‘Chief Seattle speech’: Global environmental legend, or pervasive myth?

Our thought for Earth Day 2009

Our thought for Earth Day 2009

“All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.”

These words resonate very well in the environmental community, and are in fact considered to be something like a gospel of the greens. They are part of a moving speech that native American Chief Seattle is said to have given in January 1854. Read the full text here.

So these would be just the right sentiments to invoke on another Earth Day, right? Yes — except that Chief Seattle never uttered those words. They were, in fact, written by a screen writer in 1971 for a film about pollution and the plight of the Earth, called Home.

Tell that to thousands of die-hard greens who swear by Chief Seattle. By now, a couple of generations of people have been moved by the “speech.” Chief Seattle societies have formed in Europe. The supposed remarks have been reprinted widely and authoritatively cited in serious books on environmental issues, and quoted in high level speeches. Hundreds of teachers use extracts in environmental courses.

The man was real; the speech wasn't his

The man was real; the speech wasn't his

There’s absolutely no doubt that the words pack a great deal of traditional wisdom, poetic expression and what researchers like to call ‘indigenous knowledge’. This is how it ends: “Continue to contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste. When the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is to say good-bye to the swift and the hunt; the end of living and the beginning of survival.

The value, modern-day relevance and power of the speech are not in doubt. But the problem is in its attribution: the wrong man is being credited worldwide for coming up with these oh-so-quotable words. And the misconception originated with a film script, where creative liberties are allowed and often exercised!

Conservationist, writer and analyst Andy Carr has traced the evolution of a modern myth in his column:

“Yes, Chief Seattle (more correctly Seathl) did give a speech in 1854 to Isaac Stevens, Pacific Northwest Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Dr. Henry Smith translated the speech from the original Lushotseed. Smith knew it to be special and that much was lost in his first oral translation. He supposedly visited the Chief many times in the following decades to get the words right in English. He published his translation in 1887 in the Seattle Sunday Star. According to Smith, the Chief spoke of his sadness about the grave injustice being visited upon the Indians by the European invaders and the absurdity, in the Chief’s view, of claiming land as one’s own and of not respecting ancestral ground.

“It was in the Victorian oratorical style of the time, and was soon forgotten. Professor William Arrowsmith, who taught classic literature at the University of Texas, came across the Smith version and modernized it in Arion in 1969. He changed it to reflect the protest-style of the 1960s. On the first Earth Day in 1970, Arrowsmith read his modified text before a large crowd.

Chief Seattle (left) and actual speech writer Ted Perry

Chief Seattle (left) and actual speech writer Ted Perry

“In that crowd was Ted Perry, a professor of film, who had been retained by the Southern Baptist Television Commission to draft a script for a film about pollution and the plight of the Earth, called Home. In a third execution of literary license, Smith turned it into a speech about poisoning the planet and human indifference to it. Perry’s concept was to transport Chief Seattle into the modern world and imagine what he would say.”

The documentary film on ecology, scripted by Ted Perry, was produced by the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission, and later ran on network television. But not before the original script was edited for being more Christian, and some references to God were added.

John Scull, specialising in eco-psychology, has traced the evolution of the Seattle myth in an interesting essay. He notes: “The Perry speech, in spite of its Christian editing and its many historical inaccuracies, anachronisms and inconsistencies, was widely distributed and was seen as authentic by many…The text’s lack of authenticity was finally described in 1987, and documented in articles in both Omni and Newsweek in 1992.”

In April 1991, the New York Times ran a front-page expose of the Chief Seattle myth, saying: “A number of historians say Chief Seattle never said most of what he is supposed to have said.”

NYT quoted historian David Buerge as saying: “Chief Seattle is probably our greatest manufactured prophet,” and described him as ‘one of the scholars frustrated that their work has failed to stop the myth from spreading around the world.’

In his analysis, John Scull poses the query: Why are environmentalists so eager to continue to attribute these words to Chief Seattle instead of to their author, Ted Perry?

Perry, now a professor of film studies at Middlebury University, has tried repeatedly to set the record straight. Moreover, he thinks that the myth is pernicious. “Why are we so willing to accept a text like this if it’s attributed to a Native American?” he asks. “It’s another case of placing Native Americans up on a pedestal and not taking responsibility for our own actions.”

This 1991 book built on the Chief Seattle fable

This 1991 book built on the Chief Seattle fable

The myth of Seattle’s speech has been so pervasive that the Washington State Library issued a pamphlet in 1993 stating the facts. “The most important fact to note is that there is NO VERBATIM TRANSCRIPT IN EXISTENCE. All known texts are second-hand,” Nancy Zussy, State Librarian, said in that note.

That note listed four different versions of the speech. The most widely known of all, it said, was written by Texas professor Ted Perry as part of a film script. “The makers of the film took a little literary license, further changing the speech and making it into a letter to President Franklin Pierce, which has been frequently reprinted. No such letter was ever written by or for Chief Seattle.”

So is there anything authentic left of poor Chief Seattle? There’s no doubt the man cared deeply for his people and the environment, even if he was nowhere near as eloquent as modern-day environmentalists want us to believe. Sadly, we don’t even know what the old boy really looked like.

According to a story by Malcolm Jones Jr. and Ray Sawhill, appearing in Newsweek of 4 May 1992: “Even the one known photograph of him has been doctored repeatedly. In the original, his eyes were closed. Subsequent version were retouched so that his eyes looked open. In some versions, he carries a cane, but not always. And in the most revisionist makeover, his head has been grafted onto the body of another man.”

So is it just historical accuracy at stake here, in our setting the record straight about Seattle as scripted by Perry? Does it really matter whether or not the Indian chief actually said it as long as his alleged words continue to inspire environmental commitment?

I share Dr John Scull’s views when he says: “The world is in an environmental crisis and needs help, but a mythical Indian chief from the last century is not going to ride over the hill and save it from the industrial cavalry in some reversal of the Hollywood western — all of us are going to have to work together to save it ourselves. Recognizing that at least some of the answers lie within mainstream contemporary culture might be a good place to start.”

Read The Little Green Lie, by Mary Murray, Reader’s Digest, May 1994