. His descendants have girdled the globe with their possessions. Today it is no longer a debatable question whether it shall be Anglo-Saxon or Cossack, constitutional law or imperial decree, that is destined to mold the character of governments and to determine the policies of nations.
Out of a people holding tenaciously to the principles of the Great Charter has arisen in America a nation of free men and free institutions. On its shores two oceans lavish the products of the world. Among its rivers, mountains, and lakes, in its stately forests and on its broad prairies, like rolling seas of green and gold, minions of toiling sovereigns have established gigantic enterprises, great factories, commercial highways, and have developed fruitful farms and productive mines. The ennobling architecture of its churches, schools, and benevolent institutions; its municipal greatness, keeping pace with social progress; its scholars, statesmen, authors, and divines, giving expression and force to the religious and humanitarian zeal of a great people — all these reveal a marvelous progress. Thought is lost in admiration of this matchless scene over which floats in majesty the starry emblem of liberty.
But see! At the bidding of thought the tide of time rolls back four hundred years. The generations of men of all nations, kindred, and tongues, who have developed this civilization in America, return to the bosom of the Old World. Myriad merchantmen, fleets, and armaments shrink and disappear from the ocean. Daring explorers in their frail crafts hie to their havens on the European shore. The fleet of discovery, earring under the flag of Spain the figure of Columbus, recedes beyond the trackless sea. America is one great wilderness again. Over the trees of the primeval forest curls the smoke of the wigwam. The hills resound with the hunter’s should that dies away with the fleeing deer. On the river glides his light canoe. In the wigwam Laughing Water weaves into moccasins the rainbow-tinted beads. By gleaming council fire brave warriors are stirred by the rude eloquent of their chief. In the evening-glow, the eyes of the children brighten as the aged brave tells his fantastic legends. The reverent and poetic natures of these forest children feel the benign influence of the Great Spirit; they hear his voice in the wind; see his frown in the storm cloud; his smile in the sunbeam. Thus in reverential awe the Red Man lived. His was the life that is the common lot of human kind. Bravely did he struggle with famine and disease. He felt his pulses hasten in the joyous freedom of the hunt. Quick to string his bow for vengeance; ready to bury the hatchet or smoke the pipe of peace; never was he first to break a treaty or known to betray a friend with whom he had eaten salt.
The invasion of his broad dominions by a paler race brought no dismay to the hospitable Indian. Samoset voiced the feeling of his people as he stood among the winter-hearty Pilgrims and cried, “Welcome, Englishmen.” Nor did the Indian cling selfishly to his lands; willingly he divides with Roger Williams and with Penn, who pay him for his own. History bears record to no finer examples of fidelity. To Jesuit, to Quaker, to all who keep their faith with him, his loyalty never failed.
Unfortunately civilization is not an unmixed blessing. Vices begin to creep into his life and deepen the Red Man’s degradation. He learns to crave the European liquid fire. Broken treaties shake his faith in the newcomers. Continued aggressions goad him to desperation. The White Man’s bullet decimates his tribes and drives him from his home. What if he fought? His forests were felled; his game frightened away; his streams of finny shoals usurped. He loved his family and would defend them. He loved the fair land of which he was rightful owner. He loved the inheritance of his fathers, their traditions, their graves; he held them a priceless legacy to be sacredly kept he loved his native land. Do you wonder still that in his breast he should brood revenge, when ruthlessly driven from the temples where he worshiped? Do you wonder still that he skulked in forest gloom to avenge the desolation of his home? Is patriotism a virtue only in Saxon hearts? Is there no charity to cover his crouching form as he stealthily opposed his relentless foe?
The charge of cruelty has been brought agains the Indian; but the White Man has been the witness and the judge. Anglo-Saxon England, with its progressive blood, its long continued development of freedom and justice, its eight centuries of Christian training, burned the writhing martyr in the fires of Kenith field from a sense of city. In the name of religion and liberty, the cultured Frenchman, with his inheritance of Roman justice, ten centuries of Christian ideas, murders his brother on that awful night of St. Bartholomew, and during the Reign of Terror sweeps the Seine with human blood. Let it be remembered, before condemnation is passed upon the Red Man, that, while he burned and tortured frontiersmen, puritan Boston burned witches and hanged Quakers, and the Southern aristocrat beat his slaves and set bloodhounds on the tracks of him who dared aspire to freedom. The barbarous Indian, ignorant alike of Roman justice, Saxon law, and the Gospel of Christian brotherhood, in the fury of revenge has brought no greater stain upon his name than these.
But what have two centuries of contact with the foremost wave of Anglo-Saxon civilization wrought for him?
You say they all have passed away,
That noble race — and brave;
That their light canoes have vanished
From off the crested wave:
That mid the forests where they roamed
There rings no hunter’s shout;
You say their conelike cabins
That clustered o’er the vale
Have disappeared — as withered leaves
Before the autumn’s gale.
If in their stead, we have today a race of blighted promise, will you spurn them? You, whose sires have permitted the most debasing influences to surround these forest children, brutalizing their nobler instincts until sin and corruption have well nigh swept them from Earth?
Today the Indian is pressed almost to the farther sea. Does that sea symbolize his death? Does the narrow territory still left to him typify the last brief day before his place on Earth “shall know him no more forever?” Shall might make right and the fittest alone survive? Oh Love of God and of His “Strong Son,” thou who liftest up the oppressed and succorest the needy, is thine ear grown heavy that it cannot hear his cry? Is thy are so shortened, it cannot save? Dost though not yet enfold him in thy love? Look with compassion down, and with thine almighty power move this nation to the rescue of my race. To take the life of a nation during the slow march of centuries seems not a lighter crime than to crush it instantly with one fatal blow. Our country must not shame her principles by such consummate iniquity. Has the charity which would succor dying Armenia no place for the Indian at home? Has America’s firstborn forfeited his birthright to her boundless opportunities? No legacy of barbarism can efface the divine image in man. No tardiness in entering the paths of progress can destroy his divinely given capabilities. No lot or circumstance, except of his own choosing, can invalidate his claim to a place in the brotherhood of man, or release more fortunate, more enlightened people from the obligation of a brother’s keeper.
Poets sing of a coming federation of the world, and we applaud. Idealists dream that in this commonwealth of all humanity the divine spark in man shall be the only test of citizenship, and we think of their dream and future history. America entered upon her career of freedom and prosperity with the declaration that “all men are born free and equal.” Her prosperity has advanced in proportion as she has preserved to her citizens this birthright of freedom and equality. Aside from the claims of a common humanity, can you as consistent Americans deny equal opportunities with yourselves to an American people in their struggle to rise from ignorance and degradation? The claims of brotherhood, of the love that is due a neighbor-race, and of tardy justice have not been wholly lost on your hearts and consciences.
The plaintive melodies, running from his tired but bravely enduring soul, are heard in heaven. The threatening night of oblivion lifts. The great heart of the nation sways us with the olive branch of peace. Some among the noblest of this country have championed our cause. Within the last two decades a great interest in Indian civilization has been awakened; a beneficent government has organized a successful system of Indian educations; training schools and college doors stand open to us. We clasp the warm hand of friendship everywhere. From honest hearts and sincere lips we hear the hearty welcome and Godspeed. We come from mountain fastnesses, from cheerless plains, from far-off, low-wooded streams, seeking the White Man’s ways. Seeking your skill in industry and in art, seeking labor and honest independence, seeking the treasures of knowledge and wisdom, seeking to comprehend the sprit of your laws and the genius of your noble institutions, seeking by a new birthright to unite with yours our claim to a common country, seeking the Sovereign’s crown that we may stand side by side with you in ascribing royal honor to our nation’s flag. America, I love thee. “Thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.”
Source: The Earlhamite 2 (March 16, 1896) pp. 177-179.
Also: Zitkala-Ša: American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings, eds. Cathy N. Davidson and Ada Norris, (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), pp. 222-226.