Myth Conceptions About Chief Seattle

On Wings, December 1999

The Making of an Eco-Icon

"Chief Seattle" was an Indian of the Suquamish tribe which lived in the Pacific Northwest. He was named and known as Sealth by the members of his tribe, and he had inherited the honorary title of "chief" `given by his father. Most of what we have been taught about this native American is based upon conjecture and extrapolation. Chief Seattle has been credited for many inspirational quotes which he never made.

Sealth did make his mark as a warrior, orator and diplomat, however. He tried to organize and increase cooperation within and between the 42 various factions of the Salish people that inhabited Puget Sound in the early 1800's, and those factions did include his own Suquamish tribe.

In 1855, an adventurer and entrepreneur arrived in Puget Sound, intent on making a fortune. Dr. David "Doc" Maynard soon obtained a large parcel of land and began to give it away to establish his settlement. "Doc" opened a trading post and Sealth became one of his best customers. Doc named his new "city" after the Indian, but Sealth was not that pleased. He was convinced he would turn in his grave every time the name "Seattle" was spoken.

As more and more settlers arrived, the Suquamish were aggressively displaced. The Indians retaliated and acts of violence on both sides escalated. The Washington Territorial Governor, Issac Stevens was called in to quell the discontent. However, Stevens was of the opinion that "the only good Indian was a dead Indian."

Acre by acre the white man bought up the land and removed the Indians to reservations. In December 1854, Stevens addressed the town of Seattle and Sealth replied with a speech which we shall see has been resurrected and embellished many times since those days long ago.

According to accounts, Sealth did give a powerful speech in 1854 in his native dialect, but final translations were not made or published until 30 years later. When the Port Madison Treaty, which permanently moved the Suquamish to a reservation across the sound from Seattle, was signed, Sealth spoke publicly again. His remarks were brief and provide a more accurate example of a true "Chief Seattle speech." It has been noted that Indian speeches of that era more often reflect the literary aspirations of the recorder rather than the actual words of the orator. (Note: Among some of the more glaring discrepancies is the fact that there were no buffalo in the Pacific Northwest; neither were whippoorwills indigenous to that area. The transcontinental railroad was not completed until 15 years after the 1854 speech.)

Three years after the Port Madison Treaty was signed, the old and impoverished Sealth spoke on the record for the last time. He asked why the treaty did not honor its provisions for the tribe and anguished over why the Indians were left to die in poverty. He told listeners, "I have been very poor and hungry all winter and am very sick now. In a little while I will die. When I do, my people will be very poor; they will have no property, no chief and no one to talk for them."

The Suquamish Indian we now call Chief Seattle died in 1866. He is buried in a small cemetery behind St. Peter'sCatholic Church on Washington's Kitsap Peninsula.

Is Nothing Sacred? Reviving and Revising the Past

During the 1970's, the environmental movement resurrected old Chief Seattle and credited him with speeches, flowering with eco-sentiments. Many devotees consider the modern versions of these "speeches" to be gospel. Those versions refer to things Sealth had no knowledge of, including trains, whippoorwills and the slaughter of buffalo. The texts generally have four main variants, each with its own phrasing, wording. These variations are often contradictory, just like the green literature we read today.

Dr. Henry J. Smith, a surgeon, is credited with translating the 1854 speech made by Sealth in response to Governor Stevens's speech, but he did so more than thirty years after the actual event. Dr. Smith was known to have a fondness for Victorian poetry. (His pen name was Paul Garland.) All the other speeches are based upon Smith's "transcription." Smith's version first appeared in the October 29, 1887 issue of the Seattle Sunday Star.

Sealth had refused to learn the white man's ways or his language. Smith himself only heard a transliteration of Sealth's speech which had first been translated from the Lushotseed language into the Chinook jargon and finally into English. Much of the original speech was lost or embellished along the way to the English version and it is likely Smith added his own personal touches to that.

By 1931, one Clarence B. Bagley published "Chief Seattle's speech" with his own additions. The next year, John M. Rich published a booklet entitled Chief Seattle's Unanswered Challenge, which follows the Smith text but with minor changes. Another revision was done in 1969 by the poet William Arrowsmith who "translated" from the Victorian English of Smith.

In 1971,W.0 Vanderworth published his version in Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains. Yet another version was displayed at the 1974 Spokane Expo. This version was shorter and bore the title, Letter to President Franklin Pierce. The differences between the original Smith version and the 1970's versions are striking. The new age versions have all been accepted as Chief Seattle's speech.

The Letter to President Franklin Pierce version was traced to screenwriter Ted Perry. With permission, he used the Arrowsmith version to write a new, fictitious speech for a 1972 movie. Home was a film about pollution and ecology which was produced by the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission. The film's producers revised Perry's script without his knowledge, removed his name from the film credits and sent off 18,000 posters with the speech to viewers who requested it.

Though Mr. Perry tried to set the record straight, the myth of Chief Seattle's speech continues. Perry's version appears in Bill Moyer's The Power of Myth as well as the PBS "Journal" program.

The eco-homilies in Perry's version have been widely quoted in books, on TV and from the pulpit. Earth Day organizers asked religious leaders around the world to read the "Perry speech." Excerpts from the "Seattle speech" have been quoted by everyone from Al Gore to Ted Turner. A children's book named Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle has sold in excess of 280,000 copies. It was one of ten nominees for the American Booksellers Association's Abby award. (The Abby was once given to The Education of Little Tree, which was supposed to be an autobiography of Forrest Carter — a man who claimed to be raised by two wise Cherokee grandparents. It just so happened that Forrest Carter was in reality Asa Carter, a notorious white supremacist. Even so, the book continues to sell thousands of copies!)

Even the only known photograph of Chief Seattle has been doctored repeatedly. In the original his eyes were closed but subsequent versions were retouched so that they looked open. In other versions he carries a cane and in the last revisionist makeover, his head was grafted onto the body of another man.

The eco-sermon credited to Chief Seattle is moving and inspirational though it is unlikely Sealth spoke in such poetic terms nearly a century and a half ago.

To be sure, the public's appetite for environmentally correct Native Americans is little more than its cultural exploitation of them. Many Native Americans feel like their spiritual traditions have been stolen and patronized to promote the white man's theories and political agenda, and they are not wrong.

Chief Seattle never said:

"The earth is our mother."

"I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train."

"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."

"What is there to life if a man cannot hear the lovely cry of a whippoorwill."

"The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man."

"Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth."

Ted Perry's Version

Entitled: Letter of Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe to the President of the U.S., Franklin Pierce, 1854.

The Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. The Great Chief also sends us words of friendship and good will. This is kind of him, since we know he has little need of our friendship in return. But we will consider your offer, for we know that if we do not sell, the white man may come with guns and take our land.

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and every 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. So, when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us.

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. But we will consider your offer to go to the reservation you have for my people. We will live apart, and in peace.

It matters little where we spend the rest of our days. Our children have seen their fathers humbled in defeat. Our warriors have felt shame, and after defeat they turn their days in idleness and contaminate their bodies with sweet foods and strong drinks. It matters little where we spend the rest of our days. They are not many. A few more hours, a few more winters, and none of the great tribes that once lived on this earth or that roam now in small bands in the woods will be left to mourn the graves of a people once as powerful and hopeful as yours. But why should I mourn the passing of my people? Tribes are made of men, nothing more. Men come and go, like the waves of the sea. Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny.

One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover - our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of man; and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white. This earth is precious to Him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

But in your perishing you will shine brightly, fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land for some special purpose gave you dominion over this land and over the red man. That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and beginning of survival. So we will consider your offer to buy the land.

If we agree, it will be to secure the reservation you have promised. There, perhaps we may live out our brief days as we wish. When the last red man has vanished from this earth, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, these shores and forests will still hold the spirits of my people. For they love this earth as a newborn loves its mother's heartbeat. So, if we sell our, love it as we've loved it. Care for it as we've cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you take it. And with all your strength, with all your mind, with all your heart, preserve it for your children, and love it, as God loves us all. One thing we know, Our God is the same God. This earth is precious to Him. Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.

The Indians' Night Promises to be Dark
Chief Seattle's
Reply to Governor Steven's Speech
Interpreted by Dr. Henry Smith

Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion upon my people for centuries untold, and which to us 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 at Washington can rely upon with as much certainty as he can upon the return of the sun or the seasons. The White Chief says that Big Chief at Washington sends us greetings of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him for we know he has little need of our friendship in return. His people are many. They are like the grass that covers vast prairies. My people are few. They resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain. The great-and I presume-good White Chief send us word that he wishes to buy our lands but is willing to allow us enough to live comfortably. This indeed appears just, even generous, for the Red Man no longer has rights that he need respect, and the offer may be wise also, as we are no longer in need of an extensive country.

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 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.

Youth is impulsive. When our young men grow angry at some real or imaginary wrong, and disfigure their faces with black paint, it denotes that their hearts are black, and that they are often cruel and relentless, and our old men and old women are unable to restrain them. Thus it has ever been. Thus it was when the white man first began to push our forefathers westward. But let us hope that the hostilities between us may never return. We would have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Revenge by young men is considered gain, even at the cost of their own lives, but old men who stay at home in times of war, and mothers who have sons to lose, know better.

Our good father at Washington-for I presume he is now our father as well as yours, since King George has moved his boundaries further north our great good father, I say, sends us word that if we do as he desires he will protect us. His brave warriors will be to us a bristling wall of strength, and his wonderful ships of war will fill our harbors so that our ancient enemies far to the northward, the Hydas and Tsimpsians-will cease to frighten our women, children and old men. Then in reality will he be our father and we his children, but can that ever be? Your God is not our God! Your God loves your people and hates mine. He folds his strong protecting arms lovingly about the pale face and leads him by the hand as a father leads his infant son-but He has forsaken His red children-if they really are His. Our God, the Great Spirit, seems also to have forsaken us. Your God makes your people wax strong every day. Soon they will fill all the land. Our people are ebbing away like a rapidly receding tide that will never return. The white man's God cannot love our people or He would protect them. They seem to be orphans who can look nowhere for help. How then can we be brothers? How can your God become our God and renew our prosperity and awaken in us dreams of returning greatness. If we have a common heavenly father He must be partial-for He came to His paleface children. We never saw Him. He gave your laws but had no word for his red children whose teeming multitudes once filled this vast continent as stars fill the firmament. No; we are two distinct races with separate origins and separate destinies. There is little in common between us.

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 tables 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 solemn hours of the night by the Great Spirit; and the visions of our sachems, and it 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 vales and its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender, fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return form the Happy Hunting Ground to visit, guide, console and comfort them.

Day and night cannot dwell together. The Red Man has ever fled the approach of the White Man, as the morning mist flees before the morning sun.

However, your proposition seems fair and I think that my people will accept it and will return to the reservation you offer them. Then we will dwell in peace, for the words of the Great White Chief seem to be the words of nature speaking to my people out of dense darkness.

It matters little where we pass the remnant of our days. They will not be many. The Indians' night promises to be dark. Not a single star of hope hovers above his horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Grim fate seems to be on the Red Man's trail, and wherever he goes he will hear the approaching footsteps of his fell destroyer and prepare stolidly to meet his doom, as does the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter.

A few more moons. A few more winters-and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to mourn over the graves of a people-once more powerful and hopeful than yours. But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend with friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.

We will ponder your proposition and when we decide we will let you know. But should we accept it, I here and now make this condition that we will not be denied the privilege without molestation of visiting at any time the tombs of our ancestors, friends and children. Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than to yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch. Our departed braves, fond mothers, glad, happy-hearted maidens, and even our little children who lived here and rejoiced here for a brief season, will love these somber solitudes and at eventide they greet shadowy returning spirits. 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.

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There is no honor in the DEATH of truth.