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Tuesday, January 10, 2017
Chief Seattle Quotes
By Peter Stekel
Among the Natives of the Pacific Northwest, perhaps none is as well known as Chief Seattle, who left the earth 130 years ago. Called Sealth by his native Suquamish tribe, the chief’s fame largely rests upon a speech made popular during the heady days of the 1970s. It includes such inspiring lines as: ‘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."
As early as 1975, the authenticity of these words was questioned. Although Sealth was an eloquent speaker, could his famous words belong to someone else?
Until the 1970s, the story of Sealth (Chief Seattle) belonged to the city that bears his name. Then, with the environmental movement in full swing, the speech Sealth made to Governor Stevens in 1854 was resurrected into the consciousness of Americans. It is not difficult to find people who consider the speech to be on almost the same level as the Gospel. The modern versions of the speech, which has been called the embodiment of all environmental ideas, have references to things Sealth would have never seen or known about, such as trains, whippoorwills, and the slaughter of the buffalo (which occurred long after the tyee‘s death) are included. Comparisons between known versions of the text have turned up four main variants, each with its own phrasing, wording and sometimes contradictory content.
The first version of the speech has been traced to a transcription made by Dr. Henry Smith more than 30 years after the actual event. Smith’s is the original on which all others are based -- it appeared in the October 29, 1887, issue of the Seattle Sunday Star under the title "Scraps From A Diary." The article begins with a favorable description of Old Chief Seattle and segues into what is more than likely Dr. Smith’spoetic impression of what the tyee said, based upon notes Smith had made at the time. Smith concludes with the comment, The above is but a fragment of his speech, and lacks all the charm lent by the grace and earnestness of the sable old orator, and the occasion. Dr. Smith’s diary cannot be found, so it is impossible to know just how closely his notes followed what Sealth had to say. Moreover, Sealth was a prideful man, and though he embraced the white man’s commercial products, he refused to learn his ways or speak his language. Hence, it is safe to say that what Smith heard was a translation. It was probably made from Sealth’sLushotseed language into the Chinook jargon and then into English, with each transliteration losing or embellishing something of the original.
In 1931, Clarence B. Bagley published an article and reproduced the Chief Seattle speech with his own additions. In 1932, John M. Rich published a booklet called Chief Seattle’s Unanswered Challenge, which follows the Smith text but with some minor changes. A 1971 version by W. C. Vanderworth in Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains is essentially the same as these two.
The third major revision of the speech was done in 1969 by poet William Arrowsmith, who translated from the VictorianEnglish of Dr. Henry Smith an interpretation that retains the tyee‘s meaning, if not the wording and phrasing. A fourth version displayed at the 1974Spokane Expo, a shorter "Letter to President Franklin Pierce," and many other variations at about that time have a familial resemblance to the Smith text but begin to adopt an ecological view. In Smith’s 1887 version, the natural world is the canvas upon which Chief Seattle’s words are drawn. In the 1970s, the environment is the entire painting.
The differences between the Smith version and the fourth version are striking, including the line, "Your God loves your people and hates mine," vs. "Our God is the same God." There are inspiring phrases, in the newer version, that the Smith transcription lacks: "How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us….The rivers are our brothers….The air is precious…for all things share the same breath and This we know. The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family."
For many years this fourth variant has been the accepted version of Chief Seattle’s speech. So it came as some surprise when this last rendering was traced to a screenwriter, Ted Perry, for the 1972 movie Home, a production of the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission. Perry heard Arrowsmith read his 1969 version and with permission, used the text as the basis for a new, fictitious speech for a film on pollution and ecology. The film’s producers revised Perry’s script without his knowledge, removed his name from the film credits, sent off 18,000 posters with the speech to viewers who requested it, and glibly began the confusion we have today. Perry was not pleased.
Ted Perry is now a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont and has tried to set the record straight, but with little result. In a Newsweek article in 1992, Perry mused, Why are we so willing to accept a text like this if it’s attributed to a Native American, and not to a Caucasian? Over the years, he has been embarrassed by his role in putting words in the mouth of Chief Seattle. "I would never have allowed anyone to believe that it was anything but a fictitious item written by me," he has said. Yet, Perry has also been pleased that his words have served as a powerful inspiration for so many others. "Would that this stimulus had not come at the expense of more distancing and romanticizing the Native American," he adds.
The legend of Chief Seattle’s speech may never die. Undoubtedly there will be many who refuse to believe that such fine and noble words and sentiments could have been made by a non-Native during the 20th century -- and for a television show at that. To allow any version of the speech to pass away would be to deny the magic and power of the words and their meaning. If something is true, it shouldn’t matter who said it and when it was said as long as we recognize the source. What matters most is that the Chief Seattle Speech has something to teach us all: "So if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. We may be brothers after all."