Will the Real Chief Seattle Please Speak Up?

Will the Real Chief Seattle Please Speak Up?

by David Rothenberg

“Every part of the earth is sacred….   All things are interconnected.  What happens to the earth happens to the sons and daughters 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…   Where is the thicket?  Gone.  Where is the eagle?  Gone.  What is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt?  The end of living and the beginning of survival.”

These chilling fragments come from the famous Speech of Chief Seattle, probably the single best known summation of the ideas of the environmental movement.  It is familiar all across the globe, appearing in countless talks, epigrams, and quote books.  It is said to be compulsory for German schoolchildren to memorize the thing, and in Scandinavia there are “Chief Seattle Clubs” dedicated to its message.  At the museum beneath Mount Rushmore, there once was (and perhaps still is) an interactive diorama with the disembodied head of an Indian that glows red when you press the button, and the solemn words came out, in a soothing, serious voice, impossible to forget.

The words of Seattle are profound, inspiring, and the stuff of a truly spiritual document.  They touch people in the way religious texts are meant to, deep inside the heart, straight down to the feet and the hallowed ground beneath.  Wherever you are.  For the words teach us that all ground can be seen and felt as hallowed ground, and admonish us that our kind is wont to forget this simple and important fact.

This speech has been passed down to us over a long, convoluted journey lasting more than a century.  The voyage has many of the qualities of an oral tradition, in that we are not quite sure who said what along the long path these words have taken.  They continue to be changed, adjusted, rearranged the way all good stories do as they are told and retold again.  So whose words are they?

Here’s the lowdown:  In 1854, Seattle (more correctly, Seathl) made his speech to Isaac Stevens, Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the new Washington Territories, expressing his wish to cede his land peacefully to the government, while affirming deep reservations and sadness for the fate of the land and the differences between his culture and ours.   Seathl spoke in Lushotseed, his native tongue, and it was translated by Dr. Henry Smith, a young physician who knew the language.  Smith realized the speech was something special, and that the gravity of its message was certainly watered-down in translation.  He is said to have visited Seathl many times over the next several decades to discuss the speech, so he could get it down as accurately as possible in English.
Thirty-three years later this event had already passed into history.  Smith published his version of the speech in the Seattle Sunday Star in 1887.  The style is ornate, Victorian, typical of the way English was supposed to be written in the time, more by people like Smith than Seathl.

For about eighty years the speech lay hidden in obscurity.  The late William Arrowsmith, professor of classics at the University of Texas, discovered Smith’s article and decided to re-edit it.  He was either trying for a more authentic Seathl-like style of writing closer to the way natives would have spoken, or else he was modernizing the words to fit the rebellious spirit of the 1960s.  You may read and decide for yourself.  He published his ‘translation’ in Arion in 1969.

Arrowsmith read his speech at a large student gathering on the very first Earth Day, April 1970.  Thousands were listening.  Among them was Ted Perry, a young film professor who had been hired by the Southern Baptist Television Commission to write a script for a film called Home about pollution and the state of the planet.  He immediately had an idea: adapt the words of Seathl for our own time, taking the solemnity and grace of Seathl’s way of responding to crisis and apply them to the environmental problems America was now facing.  A bit of a historical fiction, for the original speech is more about the folly of claiming to own the land and the white man’s lack of respect for ancestral ground than it is about the poisoning of the planet by human indifference.  Perry proposed to take Seathl, bring him into our world, and imagine—what would he say?

            He had no idea how successful his script would be.  Once it was shown on network television, the words spread like wildfire around the world.  18,000 people wrote in for copies of the speech.  The Southern Baptists sent out a flyer with the text, claiming it really was a speech given by Chief Seathl.  This is where either the lie or the myth began.

Environmental Action magazine published the text in November, 1972, this time claiming it was not a speech but a letter from Seathl to President Franklin Pierce!  Shortly afterward Northwest Orient Airlines’ magazine Passages published the ‘letter,’ again with no reference to Perry.  The speech was published in the Catholic Herald in Britain and spread further around the globe by the World Council of Churches.  Monsignor Bruce Kent called the speech “almost a Fifth Gospel.”

In 1991, illustrator Susan Jeffers brought out a children’s book, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle, which sold over 400,000 copies and is found in elementary schools across the country.  Her Chief Seattle is a distinguished-looking elder in a headdress with buffalo horns.  Indians ride ponies through the prairies, and stand in tears before clearcuts.  Never mind that Chief Seathl lived in the forests of Puget Sound, and never saw a buffalo in his life.  He would never have ridden a pony.

In the multicultural nineties one can’t get away with this kind of historical inaccuracy.  The story of the fabrication of the speech of Chief Seattle made the front page of the New York Times in April 1992—famous Indian speech turns out to be a fraud!  But is it a forgery or a case of the malleability of oral history?

Ted Perry, now a professor at a small college in New England, is deeply apologetic.  He never intended to write something that has become canonized in the lore of ecological thought:  “I didn’t want to say ‘based’ on Chief Seattle.  I told the film’s producer I was influenced by and inspired by Bill Arrowsmith’s reading of his version at the Earth Day rally.  But the producer decided that it would seem more authentic to take the written by-line off.  The film then says researched by Ted Perry—words of Chief Seattle.”

The most significant thing, it seems, about the Chief Seattle speech is just how widely known it is, how powerful the words are, and how the story and the idea have just sort of spread around.  People want to hear someone from the destroyed culture speak up and say “This is what is different, this is what is the same.”  It’s larger than life, and can’t be stopped.

Putting these powerful admonishing words into the mouth of an Indian Chief out of the distant past somehow seems safer than actually saying we want to speak about the earth ourselves.  We want to speak poetically, we want to say the earth is sacred.  But we are afraid of laughter, retribution.  If it’s a noble Indian, some respected distant person, then it’s somehow more trustworthy and indisputable.  What would happen if people would quote these words without mentioning Chief Seattle?  Do you need to bring in the Chief to make the message carry more weight, or can any of us just ask “how can you buy and sell the air?” as an American today?—A Chief besieged by the government.  The underdog giving up or making a final plea—Would it be better to write some other speech that would spread just as widely, without appropriating the authority of another time and another culture?  Why not accept that these sentiments come from our time and our culture?

Nevertheless, in the Chief Seattle speech there are a few real differences between different versions.  The real Chief Seathl emphasized a real difference between the God of the red man and the God of the white.  “Our God,” he said in conclusion, “is not your God.”  Ted Perry veiled almost all the overt references to God in his script version, in an effort to appeal to a secular America.  But then those Southern Baptist producers added this conclusion:  “One thing we know.  Our God is the same God. This earth is precious to Him.  Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny.  We may be brothers after all.  We shall see.”  These words have been repeated in most of the versions of the speech promoted by Christian groups, and also appear in the version at the Spokane Expo of 1974.  Yet they seem diametrically opposed to sentiments expressed in all earlier versions of the speech.

Today the hazy history of the Chief Seattle speech is often taken up by those who want to discredit the rhetoric of environmentalism.  Enemies will cite this confusing tale and say “Look, this just proves that environmentalism is a myth, you people are making up these ideas!”  But that’s just the point.  We have made up this myth.  We are the people who need this speech, this message.  And it is not going to go away.  It may well be with us for a thousand years.  It will continue to inspire, like any good religious text.  And as the years go by its authorship will be even less conclusive, even farther from memory and actual happening.  That’s how a text becomes sacred.  That’s when we know it will not only survive, but live.



Version of Henry Smith, who heard Seattle speak in 1854 in his native tongue, Lushotseed, and then recorded it in print in 1887, after visiting Seattle several times to discuss its meaning.

Your God seems to us to be partial.

He came to the white man.

We never saw Him.

We never even heard His voice:

he gave the white man laws

but He had no word for His red children

whose teeming millions filled this vast continent

as the stars fill the firmament.

No, we are two distinct races

and must ever remain so.

There is little in common between us.

the ashes of our ancestors are sacred

and their final resting place is hallowed ground,

while you wander away from the tombs

of your fathers seemingly without regret.


Version of William Arrowsmith, who dug up Smith’s little-known newspaper article, and published a version in 1969, which he later read on the first Earth Day at the University of Texas, 1970:

Your God is prejudiced.

He came to the white man.

We never saw him,

never even heard his voice.

He gave the white man laws,

but he had no word for his red children

whose numbers once filled this land

as the stars filled the sky.

No, we are two separate races,

and we must stay separate.

There is little in common between us.

To us the ashes of our fathers are sacred.

Their graves are holy ground.

But you are wanderers,

you leave your fathers’ graves behind you,

and you do not care.






Version of Ted Perry, who wrote his adaptation in 1970 as a narration for a film on the environmental crisis made by the Southern Baptist Television Commission.


The white man’s god gave him dominion over the beasts, the wood, and the red man,

for some special purpose, but that destiny is a mystery to the red man.

We might understand it if we knew what it was the white man dreams,

what hopes he describes to his children on long winter nights,

what visions he burns onto their eyes so that they will wish for tomorrow.

The white man’s dreams are hidden from us.

And because they are hidden, we will go our own way.

The white man does not understand.

one portion of land is the same to him as the next,

for he is a wanderer who comes in the night

and borrows from the land whatever he needs.

the earth is not his brother, but his enemy,

and when he has won the struggle,

he moves on.

He leaves his fathers’ graves behind, and he does not care.

he kidnaps the earth from his children.

And he does not care.

Smith, 1887


Every part of this country is sacred to my people.

Every hill-side, every valley,

every plain and grove

has been hallowed

by some fond memory

or sad experience of my tribe.

Even the rocks

that seem to lie dumb

as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore

in solemn grandeur

thrill with memories of past events

connected with the fate of my people,

and the very dust under your feet

responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours,

because it is the ashes of our ancestors,

and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch,

for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.

Arrowsmith, 1969


Every part of this earth is sacred to my people.

Every hillside,

every valley,

every clearing and wood,

is holy in the memory and experience of my people.

Even those unspeaking stones along the shore

are loud with the events and

memories in the life of my people.

The ground beneath your feet responds

more lovingly to our steps than yours,

because it is the ashes of our grandfathers.

Our bare feet know the kindred touch.

The earth is rich with the lives of our kin.





Perry, 1970


Every part of this earth is sacred to my people.

Every shining pine needle,

every tender shore,

every vapor in the dark woods,

every clearing, and

every humming insect

are 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 walk among the stars.…

We are a part of the earth and it is a part of us.

The perfumed flowers are our sisters;

the deer, the horse, the great condor,

these are our brother.

The rocky crests,

the juices in the meadows,

the body heat of the pony,

and man all belong to the same family.[i]

[i]For further confusion on the circuitous history of the words of Chief Seattle:


Arrowsmith, William, “Speech of Chief Seattle, January 9th, 1855,” Arion, Vol. 8, 1969, pp. 461-464.

Carter, Forrest, The Education of Little Tree, University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Gifford, Eli, ed. How can one sell the air?  Chief Seattle’s Vision,   Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Co. 1992. [Contains complete texts of the Smith, Perry, and Arrowsmith speeches, along with a brief explanation of what happened.]

Gifford, Eli, The Many Speeches of Chief Seattle: The Manipulation of Record for Religious, Political, and Environmental Causes, Sonoma State University: Occasional papers of Native American Studies, no. 1, 1992.

Gill, Sam, Mother Earth, University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Jeffers, Susan, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle, 1991.

Kaiser, Rudolf, “Chief Seattle’s Speech(es): American Origins and European Reception,” inRecovering the Word, ed. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 497-536.

Kent, Bruce, “A Fifth Gospel,” Testimony—Chief Seattle, London: United Society for the Propogation of the Gospel, 1978, pp. 94-98.

Murray, Mary, “Little Green Lie,” Reader’s Digest, July 1993, pp. 100-104.

Smith, Henry, “Scraps from a Diary—Chief Seattle—A Gentleman by Instinct—His Native Eloquence,” Seattle Sunday Star, Oct. 29, 1887, p. 10.

Wilson, Alexander, The Culture of Nature, Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992.


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