r e m i x r u n r a n

Unforking the Speech of Chief Seattle
by Randy Adams
The following essay was originally published in the Borealis Magazine (Unforking The Message Of Chief Seattle, 1994). A shorter version appeared in the Vancouver Sun, (Earth Day, April 22, 1998).
NOTE: This essay remains the most popular of pages on the notablog site, visited by people from many different countries, so I thought it a good idea to open a private page for discussion of the issues. See the chief.

There hangs in my living room a painting of a North American Indian. It was given to me by the artist in 1971, an elderly white woman who had retired to paint in Palm Springs, California. The painting is small - 9 inches wide by 12 inches high - and done in brown tones to lend it the mood of an old photograph. In fact, it resembles a photographic portrait of Chief Joseph taken by Edward S. Curtis in 1903. I've come to regard the painting not as a faithful depiction of a North American Indian, but as a curiosity, an expression of a time and a place, and as a reminder of my naivety.

The year I received it heralded a heady decade of social change. Average American citizens were becoming weary of the Vietnam War. The United States was turning inward, and this introspection coincided with the popularization of ecology, manifested on April 22, 1970, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in city parks and town squares, at 1,500 colleges and universities, and at 10,000 high schools to celebrate Earth Day.

Traditional American Indians were presented as models for an ecological revival, symbolizing a harmony with nature. The book, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, was a bestseller. A group of native Indians was occupying Alactraz because the rock was barren, and symbolic of reservation life. The drama unfolded on the Merv Griffin talk show - he even visited the site. The American Indian was re-entering the mainstream of American consciousness. My small painting, created by a middle-class widow, a second-generation American, is a sure example of the times. It was offered to me as a parting gift when I returned home to Canada, along with the book, Touch The Earth.

The book, with photographs by Edward S. Curtis, and text credited to various Indian leaders, includes a speech said to have been given by Chief Seattle (or Sealth, Seeathl) at the signing of the Port Elliot Treaty in 1855. I remember reading the selection and being struck by the chief's warning about the power of ghosts and the haunting by night of the white man's empty streets. Almost 30 years have passed since I first read that impassioned prophecy.

When a friend recently directed my attention to a couple of brochures quoting the now well-known speech, I was curious, and then suspicious. One brochure cited 1853 as the date of the speech, and the other claimed that it was given in 1854. Contained in the text of both are the following words: "I have seen a thousand rotting buffalos on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train." Leaving aside other historical incongruities revealed in the brochures, this one blatant error alone discredits authorship of the text. It wasn't until the late 1860's, after Chief Seattle's death, that such slaughters took place. How could he have spoken the words in the 1850's?

The plain and simple truth is - he didn't. In the book, Indians And Europe, an interdisciplinary collection of essays, German historian Rudolph Kaiser has published an expose on the origins of the speech credited to Chief Seattle. Through painstaking research he confirms that there are many popular versions of a speech - some call it a message, others a letter. But the two short speeches by Chief Seattle recorded in the National Archives in Washington D.C. bear no resemblance to the speeches published under his name.

Unfortunately, many people have become involved in the dissemination of the bogus speech. It forms the basis of a multi-media teaching aid produced in London by the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel; the epilogue to a German book about the exploitation and destruction of the earth; a prayer used by the Woman's World Day of Prayer; several missionary pamphlets; the words of a song by Swiss singer Rene Bardet, and part of a song by the Swedish pop group Nationalteatern; tracts in an issue of the Northwest Orient's publication Passages; several editorials published by the Sierra Club; the opening quotation to Lucien Bouchard's 'A Framework For Discussion on the Environment '(Environment Canada, 1990); and, as I was writing this essay, someone approached a friend of mine who owns an Indian arts store with a line of T-shirts silk-screened with sayings by Chief Seattle. The list is representative, not exhaustive.

Kaiser proves that the first published record of the speech is from the Seattle Sunday Star, under the heading Early Reminiscences, Number Ten, and bears the title: Scraps from a diary - Chief Seattle - a gentleman by instinct, etc. It was written by Dr. Henry A. Smith in 1887, over 30 years after the supposed delivery of the speech. Dr. Smith stated that the speech was given, not at the signing of the treaty, but at a reception when Governor Stevens arrived in the newly declared Washington Territory. The doctor is said to have mastered the Indian language, and this is important because the Chief spoke no English. (Many contemporary versions of the speech mention a translator.) There is a document confirming that, on his deathbed, Dr. Smith said that the speech was reconstructed from extended notes taken at the time of the address. But the notebook has never been found.

In the years immediately following Dr. Smith's reminiscences, little notice was given to the speech except for a full reprint in The History Of Seattle by Frederic James Grant in 1891. The speech re-surfaced in 1931 through an article by Clarence B. Bagley in the Washington Historical Quarterly - and Bagley varied the text of the speech somewhat. In 1932, John M. Rich published a booklet titled Chief Seattle's Unanswered Challenge - including Bagley's revisions and some new changes. These form the basis for one contemporary version of the speech. In 1969, American poet and writer, William Arrowsmith, published his own adaptation of the speech of Chief Seattle - Arrowsmith modernized the vocabulary from Smith's Victorian English.

Sometime between 1972 and 1974, yet another version appeared, coining the title The Decidedly Unforked Message of Chief Seattle - very different from the other examples in both wording and style. It is this version which is most removed from Smith's original reminiscences, with striking differences being the inclusion of contemporary ecological sentiments and a complete reversal in the attitude of God. This final text, the one quoted by Lucien Bouchard as a framework for Canada's Green Plan and destined to be immortalized on T-shirts, was written by Ted Perry, a scriptwriter who rendered the speech as the basis for a film script contracted by the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission.

 chief seattle Chief Seattle lived from about 1786 to 1866 and was the chief of a group of Salish Indians on the Pacific Northwest coast. He was converted to Catholicism around 1830 and never fought in a battle against the whites. These facts made him popular with early settlers and were certainly important in the decision allowing him to represent a large tribal group in treaty negotiations. Pre-contact Salish had fairly loose political organizations; they viewed themselves as members of villages or kin groups. Each extended family held a series of landholdings, defining a village's fishing rights. A chief, usually the oldest member of a bloodline, was custodian of those rights. American officials placed several self-governing villages into tribal groups, ensuring confusion and easy passage of the treaties. Few villagers protested - recent smallpox epidemics had crippled their lives and devastated many family lines.

The treaty documents dispossessed the villagers of most of their rights, and contained specific clauses prohibiting defense of themselves or their land. Chief Seattle's record of acquiesce and non-violence made him an appropriate signatory. According to the original records at the National Archives, at the signing of the Port Elliot Treaty, Seattle said to Governor Stevens: "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 to the Great Father. All of them, 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 simplistic style of Seattle's statement may be the result of the Chinook jargon utilized at the treaty negotiations - a strange admixture of French, English, and Indian, containing only 300 words, and barely suitable for bartering. The only other record of the chief's input at the treaty event was: "Now by this we put away all bad feeling if we ever had any. We are the friends of the Americans. All of 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, do you send this paper of our hearts to the Great Chief. That is all I have to say." He then placed his X below Governor Stevens' signature - the first of several chiefs to so mark the treaty.

David Swinson Maynard, the doctor mentioned by Seattle, was a clever, hard-drinking physician from Cleveland, who sought refuge from a sour marriage and bad debts by bolting to the territories. He and the chief allied to serve each other's purposes. Maynard needed Indians to cure and pack salmon for his trading store, and the chief needed powerful friends to reinstate himself after a rival native leader took over his fishing rights. In 1860, Maynard penned Seattle's name into the territorial register, and so the city of Seattle was named. Soon after, the chief tried to levy a tax on the people of Seattle for use of his name, based on the Salish belief that mention of a dead man's name disturbs his spirit. Now, in the modern city of Seattle, there is a statue of him on Fifth Avenue and Cedar Street, a bronze bust overlooking a pool at the university, a school named Sealth High School, and the city's seal, designed in 1937, bears his likeness. If mention of a dead man's name does in fact disturb his spirit, Chief Seattle is certainly getting no rest.

Chief Seattle's daughter, nicknamed Princess Angeline by the townsfolk, outlived her father by over 30 years. She was alive when Dr. Smith's reminiscences were published. But, by then, she was mostly a broken curiosity surviving on the fringes of town. In fact, Seattle's leading citizens once went so far as to ban Indians from the streets. So a pimp from San Francisco erected a whorehouse on the tidal flats near town and enticed Indian girls to serve the whims of men from the nearby mill. Princess Angeline was too old and ungainly, and so was saved from the unsavory practice. Instead, she picked clams by day and prowled the streets by night. When Edward S. Curtis offered her a dollar to take her photograph, she replied: "More easy work than dig clams." Maybe the spirit of Chief Seattle sent Princess Angeline through the streets to haunt the dreams of Dr. Smith?

No amount of thought or study can exactly recreate what was, and we are left with mystery and fascination, fertile sources for both art and legend. The willful re-writing and dissemination of the words credited to Chief Seattle is a good example of how history, even a convoluted version of history, can supply long heritage to a cause. Many people would forgive this misrepresentation of the mind of the chief, saying that the imagery and symbolism are in perfect unison with its purpose - the purpose being a concerted effort by many contemporary environmentalists to present the land as sacred. But this is dangerous ground.

The introduction to Smith's original reconstruction of the purported speech begins: "Old Chief Seattle was the largest Indian I ever saw, and by far the noblest looking," presenting the chief as a model representative for the Victorian Age's noble savage. ("A gentleman by instinct.") And much of the text that follows reads like what one might expect a noble savage to say. There are also several passages where it seems as if the chief is musing aloud. The speech opens with the observation that white man "has little need of his (the Indian's) friendship," and that the "red man no longer has rights that he (the white man) need respect." It goes so far as to blame the Indian youth for recent hostilities because they could not accept white domination. A certain irony is revealed in the section that welcomes the white man's armies as a "bristling wall of strength" so that "ancient enemies (other natives) will no longer frighten us."

In one section Seattle is presented as a broken man, mourning, "it matters little where we pass the remainder of our days. They are not many ... Your God loves your people and hates mine ... he has forsaken his red children ... your God seems to be partial ... " The white man is called a "fell destroyer," and is likened to a hunter stalking a wounded deer. Except for some contradictory pandering, and a brief passage where the author of the text suggests "we may be brothers after all," the speech reads like a lament, a damnation, and a warning: "At night, when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled this beautiful land."

The version spread by the Baptists reads: "Our God is the same God ... He is the God of man, and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white ... " This version reads as a predominately religious and ecological statement, formulated to suggest that all men are equal in the eyes of God, that the land is a sacred trust shared by all races. The Baptists' tract might be viewed as something Chief Seattle would have said if he'd had command of the English language, but the religious sentiments are in direct opposition to Dr. Smith's reminiscences. Further, the expressions of confusion, regret, and damnation are subjugated.

The Baptists' version of the speech is also the first to mention the buffalo, or to include such eloquent language as: " ... 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 all men, all belong to the same family ... The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath ... The air shares its spirit with all the life it supports ... All things are connected like the blood that unites one family ... "

It should be noted here that Ted Perry, author of the Baptists' version, had no intention of defrauding the public. He admitted - in a letter to Rudolph Kaiser - that he first heard a rendition of Chief Seattle's speech while attending an environmental rally in the early 1970's. (This would have been Arrowsmith's adaptation.) He then wrote a script, a fiction, paraphrasing a few sentences from Arrowsmith's text. Perry made the mistake of using Chief Seattle's name in the script and the producer thought that the words would sound more authentic with no 'writ by' credits. When Perry saw the film with his words credited to Chief Seattle, he cancelled his contract to do another script. But the persuasive ability of television to shape popular mythologies had already assured the chief a place in modern folklore.

In Rudolph Kaiser's enlightening expose on the origins of the contemporary adaptation of the speech, he concludes that the words in the text "touch on an idea and a feeling which has so far been banned from our occidental, Western Christian culture. It is the idea that the worldly and the spiritual, mundane and the beyond, the profane and sacred are not wholly separate from one another ... This idea that each and every thing and creature in this world is spiritual and sacred, may well prove to be the salient point of this text ... We may well acknowledge such qualities of this text and appreciate it as an impressive ecological text in its own right. But we must at the same time repudiate its claim to the authorship of Chief Seattle."

Kaiser is correct in stating that the text of the speech is impressive, but neglects to give credit where credit is due. The sentiments expressed in Perry's tract will be familiar to most students of early Greek philosophy. Pre-Socratics, who often wrote as poets, extolled the virtues of the universe with remarkably similar phrases. Heraclitus said: "All things are full of souls and spirits." Thales said that the "soul is intermingled" with matter. Anaximenes said that we must revere even our breath because it joins us to the respiration of the universe.

J. Baird Callicot, professor of philosophy and natural resources at the University of Wisconsin and author of In Defence Of The Land Ethic, believes that the "dialectics of contemporary popular mythologies are such that a backlash repudiation of the image of traditional American Indians as native environmentalists may be expected to occur sooner or later." He thinks it will be sooner if the facts of Chief Seattle's speech become widely known. He comments that the speech is "only one, particularly sordid, example of the casual way in which the idea of a traditional American land wisdom has been propagated in contemporary culture." Both scholars, Kaiser and Callicot, are careful not to denigrate the words of the popular tract, understanding that the sentiments exhibited by the speech have served some good ends.

Most environmentalists aware of the bogus nature of the speech are in wholehearted agreement with Kaiser and Callicot. Nobody wants to rock the environmental boat. T-shirts with excerpts from the movie adaptation of the speech have been sold at folk festivals all across North America. Joni Mitchell still often quotes the speech when taking the stage to perform. A book co-authored by David Suzuki, Wisdom Of The Elders, has in the introduction a cautious disclaimer regarding the speech. Suzuki and fellow author Peter Knudtson were originally planning to use the speech to open the first chapter of their book, but someone wisely directed them to Kaiser's expose.

Knudtson and Suzuki admit that Seattle's speech is probably the widest circulated native tract in the world, and yet at the end of their disclaimer they suggest that it is merely the loss of a "single native narrative." The disclaimer does not fit the proportion of damage created when native ecological beliefs are so blatantly misrepresented. Nobody likes to admit having the wool pulled over their eyes, and their disclaimer stops short of admitting duplicity. But then any environmentalist who spread the words of Chief Seattle is equally responsible. Criticisms regarding the use of rhetoric in furthering the causes of the environmental movement are usually countered by more rhetoric, a ploy which environmentalists call cheap and hollow when utilized by businesses or governments. Environmentalists seem not to recognize that an ivory tower is an ivory tower whether it be constructed of poached or recycled ivory.

Lorraine Sinclair, executive director of the Mother Earth Healing Society in Edmonton, feels that the controversy over the authenticity of Seattle's speech is ironic. "The words of the speech have touched the hearts of many," she comments. "They express what is important in native beliefs. But, let's face it. It's been the white man who has needed it written. Native history is mostly oral. Words seem dead once written down. It's ironic that the speech was written by a white man, then altered by a white man to serve some new found awareness of the earth, and then refuted by a white man."

The popular version of Chief Seattle's speech begs the question: what place did the buffalo have in the land ethics of a Coast Salish Indian? As to the original version - Dr. Smith's reminiscences - no one will ever know whether he recorded even the close representation of an actual event, or if he merely exercised his obvious proclivity for imaginative writing. The scene set by Dr. Smith brings to mind dime-store novels, glorified scenes from early paintings of the West, or totem poles at the Calgary Stampede. All these things exemplify the adage that "a little knowledge is dangerous." But popular mythologies are a potent force.

It is probable that Perry's version of the speech has helped convince more people to care for the earth, to recycle their waste, to search for alternative ways of life. But exposing the myth of Chief Seattle also serves a good purpose. Our future on this planet depends upon truth, imagination, and compassion. No depth of understanding can be arrived at through rhetoric. And the contemporary words attributed to Chief Seattle - albeit well- intentioned - are undeniably a form of rhetoric. And this is dangerous because they can lead to the discrediting of many valuable and worthwhile endeavors.

If it is the intent of environmentalists to define a sustainable land ethic, and especially if this ethic should be passed on to our children, there are many and various works produced by scholars, scientists, and artists - past and present - to inform, illuminate, and excite us. These works should serve to shape our environmental awareness, replacing the casual mythologies that ultimately mislead us. The people of the First Nations have much to contribute to a sustainable land ethic, but their beliefs are only valuable when expressed through their own unique and true voices.

Still, I'll keep the small painting on the wall of my home, if only to remind me of my own naivety.

NOTE: This essay remains the most popular of pages on the notablog site, visited by people from many different countries, so I thought it a good idea to open a private page for discussion of the issues. See the chief.

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