This essay, written by Albert Bates, first appeared in the Spring 1990 issue of Natural Rights. A little over a year later, the New York Times broke the story of the Seattle hoax on page 1. The Times revisited the hoax with a second page 1 story some 5 years later. Nonetheless, writers as distinguished as Charles, Prince of Wales and Albert Gore, Jr. still quote Seattles speech in books and articles as if it were authentic.
The Gospel of Chief Seattle: Written For Television?
"This we know. The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."
Those eloquent lines are one of the most oft-quoted, if not the most oft-quoted statements of deep ecology in history. Here at the Natural Rights Center, we emblazoned them across the masthead of our first newsletter in 1978. They have since graced the pages of hundreds of magazines, from Newsweek to The National Geographic. We're told that they are carved in stone on a monument in the city of Seattle.
Trouble is, they were not originally spoken by Chief Seattle or any other Native American. They were written for television.
There really was a Chief Seattle, or more precisely, Chief Seeathl, of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes of the Pacific Northwest. He lived from about 1786 to 1866. At a meeting with the territorial governor on Monday, January 22, 1855, Seattle was asked to respond to the governor's long speech concerning the Point Elliott Treaty. He said, in Southern Puget Sound Salish or Lushotseed language, "I look upon you as my father. I and the rest regard you as such. All of the Indians have the same good feeling towards you and will send it on paper to the Great Father. All of them, men, old men, women and children rejoice that he has sent you to take care of them. My mind is like yours. I don't want to say more. My heart is very good towards Dr. Maynard. I want always to get medicine from him."
The following day, after negotiations were concluded in which the tribes made a very large cession of land, Seattle said, "Now by this we make friends and put away all bad feelings if ever we had any. We are the friends of the Americans. All the Indians are of the same mind. We look upon you as our father. We will never change our minds, but since you have been to see us we will always be the same. Now, now do you send this paper of our hearts to the Great Chief. That is all I have to say."
Two other short speeches by Chief Seattle are in the National Archives. One was a fragment of a speech recorded in 1850 and the other, from May of 1858, was a lament by Seattle that the Port Elliott treaty had failed to win ratification in the US Senate, leaving the tribes in poverty and poor health. Those four short speeches are all we really know of the words of Chief Seattle.
The myth of Chief Seattle's famous oration began on October 29, 1887. On that date, Dr. Henry A. Smith published an article in the Seattle Sunday Star under the heading "Early Reminiscences No. 10. " Dr. Smith wrote of the Port Elliott negotiations,
"Chief Seattle arose with all the dignity of a senator, who carries the responsibilities of a great nation on his shoulders. Placing one hand on the Governor's head and slowly pointing heavenward with the index finger of the other, he commenced his memorable address in solemn and impressive tones. 'Yonder sky, that has wept tears of compassion upon our fathers for centuries untold, and which today appears changeless and eternal, may change. Today is fair. Tomorrow it may be overcast with clouds. My words are like the stars that never change. Whatever Seattle says, the Great Chief in Washington can rely upon with as much certainty as he can upon the return of the sun of the seasons... There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of the tribes that are now but a mournful memory. I will not dwell on, nor mourn over, our untimely decay, nor reproach my paleface brothers with hastening it as we too may have been somewhat to blame... To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret. Your religion was written upon tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God so that you could not forget. The Red Man could never comprehend nor remember it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors - the dreams of our old men, given them in the sacred hours of the night by the Great Spirit; and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people. Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander way beyond the stars. They are soon forgotten and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered lakes and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender, fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return from the Happy Hunting Ground to visit, guide, console and comfort them... And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children's children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.'"
This speech is indeed memorable, and one is left wondering how Dr. Smith managed to translate a lengthy address in the obscure Lushotseed language into such florid Victorian prose, or why he waited 32 years to publish his translation.
Another question is how Seattle, who had been a devout Catholic since 1830, could say something like "Your religion was written upon tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God."
Giving Seattle, and Dr. Smith, the benefit of the doubt on the original Seattle speech published in the Seattle Sunday Star, there is still the question of the later Seattle speech, which is reprinted frequently. It bears little resemblance to Dr. Smith's translation and nobody ever heard of it before 1972, when it appeared in Environmental Action. In 1974, it was displayed in the US Pavilion at the Seattle World's Fair. That same year, the entire text appeared in Northwest Orient Airlines' Passages magazine under the title, "The Decidedly Unforked Message of Chief Seattle." A Dutch translation appeared in 1975, followed by a Swedish translation in 1976 and a German translation in 1979. After the World Council of Churches reprinted it in book form, it saturated the Eastern Hemisphere from Finland to South Africa. It has since found its way into dozens of languages and is frequently quoted in books and magazines all over the world.
Where did Environmental Action get it? According to investigator Rudolf Kaiser, EA received a xeroxed clipping from the Seattle office of Friends of the Earth, which someone had cut from a now-defunct Native American tabloid. The tabloid had transcribed it from a tape of a television show called Home, produced by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1972. The filmscript was written by Texas screenwriter Ted Perry in the winter of 1970-71, after listening to an Earth Day rendering of Dr. Smith's Seattle oration read by Professor William Arrowsmith (who poetically enhanced the speech to remove what Arrowsmith called "the dense patina of 19th century literary diction and syntax"). Ted Perry picks up the story from there:
"I asked Professor Arrowsmith (he and I were both teaching at the University of Texas) if I might use the idea as a basis for the script; he graciously said yes... So I wrote a speech which was a fiction. I would guess that there were several sentences which were paraphrases of sentences in Professor Arrowsmith's translation but the rest was mine. In passing the script along to the Baptists, I always made clear that the work was mine. And they, of course, knew the script was original; they would surely not have paid me, as they did, for a speech which I had merely retyped.
"In presenting them with a script, however, I made the mistake of using Chief Seattle's name in the body of the text. I don't remember why this was done; my guess is that it was just a mistake on my part. In writing a fictional speech I should have used a fictitious name. In any case, when next I saw the script it was the narration for a film called Home aired on ABC or NBC-TV in 1972, I believe. I was surprised when the telecast was over, because there was no 'written by' credit on the film. I was more than surprised; I was angry. So I called up the producer and he told me that he thought the text might be more authentic if there were no 'written by' credit given."
Arrowsmith adds: "Perry tried to insist to his producer for the film (the Southern Baptist Convention) that the speech was not in any sense a translation. But they overrode his decision... Hence they talked glibly about a 'letter' to President Pierce... In the course of their work, the Baptists added still more 'material' to the speech. The bulk of their editions is the religiosity of their Seattle."
Now that the author, or authors, of Seattle's famous speech is known, what comes of the myth? In our search for truth, are we losing sight of something more important? The Seattle speech captured the imagination of millions of people and has influenced ecological philosophy and environmental activism for nearly two decades. Bruce Kent, National Chaplain of Pax Christi in Britain says, it's a whole religious concept... I think its really a fifth gospel, almost ..."
Ted Perry's remarkable little piece destroyed the dualism of the sacred and profane; it united them into a holistic Web of Life. It was a profound statement precisely the moment western civilization was emotionally ready for it. If we quietly forget the attribution to Seattle, perhaps we can still retain the tremendous value of the speech itself.
"Every part of this earth is sacred to our people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.
"We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and manall belong to the same family...
"We know that the White Man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his fathers' graves, and his children's birthright is forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.
"This shining water that moves in the streams and the rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you this land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father...
"The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where even the white man can go and taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow's flowers."
The intrinsic value of these sentiments is so enormous, that it hardly matters who wrote them, or whether they accurately reflect the philosophy of Chief Seattle or the Duwamish people, or even Native Americans generally. The important thing to notice is that the statements have a ring of truth. The message is that we have to stop being an adversary of nature and begin seeing ourselves as part of nature's family. We have to live with, instead of in spite of, natural laws.
Whether that thought originated with Seattle, Smith, Arrowsmith, or Perry doesn't matter.