About the Chief Seattle Speech

Here's an item from the Seattle Times that someone posted in the Usenet Newsgroup sci.environment.

Words of Chief Seattle eloquent - but not his: by Ross Anderson, Times political reporter copyright 1991, The Seattle Times

Yes, Virginia, there was a Chief Seattle. And, by all reports, he was a very fine fellow indeed.

But no, Virginia, Chief Seattle did not say: "The earth is our mother."

In fact, the earth-mother quote is just one of many ecological insights, widely attributed to Chief Seattle, that are pure, unadulterated myth - and relatively recent myth at that. Try these:

* "We are a part of the earth and it is part of us." Chief Seattle might have believed this, but there is no evidence he ever said it.

* "Contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste." Sorry. No Way.

* "I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train." Get serious. Chief Seattle never left Puget Sound, so he never saw a railroad, nor a buffalo - dead or alive.

For at least a generation, local historians and Native Americans have been trying to correct these and other myths surrounding the native patriarch who gave Seattle its name.

But myth dies hard. Especially a myth that serves the ends of a vibrant environmental movement.

Rick Caldwell, the librarian at the Museum of History and Industry, has become something of an authority on what Chief Seattle, also known as Chief Sealth, did not say - and why. Here, he says, is what is known:

In 1854, an aging Chief Seattle attended a reception for territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens, who was trying to buy Puget Sound lands from the Indians. The chief, who spoke no English, delivered a speech, which supposedly was translated by pioneer Dr. Henry A. Smith. And in 1887, Smith published the speech in a Seattle newspaper.

"There was a time when our people covered the whole land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea covers its shell-paved floor," Seattle was reported to have said in his native Duwamish language. "But that time has long since passed away...I will not mourn over our untimely decay, nor reproach my paleface brothers for hastening it, for we too may have been somewhat to blame...

"Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living, and often return to visit and comfort them...

"Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory."

And so forth.

Nice speech.

But even that translation is questionable, Caldwell says.

"Dr. Smith claimed to speak Duwamish, but one wonders...He had only been in the Northwest for a year," Caldwell explains. "Smith has been referred to as a poet of no ordinary talent. So you have to wonder if those were Chief Seattle's words, or Smith's."

Still, Smith's has been the authorized version, accepted by local historians from Clarence Bagley to Roger Sale.

Then, some 20 years ago, comes the "green" version, with Chief Seattle waxing eloquent, and at great length, about the earth mother and the buffalo and contaminating one's bed.

Sometimes it is a letter from the Great White Father, who happened to be Franklin Pierce. Sometimes it is a poem. In 1974, the speech droned from the mouth of a Chief Seattle statue at the Spokane World's Fair. It has been reprinted hundreds, perhaps thousands of times in books, films posters and brochures, published by groups ranging from Friends of the Earth to the Southern Baptists.

Skeptics cried foul. In 1975, Janice Krenmayr wrote an article for The Seattle Times, warning that "Chief Seattle must be turning over in his grave." Bill Holm, curator at the Burke Museum, pleaded for environmentalists to step forward and admit they had made it up. Earlier this month, KPLU-FM radio commentator Paula Wissel reviewed the scam on National Public Radio.

But myth is more resilient than history. It persists.

Where did it come from?

It took a West German historian named Rudolph Kaiser to figure that out, Caldwell says.

"Kaiser was intrigued by Chief Seattle and the American West," Caldwell says. "But when he asked where the environmental version came from, he kept running into dead ends."

Eventually, Kaiser tracked it down to an environmental film documentary that was aired on national television in 1971. The script had been written by Ted Perry, an East Coast scriptwriter who composed the new version and referred to Chief Seattle. But something was lost in the editing process.

Efforts to reach Perry for comment were unsuccessful.

"He put in all that fine, ecological prose about the 1,000 rotting buffalo, and it was all credited to Chief Seattle."

And the rest is, well, history.

So what's the difference?

The unauthorized version is a passionate call to ecological responsibility, a plea to halt the slaughter of an animal Chief Seattle had never seen. It reads like it was written by a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club - which it was.

The original speech was something else again.

"Chief Seattle was a strong leader, well-respected, and a great military tactician in his day," Caldwell says. "Most important, he helped smooth the transition in Puget Sound from native control to Western control.

"Unfortunately, he did that by accepting promises of compensation - promises made by people who didn't keep promises very well."

Chief Seattle valued the land not because it was inherently sacred, but because it was the dwelling place of his ancestors, Caldwell says.

"His speech was in part a surrender to the advance of Western civilization. 'My people,' he said, 'are no long able to withstand advance.' "

The Arbor Heights Elementary School in Seattle has version 1 on its Web page (reproduced in Bill Gates's book) and refers to a version on Native Web as possibly more authentic. It isn't clear how authentic any version is, because the version in the U.S. archives was written down in 1887 from the memory of the translator, who had only been in the territory for a year.

Here's some more:

Today's (1992 April 21) New York Times has an article entitled "Chief's 1854 speech given new meaning (and text). The facts are about as given in this newsgroup some months ago, but there is a bit more. For new readers: The chief in 1854 made a speech at a reception for the Governor of the Oregon Territory. In 1971, a script writer from Texas, made up a speech for Chief Seattle that environmentalist PR people have found extremely useful with statements like, "I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by the white man who shot them from a passing train." There were neither buffaloes nor trains anywhere near Chief Seattle during his lifetime which ended in 1866.


1. The scriptwriter's name is Ted Perry, he now lives in Vermont and doesn't return phone calls from the New York Times.

2. This week (1992 April) "Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle," is No. 5 on the New York Times Book Review best seller list for nonfiction. Also this week, as part of the official celebration of Earth Day on Wednesday, organizers have asked religious leaders from around the world to read a famous letter from Chief Seattle to President Franklin Pierce.

3. The latest version of the Pierce letter was sent out this week by the Earth Day, U.S.A. committee, based in New Hampshire. In it the chief does not talk about railroad trains but says, "What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires." Notice the "talking wires". Did any Indians ever use that phrase? It implies someone familiar with wires who never heard the word "telegraph".

4. Dial Books printed an explanation at the end of "Brother Eagle, Sister Sky" saying that "the origins of Chief Seattle's words are partly obscured by the mists of time". The creator and illustrator of the book, Susan Jeffers, said in an interview, "Basically, I don't know what he said - but I do know that the Native American people lived this philosophy, and that's what's important."

5. Chief Seattle was a Roman Catholic. He owned eight Indian slaves, freeing them after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. He was a great orator and warrior against other Indian tribes. He was born in 1786.

6. Here's a biography of Chief Seattle.

Here's a message from a Stanford faculty member, Ron Glass, who had quoted the fake speech in a debate at Stanford with Dinesh D'Souza. During the question period, I told him the speech was a fake. He later emailed me:

One of my students has tracked down the article by Rudolf Kaiser mentioned in the messages you sent me (though she has failed to put the title, editor, etc of the source book on the copy - I will send this along when I get it). Since you seem to be a collector (of sorts) on this topic, I will send by ID mail a copy of Kaiser's article. You were certainly right that the version from which I was quoting is substantially different from the original speech (though I think largely consistent in basic intent). The sentiments I expressed I of course stand by, and they were the critical element (and not the "author"). In future, I will express the same view in my own words (less poetically no doubt) or perhaps use the quote but cite Ted Perry (who seems to be the actual author). I will pass all this material along to Cooney and Michalowski (editors of the book from which I obtained a copy of "the" speech) and I am also passing it along to some of the American Indian students here at Stanford who have taken courses with me.

He later found the source for the Kaiser article: RECOVERING THE WORD: ESSAYS ON NATIVE AMERICAN LITERATURE, Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (eds), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

On 1995 April 24, I received email from a NASA public affairs officer associated with NASA's "Mission to Planet Earth" saying that NASA had used quotes from the fake speech.

I conjecture that the "authentic" version is an 1887 white man's notion of what an Indian chief ought to have said, just as the fake version is a 1971 white environmentalist notion of what the chief ought to have said.

Here's my own guess. I doubt the chief spoke to the ages but rather spoke about his more immediate concerns. These would have been what he hoped to get out of the treaty. Since Chief Seattle was famous for his wars with other Indian tribes, what he hoped to get may have involved some advantage over these tribes. Getting an advantage over native rivals has often been a motivation for agreements with whites.

The Britannica has a short informative article about Chief Seattle. It says he was converted by French missionaries to Roman Catholicism, signed the treaty in 1855, stayed loyal to the settlers during an Indian uprising. He agreed to the settlers naming their town after him only when they agreed to pay a tax to compensate for the disturbance to his spirit from the settlers mentioning his name after his death. Clearly he wasn't totally a Roman Catholic.

In his lifetime, he would also have encountered British and maybe Russians. What might have impressed him most about Americans was our enormous number compared to the number of Indians, the Oregon Trail having opened up in the early 1840s.

Here's another take on the speech. It has some more about Ted Perry.

Here may be the fake Chief Seattle speech, but the bit about shooting buffalo from trains seems to have been edited out, so I guess it is not the genuine fake.

Ah, here's a link to the speech that admits that the version presented is made up.

This looks more like the genuine fake, because it has the bit about shooting buffalo from trains.

I got all this stuff from doing an Altavista search on "Chief Seattle". I only looked at part of what it turned up. One last bit is a more thorough coverage of the Chief Seattle legend from Australia.

An opinion

Large parts of the environmental movement are more concerned with feelings than with facts. The fake Chief Seattle speech appeals to them independently of whether he really said that. If he didn't say it, he ought to have said it - rotting buffaloes and all.

In March 1996 I received email from Andre de Raaij in the Netherlands telling me that a Dutch translation of the fake speech by an organization called Aktie Strohalm (Action Straw) reached sales of 100,000 in December 1995. A yearbook containing an article exposing the fake sold 40 copies. Fakery about American Indians and other primitives evidently plays very well in the Netherlands and probably in other European countries.

The 1999 March/April issue of Skeptical Inquirer has an article entitled "The Real Chief Seattle was not a Spiritual Ecologist" by William S. Abruzzi. The article has a large number of references that I hadn't previously seen, especially to the continued life of the fake speech even in some supposedly scholarly literature and textbooks. The basic story is the same as that reported above. One tidbit is that the fake speech is quoted as real in Earth in Balance by Vice-President Gore.

After all this stuff about what Chief Seattle said or ought to have said, here's a small fantasy about the Chief Seattle Theme Park. Does anyone want to turn this fantasy into a reality?

In 1985 Jerry L. Clark, an archivist with the National Archives & Records Administration. wrote an article about Chief Seattle, based on research among the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The article is Thus Spoke Chief Seattle: The Story of An Undocumented Speech. Clark evidently didn't know in 1985 that the eco-version of the speech was written by Ted Perry in 1970.

2003 Note: A Google search for "Chief Seattle" turns up many links. The first 20 links all recognize the fakery. So the truth does come out - at least on the Web.

Up to: Sustainability FAQ

Up to: Ideology

I welcome comments, and you can send to jmc@cs.stanford.edu.

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