The AFU and Urban Legend Archive
chief seattle environment speech

From: (MrJones)
Newsgroups: alt.folklore.urban
Subject: Re: Faq comments, plus some more UL's
Date: 31 Aug 1994 15:26:22 -0400

In article <340l2n$>, Larry Bruns <> wrote:

[lots o'text deleted]

> -Chief Seattle's famous speech: [ I just saw this myth exploded in the
> last year or two, but I don't remember where. Can someone verify this
> and give me a pointer to the source? Thank you!! ]
> This fictitious speech gets quoted ALL THE TIME. I'm surprised it's not
> in the FAQ for this newsgroup. You know the one: where Chief Seattle
> (the one whom Seattle WA is named after) is sadly addressing the White
> Man, lamenting the destruction of the environment, mentioning the usual
> "Red Men all lived in harmony with nature" ecobabble, and making some
> astoundingly accurate predictions about the future of the US. In fact,
> I just saw the whole Chief Seattle speech quoted in its entirety a few
> months ago - on some PBS "Journal" program w/ Bill Moyers - beautifully
> illustrated with natural scenes playing in the background. To a lot of
> 60's idealists, this speech must have sounded too good to be true, (and
> that's exactly what it was!) It sounds like a perfect combination of
> the old Rousseau "noble savage" idealism, plus the new environmental
> idealism that was just starting to be espoused by some leading edge
> environmentalists in the late 60's / early 70's.
> If I remember right, the myth-exploding article traced it back to a
> California high school teacher, who in the early 70's wrote this up as
> part of a play (?) or something. It is what he *imagined* Chief
> Seattle might have said. As it got copied and reprinted far and wide,
> the attribution of the speech changed from: "some high school teacher
> named XXXXXX, who is imagining what Chief Seattle might have said", to
> eventually: "Chief Seattle's actual words".

The _1994 Information Please Almanac_ contains the debunking, which they reprinted with permission from Omni magazine, 1992. The author is Linda Marsa:

Just like Elvis and Marilyn, Chief Seattle's notoriety after his death has eclipsed his fame in life. The eco-sermon this nineteenth-century tribal leader gave in 1854, extolling the virtues of living in harmony with nature, has become part of environmental lore. The speech is quoted everywhere. Even mythologist Joseph Campbell and Prince Philip have referred to it. And this past April [1992], it was reverentially recited by leaders at Earth Day gatherings around the world.

No doubt about it. Chief Seattle is the ecology movement's patron saint.

Except for one niggling detail: It's all bogus.

Historians say Chief Seattle, a Suquamish Indian who lived on the Puget Sound outside the city that bears his name, was a skilled diplomat and a great orator. But he never uttered the words credited to him. They were actually penned by Ted Perry, a screenwriter inspired by some writings unwittingly attributed to the Chief, for _Home_, a 1972 ABC film about ecology.

How this myth was perpetrated and how Chief Seattle's original message was distorted is like the kid's game of telephone played out over decades. Environmentalists, of course, see no harm in canonizing Chief Seattle. But Native Americans aren't happy with the cooption of their spiritual ethos by American culture.

Historians have re-created the events surrounding the famous 1854 oration of the 68-year-old Chief during treaty negotiations between the Suquamish and Isaac Stevens, Washington's first territorial governor. But they are divided on the authenticity of surviving texts.

Eyewitness accounts say the Chief, a repected tribe elder, spoke movingly and eloquently in his native dialect about his people and about the inevitability of their displacement by the white settlers. Henry Smith, the frontier doctor who became Chief Seattle's self-appointed Boswell, however, didn't actually publish a translation of the Chief's speech until 1887--more than 30 years later. By that time, the remote outpost had mushroomed into a bustling metropolis of 35,000.

"Smith was well-educated and a minor poet given to flowery images and the romantic verbiage of the Victorian era," says Murray Morgan, a Pacific Northwest historian. What Smith wrote was probably a composite of comments the Chief made at two meetings with Governor Stevens, embellished with Smith's trademark flourishes and warped by the memory lapses that come with time.

In the 1930s, authors tinkered with this version of Chief Seattle's talk. By the time Ted Perry heard it read at the first Earth Day festivities in 1970, the speech had been significantly altered. Impressed, Perry incorporated the essence of Seattle's sentiments into a script that he wrote for the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission.

"This is where things got out of hand," says Daniel Miller, a social activist. The film's proucer Christianized Seattle's sensibilities and dropped Perry's name--despite his protests--from the script, which left the impression that these were Seattle's words. But the speech is littered with such anachronisms that the only real mystery is why no one caught on to this artistic license sooner.

Probably the most flagrant: "I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by the white man who shot them from a passing train." Bison did not live on Puget Sound, which was a thousand miles from the plains. The speech was given 15 years before the transcontinental railroad connection was completed, and the great buffalo slaughter peaked in 1972, several years after Seattle died. Lines such as, "What is there to life if a man cannot hear the lovely cry of a whippoorwill," are equally ludicrous. Whippoorwills are not indigenous to the Pacific Northwest.

"I'm embarrassed now when I'm seen as someone who put words in Chief Seattle's mouth, " says Ted Perry, a tweedy professorial type who teaches film at Vermont's Middlebury College. "That was never my intention." Of course, most people are puzzled by the raging controversy. After all, Chief Seattle is a revered icon. So no harm, no foul. Right?

Wrong, say scholars. "Native American culture is constantly being exploited and apporpriated as illustrations of whatever European theory is in fashion," says Jack D. Forbes, a professor of Native American studies at the University of California at Davis. These range from the extreme individualism of the 1983 novel _Hanto Yo_ to the New Age spiritualism of Lynn Andrews. "When," asks Forbes, echoing the frustrations of other Native Americans, "will the thefts of our spiritual traditions end?"

Steve "sheesh, there goes another lesson plan out the window" Jones
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