Albert K. Bates (
Thu, 23 Apr 1992 13:37:57 -0700 (PDT)

This article was published originally in my newsletter, NATURAL RIGFHTSHTS,
some years ago:

Natural Rights
Vol 5, Number 1, Spring, 1990

The Gospel of Chief Seattle: Written For Television?

"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."

Those eloquent lines are one of the most oft-quoted, if not the most
oft-quoted statements of deep ecology in history. Here at the Natural Rights
Center, we emblazoned them across the masthead of our first newsletter in 1978.
They have since graced the pages of hundreds of magazines, from Newsweek to
Nationof Seattle. Trouble is, they were never 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 Duwamish tribes of the Pacific Northwest. He lived from about
1786 to 1866. 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 Lushotseed
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 U.S. 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 on October 29,1887. On that
date, Dr. Henry A. Smith published an article in the Seattle Sunday Star under
the heading "Early Reminiscences No. 10." Dr. Smith wrote of the Port Elliott
negotiations, "Chief Seattle arose with all the dignity of a senator, who
carries the responsibilities of a great nation on his shoulders. Placing one
hand on the Governor's head and slowly pointing heavenward with the index
finger of the other, he commenced his memorable address in solemn and
impressive tones. 'Yonder sky, that has wept tears of compassion upon our
fathers for centuries untold, and which today 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 in
Washington can rely upon with as much certainty as he can upon the return of
the sun of the seasons... 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 the 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... 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 tablets 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 ancestorsQthe
dreams of our old men, given them in the sacred hours of the night 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 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 over the lonely hearted living, and often
return from the Happy Hunting Ground to visit, guide, console and comfort
them... 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. eed memorable, and one is left wondering how Dr. Smith
managed to translate a lengthy address in the obscure Lushotseed language into
such florid Victorian prose, or why he waited 32 years to publish his

Another question is how Seattle, who had been a devout catholic since 1830,
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 it appeared in Environmental Action. In 1974, it was
displayed in the U.S. 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.

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 now-defunct 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 ideas 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 seem 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 additions is the
religiosity of their Seattle."

Now that the author, or authors, of Seattle's famous speech is known, what
becomes 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 enChristi in Britain
says, "it's a whole religious concept... I think it's really a fifth gospel,

Ted Perry's remarkable little piece destroyed the dualism of the sacred and
the profane; it united them into a holistic Web of Life. It was a profound
statement at precisely the moment western civilization was emotionally ready
for it. If we can 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 my 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 manQall
belong to the same family...

"We know that the Whi 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 childrenUs 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).

For a mreore recent, if less thourough traeatmemnt, see The
New York Times, Apriul 21, 1992, page 1.

Albert Bates

Back to the Top Level: