An unexpected history lesson on this 51st Earth Day

The only known photograph of Chief Seattle taken in 1864

Happy Earth Day!  In celebration of the 51st annual Earth Day, I was considering posting the words to a speech that I came across at the Ozarks Natural History Museum while on a trip last month with my husband.  In the last gallery of the museum, there was a large wall display of the speech that has been attributed to Chief Seattle that is a beautiful commentary of the natural world and the interconnectedness of all living creatures.  Beside the display, there were also printed copies of the speech that guests could take with them and I picked up a copy.  I am a pretty quick reader and read through all the exhibits in a gallery much faster than my husband, so I was lingering around in the room re-reading other displays while he was still reading the speech attributed to Chief Seattle.  I glanced over at him at one point to see him trying to take pictures of it with his phone as he hadn’t seen the copies that you could take with you.  Like me, he had been moved by the words and wanted to capture them to re-read later.

But there is a problem with the speech.  Chief Seattle never spoke any of those words.  Those words were put in his mouth over a hundred years after he died.

So today’s blog post took a bit of a turn from what I thought I’d be writing.  I enjoy reading and writing about history and people who have lived before me, and as I researched for the post I thought I’d be writing, I realized I was about to contribute to a misrepresentation of Chief Seattle. 

Chief Seattle was a Suquamish Indian and the man for whom the city of Seattle gets its name.  By most accounts, historians agree that he was a gifted speaker and diplomat, as well as being a warrior and leader of his tribe.  His community was hit hard by smallpox and his people were being displaced by white settlers.  He began to meet with white settlers to negotiate peaceful relationships and in 1854, he met with the first governor of the Washington territory, Issac Stevens, among others to make treaties between the native people of the Pacific Northwest and white settlers.  At one meeting, Chief Seattle is said to have made a fervent speech in his native dialect which was then translated into Chinook Jargon, and then translated again into English. 

This speech is the origin for the text that is widely circulated today, but unfortunately history leaves us with very flawed accounts of what Chief Seattle actually said.  There have been several versions of the speech throughout the years, and it was later attributed as being a letter that he sent to the President, though there is no evidence any letter was ever sent.  The first version did not appear until 1887, some thirty-three years after Chief Seattle was said to have given the speech.  A man named Dr. Henry Smith was in attendance and took notes on the twice interpreted speech.  He reconstructed these words to be published in the Seattle Sunday Star and historians note that while this only account we have of Chief Seattle’s speech might present some of the gist of what was said, the poetic language does not really lend much authenticity to it and it appears to be more a product of Henry Smith’s “poetic musings”.

The next itineration of the speech came in the late 1960s with renewed interest in the speech when William Arrowsmith, a professor, worked to improve Smith’s version by removing the flowery language and make it more authentic to how Seattle would have spoken.  The speech received even further embellishment a few years later in 1971 when screenwriter Ted Perry added to Arrowhead’s version in the marketing for a film called Home, a movie that was produced for the Southern Baptist Radio and Television CommissionThe speech got widespread attention when a poster with the speech’s text was made to promote the movie, but the production team chose to not credit the screenwriter with the words and attributed them to Chief Seattle himself.  Perry has expressed frustration that the film didn’t credit him as a writer and he wishes that he had used a fictional character instead of putting words into a real person’s mouth since he admittedly added environmentalist rhetoric to the text of Arrowhead’s version of the speech.  

“That I could put words into the mouth of someone I did not know, particularly a Native American, is pure hubris if not racist. While there has been some progress in our knowledge of Native Americans, we really know very little. What we think we know is mediated by films, chance encounters, words, images and other stereotypes. They serve our worldview but they are not true.”- Ted Perry

Reading through the text critically, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny if one was trying to argue that it was the authentic speech made by Chief Seattle.  There are several references that could only have been written by someone from the vantage point of hindsight many years after the speech was said to take place, such as the referencing of slaughter of buffalo from trains.  The mass slaughter of the American buffalo began in the 1870’s and the railroad was not completed until 1869.  There are also references to species of animals that didn’t live in the Pacific Northwest and Seattle likely wouldn’t have had experiences with them.

As far as the speech goes, many people have used this work to promote passion in others for environmental considerations.  Al Gore used a passage in his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit.  There was a popular children’s book published in 1991 called Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle, and like I said earlier, my husband and I were both moved by the words when a museum used them as a call to action to preserve the natural world we inhabit.  There’s nothing wrong with using beautiful language to inspire and motivate, and I agree with the points made in the stirring speech.  But it makes me feel funny knowing the full background behind the speech, and seems like it could further dehumanize a man whose people have been dehumanized enough.

When I was first researching about Chief Seattle, I was still considering posting the words of the speech and simply explaining in an introduction the real history behind the words that have been falsely attributed to him.  But as I continued to read more about him and the many versions of the “speech” throughout the years, I decided not to post those particular words.  As beautiful as they are, they are a work of fiction that potentially dismiss who Chief Seattle was as a person and reimagine him to be a mystical figure viewed through the eyes of white people.  And really, there are no shortages of beautiful words that can be said to describe the natural world that surrounds us and call each other to action to protect that world.  We don’t have to use ones that have historically reduced a fellow human to a stereotype.

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