The Gospel of Chief Seattle: Written For Television
Those eloquent lines are one of the most oft-quoted, if not the most oft-quoted statements of deep ecology in history. We emblazoned them across the masthead of our first newsletter for the Natural Rights Center 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 on a stone 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 Dkhw’Duw’Absh (Duwamish) tribes of the Pacific Northwest. He lived from about 1786 to 1866. He was tall and broad for a Puget Sound native, standing nearly six feet tall; Hudson’s Bay Company traders gave him the nickname Le Gros (The Big Guy). Seattle claimed to have seen the ships of the Vancouver Expedition as they explored Puget Sound in 1792.
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 thirty-two years after the event, on October 29, 1887. On that date, Dr. Henry A. Smith published an article in the Seattle Sunday Star under the heading “Early Reminiscences №10. “ Dr. Smith wrote of the Port Elliott negotiations,
Old Chief Seattle was the largest Indian I ever saw, and by far the noblest-looking. He stood 6 feet full in his moccasins, was broad-shouldered, deep-chested, and finely proportioned. His eyes were large, intelligent, expressive and friendly when in repose, and faithfully mirrored the varying moods of the great soul that looked through them. He was usually solemn, silent, and dignified, but on great occasions moved among assembled multitudes like a Titan among Lilliputians, and his lightest word was law.
When rising to speak in council or to tender advice, all eyes were turned upon him, and deep-toned, sonorous, and eloquent sentences rolled from his lips like the ceaseless thunders of cataracts flowing from exhaustless fountains, and his magnificent bearing was as noble as that of the most cultivated military chieftain in command of the forces of a continent. Neither his eloquence, his dignity, or his grace were acquired. They were as native to his manhood as leaves and blossoms are to a flowering almond.
His influence was marvelous. He might have been an emperor but all his instincts were democratic, and he ruled his loyal subjects with kindness and paternal benignity. He was always flattered by marked attention from white men, and never so much as when seated at their tables, and on such occasions he manifested more than anywhere else the genuine instincts of a gentleman.
Smith’s version of the speech does not square with the recollections of other witnesses; and as we have seen, Smith himself may not have been present as a witness. As a result of such discrepancies, staff of the National Archives in Washington, DC, concluded that the speech is most likely fiction.
“It matters but little where we pass the remainder of our days. They are not many. The Indian’s night promises to be dark. No bright star hovers about the horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Some grim Nemesis of our race is on the red man’s trail, and wherever he goes he will still hear the sure approaching footsteps of the fell destroyer and prepare 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 all the mighty hosts that once filled this broad land or that now roam in fragmentary bands through these vast solitudes will remain to weep over the tombs of a people once as powerful and as hopeful as your own. But why should we repine? Why should I murmur at the fate of my people? Tribes are made up of individuals and are no better than they. Men come and go like the waves of the sea. A tear, a tamanamus, a dirge, and they are gone from our longing eyes forever. Even the white man, whose God walked and talked with him, as friend to friend, is not exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers, after all. We shall see.
“We will ponder your proposition, and when we have decided we will tell you. But should we accept it, I here and now make this the first condition: That we will not be denied the privilege, without molestation, of visiting at will the graves of our ancestors and friends. Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hill-side, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe. Even the rocks that seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, and the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred….
“The ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their final resting place is hallowed ground, while you wander away from the tombs of your fathers seemingly without regret. Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God, lest you might forget it. The red man could never remember nor comprehend it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors, the dreams of our old men, given them 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 homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. 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.”
It would be quite improbable if not impossible for a letter from the Chief of an Indian tribe to the President of the United States not to have been recorded in at least one of the governmental offices through which it passed. For the letter to have made it to the desk of the President it would have passed through at least six departments: the local Indian agent, Colonel Simmons; to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, Gov. Stevens; to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs; to the office of the Secretary of the Interior and finally to the President’s desk — quite a paper trail for the letter to have left not a trace. It can be concluded that no letter was written by or for Seattle and sent to President Pierce or to any other President. (Seattle was illiterate and moreover did not speak English, so he obviously could not write English.)
“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.”
“I edited the speech to fit our needs [Baptists] more closely. There was no apple pie and motherhood and so I added the references to God and I am a savage to make the Radio and Television Commission happy … I had edited scripts that did not have the Baptists’ line dozens of times. This needed to be done so they could justify spending thousands of dollars on a film … I eventually quit my job as a producer because I got tired of shoehorning those interests into scripts.
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 man–all 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.”
Whether that thought originated with Seattle, Smith, Arrowsmith, or Perry doesn’t matter.
• Callicott, J., American Indian Land Wisdom? Sorting out the Issues, J. of Forest History 33:1:3542 (Jan. 1989).
• Editorial, The Gospel of Chief Seattle is a Hoax, Environmental Ethics 11:3:195–196 (Fall 1989).
• Kaiser, R., “A Fifth Gospel, Almost” Chief Seattle’s Speech(es): American Origins and European Reception, in C.F. Feest, ed., Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays (Aachen: Rader Verlag, 1987).
• United Native Indian Tribes, Inc., Chief Seattle Speaks (leaflet).
• Vanderwerth, W., ed., Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains (Norman: U. of Okla. Press, 1971).