The Gospel of Chief Seattle: Written For Television
“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 … the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter.”
“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.”
Pop quiz: Who said that? If you answered Chief Seattle you’d be wrong.
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.
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 Lushootseed 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 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.
Writing for the Spring 1985 edition of US National Archives’ Prologue Magazine, historian Jerry L. Clark observed:
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.
This speech is indeed memorable, and one is left wondering how Dr. Smith managed to translate a lengthy address in the obscure Lushootseed language, after being first translated into Chinook Jargon, a limited trading language, into then such florid Victorian prose, or why he waited 32 years to publish his translation.
“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.”
Another question is how Seattle, who had been a devout Catholic since 1848, 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 a completely different version appeared in the November 11 issue of 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.
By this time it was no longer billed as a speech, but as a letter from Chief Seattle to President Pierce. The editor of Environmental Action had picked it up from Dale Jones, who was the Northwest Representative of the group Friends of the Earth. Jones himself has since said that he “first saw the letter in September 1972 in a now out of business Native American tabloid newspaper.”
Eli Gifford’s 2015 book, The Many Speeches of Chief Seattle (Seathl): The Manipulation of the Record on Behalf of Religious Political and Environmental Causes, retraced the steps of the National Archives in attempting to locate the letter. There is no record in either the private papers of President Pierce in the New Hampshire Historical Society or in the Presidential Papers of Pierce in the Library of Congress.
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.)
The staff at the National Archives has been unable to locate any such letter among the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the National Archives and “concluded that the letter … is probably spurious.”
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 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.”
Home’s producer, John Stevens, added a lot of elements to make the speech compatible with Baptist theology, including the words “I am a savage and do not understand.” Stevens said:
“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.
The version of Chief Seattle’s speech edited by Stevens was then made into a poster and 18,000 copies were sent out as a promotion for the movie.
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 more than four 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 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.”
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.
• 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).
This revised and update essay was originally written in 1989 by Albert Bates for 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 the Prince of Wales and Albert Gore, Jr. continued to quote Seattle’s speech in books and articles as though it were authentic.