CHIEF SEATTLE — An Amerindian Greenie?

(Investigator 30, 1993 May)

About 80% of a speech which some New Agers call "the most beautiful and profound statement on the environment ever made" is non-authentic!

The alleged speech was given between 1853 and 1855 by Chief Seattle (1788-1866) in Washington Territory when transferring ancestral lands to the government. There is uncertainty whether the alleged speech was made to government officials, to local Indian tribes, or sent as a letter to President Pierce (1804-1869)

One version of the Seattle speech appeared in Fellowship (Vol 42 No. 11). David Suzuki, Canadian environmentalist, reprinted most of this version in his book Inventing The Future (1990). A reprint also appeared in the Adelaide magazine Earth Mother and is again reprinted with the present article.

The Fellowship/Suzuki/Earth Mother version, however, is not what Seattle said when transferring ancestral land. On that occasion (Port Elliot Treaty January 1855) he said:
"Now by this [a white flag] we make friends and put away all bad feelings if we ever 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… Now do you send this paper of our hearts to the Great Chief. That is all I have to say."                           
The origin of Seattle’s alleged "statement on the environment" was as follows:

In 1887 Dr Henry Smith supplied the text of a speech he attributed to Seattle’s welcome of Governor Stephens (probably November 1853).

In 1969 William Arrowsmith modified the Victorian English of the 1887 report for the ABC

In 1970 Ted Perry wrote a TV script for the Southern Baptist Convention on pollution. As part of this script he wrote a fictitious speech which included about 20% of the Arrowsmith version and used Chief Seattle’s name.

From here things snowballed and edited versions appeared in one place after another. About 20% of the Perry version coincides with the 1887 Arrowsmith version. The Earth Mother percentage is even lower — perhaps 10%.


How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

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.

The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the dear, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man — all belong to the same family.

So, when the great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us. The Great Chief sends word he will reserve us a place so that we can live comfortably to ourselves. He will be our father and we will be his children. So we will consider your offer to buy our land.

But it will not be easy. For this land is sacred to us. The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you 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 rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the 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 father’s graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care. His father’s grave and his children’s birthright are 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.

I do not know. Our ways are different from your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand.

There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring, or the rustle of an insect’s wings. But perhaps it in because I am a savage and do not understand.

The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill, of the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand.

The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of a pond, and the smell of the wind itself, cleaned by a midday rain, or scented with the pine. The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath — the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath.

The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days, he is numb to the stench. But if we sell you our land, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives 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 to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow’s flowers.

So we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we decide to accept, I will make one condition; the white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers. I am a savage and do not understand any other way. I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train.

I am a savage and do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive. What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.

You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother.

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.

Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see. One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover — our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of man, and His compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator.

The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed, and you will one hight suffocate in your own waste. But in your perishing you will shine brightly, fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land and for some special purpose gave you dominion over the land and over the red man.

That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with 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. The end of living and the beginning of survival.

One statement in the EARTH MOTHER version (but not in the 1887) version is, "I have seen a thousand rotting buffalo on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train."

However, the transcontinental railway was built 1865-1869 and passed about 900 kilometres south of Chief Seattle’s area. Therefore he couldn’t have stated this in 1853! Buffalo numbers have been estimated at 40 million in 1840 and 6 million in 1871. The main slaughter started in the mid-1860s to feed railway workers and to starve the Indians into submission.

 It’s also unlikely that Chief Seattle would complain about "talking wires" in 1853. By mid 1852 most states east of the Mississippi had the telegraph. However, the link via telegraph with California delayed until 1861 and even then the line was 800 or more kilometres south of Seattle’s home!

David Suzuki who labelled the Fellowship version "the authentic record" has since changed his mind.

The book Recovering The Word: Essays On Native American Literature (1987 B Swann & A Krupat — editors) included a chapter on "Chief Seattle’s Speeches". The writer concluded, "the claim that Chief Seattle was its author certainly is spurious."

                            (B M)