From time to time, a news article will appear and report public speaking to be a fear which ranks right up there with death. The article may quote a communications professor who will go on to relate some of the fear based responses to public speaking—anxiety, sweaty palms, shaky voice, fidgeting, racing heartbeat, etc. Scary stuff, this public speaking.
If this is the level of fear held by the average person, imagine the fear of a native who has to speak in public for the first time. What can be especially frightening is the belief they have to match the oratory feats of native ancestors. However, this fear is largely based on a misconception because many modern native speakers have already established an easy to follow speech template which can be perfected with a little practice. This template works well with a non native audience and once mastered, it may pay off by delivering well paid speaking gigs.
Before concentrating on speech content, one must first focus on a couple of speech elements—establishing credibility through appearance and pronunciation. An almost surefire way to establish credibility, and appear in the media, is to wear a headdress or warbonnet. In the past, some traditions required each feather to be earned until enough had been acquired to fashion a headdress. Nowadays, this type of tradition seems to be irrelevant and the main requirement for wearing a headdress is to take advantage of a good photo op. If a headdress is unavailable, then traditional clothing (or something resembling it) can be worn. It’s not important if one never wears traditional clothing for any other occasion so long as they wear it for a speech.
Another way to establish credibility is to affect a rez accent. This may mean speaking much slower or even in broken English. If one has never spent much time on the rez, watch Little Big Man and mimic Chief Dan George. Much like appearance, it’s not important if one doesn’t actually speak like this at any other time.
Once the appropriate attire is on and the right accent is found, it’s time to move onto the content of the speech. Remember, the following doesn’t need to be reproduced verbatim but it should serve as a general guideline and sections should be included in every speech (to allay fears, speaker notes will appear in parentheses).
Introduce yourself by your ndn name (note-do not look at someone you know when doing this because they may appear confused or skeptical and this may throw you off) Begin with a quote from a famous ndn and then include any or all of the following.
“First, I would like to apologize for speaking before my elders (don’t worry if you have no elders, it sounds good). I am here to speak as a member of the Seventh Generation (every ndn from the age of 6 to 80 make this claim so you are safe in doing so) I never thought I would make it this far because I grew up in a town in which the stores had signs that read “no Indians or dogs allowed.” I am also the product of a boarding school(it’s okay if you are a century removed from this process) I used to be extremely angry at what was done to my people, but a grandparent told me I had to let that anger go and make it in this world, and education is the key (scan the audience for nodding approvals and smiles) Today, education is the new buffalo and warriors carry a briefcase, not a bow and arrow (No one will care if your people didn’t actually hunt buffalo nor will they ask about the contents of the briefcase). Every ndn wants to fight for their people but it is hard because Indians are like crabs in a bucket and we pull anyone down who tries to climb high (every ethnic groups uses this same analogy so you are safe in doing so as well). Despite this, we have triumphed because we are still here and have survived. In fact, Native Americans have served in the armed forces at higher rates than any other ethnic group (other groups make this same claim so you are safe in doing so as well). We are a sovereign people and the treaties are the supreme law of the land that guarantee our right to education, housing and health care (chances are no one will know anything about federal ndn law and will believe your claim).
*At this point, talk about your personal life/accomplishments, how hard life has been lately and air any personal grudges you might have* (transition) But those things are better left unsaid. We are also a spiritual people (speak very softly) and our responsibility is to protect mother earth by showing our white relatives how to live in balance (don’t worry if you grew up in the suburbs and wouldn’t last one day without a cell phone, it’s the image that’s important). We are all related. Aho”
If at any point you lose your train of thought or become confused, explain to the audience that English is your second language, even if it’s the only language you understand. In addition, a rambling, incoherent speech can be justified by reminding the audience that Natives are non linear thinking and prone to speaking in circles. Also, if it becomes apparent that you do not have enough content to fill up the time slot, it is customary to pass the time by praying out loud, singing songs for 30 minutes or having the audience perform a friendship/round dance until the time is up. Follow these instructions and you will be a successful speaker.
Warning-None of this will work with a predominantly ndn audience, but that’s the subject of a different post.
Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation and can be reached at email@example.com and twitter.com/rckiowa. He is from Carnegie, OK and currently lives in Denver, CO. He is also co-authoring a new book with Gyasi Ross coming out in the Summer of 2012 appropriately called “The Thing About Skins,” and the website and publishing company for that handy, dandy book is CutbankCreekPress.com (coming soon).