Council with the Otoes, 1844

The language barrier was a fundamental problem affecting negotiations between Indian tribes and the U.S. government. A good example is a council between U.S. Dragoons and Otoe and Missouri Indians near Bellevue in Nebraska in 1844. Lt. J. Henry Carleton recorded the discussions in his journal, published as The Prairie Logbooks (Chicago: The Caxton Club, 1943).

“The interpreter was a half-bred Otoe, and understood only English enough to express his ideas on the most common subjects; the consequence was, that when the Major [Clifton Wharton] expatiated upon a favorite simile, or figure of speech, by way of illustration, Morang (the interpreter) was entirely at a loss to render it in Otoe until it was simplified by words with which he was familiar.

“Major – ‘Let me enjoin upon you to abandon the precarious method you are now pursuing to procure a doubtful subsistence by the uncertainties of the chase, and at the same time seriously to urge upon your attention the necessity of cultivating the soil; by which, with less risk and a moiety of labor, you would be compensated with an abundant supply of food for home consumption, and a surplus sufficient to be adequate to the cost of your other wants.’

“Morang – ‘That’s most too hard – (after a long pause) – I don’t adzactly understand.’

“Major – (sotto voce) – ‘Tell them to leave off hunting and plant corn, then they would always have plenty.’ Here Morang would occupy about five minutes in explaining this, in Otoe.

“Major – ‘It is with extreme pain that your Great Father, the President, has learned of the misdeeds of the Otoes and Missouries, more particularly of their having fired into boats, when they passed down the river. . . . ‘ Morang managed this pretty well, without explanation.

“Major – ‘If you continue to behave in this manner all the people will entertain an animosity towards you. You will be like a lone tree upon the prairie that has stood the shock of many a storm, until at last a tempest comes more powerful than the rest, and prostrates it forever.’ Morang paused for a long time, with the most puzzled and perplexed expression upon his face. . . .

“Morang – ‘Don’t adjactly understand.’

Major – ‘Tell them everybody will hate them, if they don’t quit acting in this way.’

“Morang – ‘Yes, but the tree: don’t adzactly get the hang of him.’

“Major – ‘Oh, never mind the tree; just go on with the other.'”

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