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Speaking in Tongues

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Native Americans who lived along the Upper Mississippi Valley in the early 19th century would have been surprised to read St. Paul and learn that speaking in tongues was one of the gifts of the spirit. They assumed it was a shifty American trick.

This was certainly their feeling in June of 1816 in St. Louis. The Sauk and Meskwaki Indians from Rock Island, the Winnebagos from around Prairie du Chien, and six Sioux tribes from Iowa had been invited to a grand council at St. Louis. The United States had just defeated England in the War of 1812 and was determined to move British fur traders out of the Mississippi valley in favor of the American Fur Company.
The Indians were upset. They had established long and friendly relations with the British and did not see why they had to stop trading with them.

In charge of the American commission was William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame. When a colleague remarked to him that the Indian speakers seemed as noble and skilled as Roman orators, Clark explained that this mild demeanor concealed an uncommon degree of cunning and cruelty. Indians were not to be trusted.

When one of the Sauk chiefs remarked that the problem was that "American people had two tongues," the insulted Clark that evening sent a detachment of artillery toward the Indian camp, where they paraded and fired their pieces.

As Clark expected, the brave Indians backed down, and asked for another conference the following day. Clark knew how to handle Indians. He had been one of those back in 1804 who had gotten four Sauk Indians drunk and them made them sign a treaty they had no authority to sign, giving away all Sauk lands in Illinois.

When the council resumed, Clark stepped forward to accept the chief's apology for the derogatory remarks. The chief was indeed sorry the Americans had misunderstood his remarks, he began, explaining that poor Indians tend to get confused easily.

There was no need for an apology. No, he explained, "when I said Americans speak with two tongues, I was only referring to English and French."

Add one more tongue to those spoken at the grand council that day.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.