Chief Seattle’s gospel: chiefly Protestant propaganda?

Reprinted (with minor revisions) from Green Teacher #24 (December 1991): 4-6
Chief Seattle’s gospel: chiefly Protestant propaganda?
Noel Gough
Most environmental educators will be familiar with what has become known as ‘Chief Seattle’s
speech’. Many people consider it to be one of the finest statements ever made on behalf of nature—
it has even been called ‘the Fifth Gospel’—and it is regularly reprinted in text-books and curriculum
materials around the world. Outlook Australia (Tribe 1989: 121) has Chief Seattle’s speech as being
given in 1853 whereas Green Politics in Australia (Hutton 1987: 32) cites it as ‘a letter from Chief
Seattle… to US President Franklin Pierce in 1854’. How-ever, the magazine Every Day (1991: 1)
cites it as a ‘letter… to President Polk in 1852’. Green Teacher #23 (July-August 1991: 13) carries
an article which introduces the speech by suggesting that it contains ‘prophetic statements about
poll-ution and the environment that can be seen to be true today’. Outlook Australia also suggests
that parts of the speech ‘foretell the future’. The speech to which they refer does not contain
prophecy but hindsight. As has been revealed recently, the popular version of the speech is not a
native American text but is excerpted from a movie script written in 1971-72.
I cannot resist a note of self-righteousness here, since I have never been tempted to quote from
any of the popular versions of Chief Seattle’s speech that I have read. One reason for not doing so
has been scholarly caution, since few reprints of the speech cite a primary source. For example,
Outlook Australia follows the US material from which it is adapted by citing a magazine, The
Minnesota Volunteer, as its source whereas the citation in Green Politics in Australia simply states
‘Chief Seattle’s testimony, United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, London’ (Hutton
1987: 236). Another reason for caution was the uneasy feeling that Chief Seattle’s alleged speech
seemed a little too good to be true, with some passages resembling the kind of trite sentimentality
that characterises John Denver’s song lyrics rather than the tribal aesth-etics that inform native
American oracy. Steve Van Matre (1979: 34) and Bill Devall (1984-5: 1-2) correctly source their
Chief Seattle quotes to the movie, Home, but neither of these authors appears to question the
authenticity of the words attributed to him.
Chief Seeathl (or, perhaps, Sealth—‘Seattle’ is a Euro-American corruption) led six allied tribes
in the area around Puget Sound, Wash-ington USA, and he made at least two speeches in his native
Duwamish sometime between 1853 and 1855 in connection with the signing of the Port Elliott
Treaty or the negotiations that led to it. A Dr Henry Smith translated one of these speeches into
English and published it in the Seattle Sunday Star on October 29, 1887. The accuracy of this
translation is a matter of speculation, but nineteenth century folklorists are notorious for censoring
and sanitising native American stories, many of which are bawdy tales of ‘bestiality, adultery,
violence, thievery and assault’ (Reid and Bringhurst 1984). Smith’s version of the speech has been
published as ‘The Indian’s night promises to be dark’ (Vanderwerth 1971: 118-22) and, while other
‘authentic’ versions of the speech are in print, all derive from this trans-lation. There is no evidence
that Chief Seeathl ever wrote a letter to Presidents Pierce or Polk.
The story behind the popular version of Chief Seattle’s speech has been told by Rudolph Kaiser
(1987) and J. Baird Callicott (1989) and summarised by Garret Hardin (1989: 195-6). According to
these scholars, the speech was written by Ted Perry, a screen writer, for the movie Home, which
was produced by the South-ern Baptist Radio and Television Commission and shown on US
national television in 1972. Perry used a version of Seeathl’s translated speech as a model, but has
admitted that it was a ‘mistake’ to use the Chief’s name: ‘in writing a fictional speech I should have
used a fictional name’. According to Perry, the producer left the screen writer’s name off the credits
because ‘he thought the text might seem more authentic if there were no “written by” credit given’.
The producer was right. Perry’s ‘Chief Seattle speech’ has been accepted and acclaimed almost
universally as the authentic words of a far-sighted native American proto-environmentalist. Indeed,
it seems that Perry’s text is assumed to be authentic by some native Americans: the popular version
of Chief Seattle’s speech that appears in Green Teacher #23 is reprinted from a resource guide
published by the Okanagan Indian Curric-ulum Project (ironically, the Okanagan region is only a
few hundred kilometres north-east of Seeathl’s ancestral lands). The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples
Noel Gough: Chief Seattle’s gospel
also quotes from Perry’s text, but gives the excerpts a gloss of authenticity by attributing them to
‘Sealth, a Duwamish chief’ (Burger 1990: 20).
Much of the force of Perry’s ‘Chief Seattle speech’ derives from false assumptions about its
author. Perry’s text does not give us the voice of a native American but a heavily romanticised
Euro-American version of one. It is perhaps no coincidence that Perry wrote his script shortly after
the release of Little Big Man, a very popular film directed by Arthur Penn in the wake of his success
with Bonnie and Clyde. Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway were among the well known stars of
Little Big Man, but the acting honors were taken by Chief Dan George in the role of Old Lodge
Skins, a wise and wily old Cheyenne Chief. Perry’s ‘Chief Seattle speech’ recalls the voice and
mannerisms of Old Lodge Skins, whose portrayal was rescued from being just another stereotypical
Hollywood version of the noble savage by Chief Dan George’s luminescent authenticity (trivia
buffs may care to note that the part of Old Lodge Skins was offered first to the Euro-American actor
Richard Boone—remember Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel?—and then to the English
Shakespearian actor Paul Schofield, both of whom turned it down, before the producers thought to
cast a native American in the role).
Knowing that Perry wrote the popular version of Chief Seattle’s speech does not necessarily invalidate its message, but it is not Chief Seeathl’s message and it does not always do justice to his
authentic wisdom. There are historical inaccuracies (the slaughter of the buffalo is about twenty
years too early) and metaphors that owe more to the slogan systems of mid-twentieth century popecology than to Duwamish cultural narratives (eg ‘Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a
strand in it’). In addition to anachronistic references to air and noise pollution, some passages are
almost comically derivative of the let’s-go-hug-a-tree school of ecoconsciousness-raising.
But the sting in this tale is that significant parts of Perry’s script are in direct contradiction with
Chief Seeathl’s original speech. These con-tradictions reveal that Perry’s text is not just a benign
borrowing of Seeathl’s rhetoric but a form of cultural cannibalism which selectively appropriates
and distorts native American values so as to serve the ideological interests of the film’s Southern
Baptist producers. In Perry’s version, Chief Seattle says: ‘Our God is the same God… He is the God
of man, and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white’. But in his original speech,
Chief Seeathl said: ‘Your God loves your people and hates mine… The white man’s God cannot
love his red children’.
Perry’s well-meaning words can be interp-reted as the wishful thinking of a present-day
Protestant who realises that Christians need to re-conceptualise their faith as the earth sickens unto
death in the wake of Western ‘progress’. But it is an intolerable blasphemy against native American spirituality to put those words into Chief Seeathl’s mouth. To do so is to suggest that the
principles of harmony, community, relationship and balance that inform the spiritual lives of native
Americans are in some way compatible with the Protestant, mercantile, individualistic ethos which
shaped the USA as we now know it. It was this ethos that allowed Euro-Americans to indulge in
one of the bloodiest displays of sav-agery and genocide the earth has known before or since—and to
do so ‘with God on their side’. It is an ethos into which most young Americans, regardless of race,
are still indoctrinated. For native Americans, compulsory schooling in the Protestant-derived values,
mercantile interests and competitive individualism of the American educ-ation system is just
another means of conquest and extermination. Nineteenth century Euro-American Protestantism
was an unsustainable religion and to pretend that Chief Seeathl ident-ified its deity with the sustainable spirituality of his people is a denial of their authentic history—a kind of cultural graverobbing
that adds insult to the injuries already inflicted on tribal native Americans and the living earth with
whom they once existed in community.
It is dispiriting to reflect on the pernicious effects of Perry’s peculiarly effective piece of
Protestant propaganda. For example, Outlook Australia invites children to compare Chief Seattle’s
phony speech with selections from Kakadu Man (Neidjie et al 1986), the authentic words of Bill
Neidjie, an eloquent Aboriginal elder who lives in East Arnhemland. Putting Bill Neidjie’s words in
the context of the cozy universalism of Perry’s text creates a climate conducive to learners
assimilating Neidjie’s worldview into their own, rather than appreciating that his words are
constituted from an alternative discourse shaped by cultural assumptions and values that are very
different from (and often in conflict with) their own.
Noel Gough: Chief Seattle’s gospel
Enough. May the spirit of Chief Seeathl rest in peace and his authentic words live on to challenge us. But the sooner we bury—and forget—the phony text of ‘Chief Seattle’s speech’ the better
it will be for us all.
Burger, J. (1990) The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples (Ringwood: Penguin Books)
Callicott, J. Baird (1989) American Indian land wisdom? Sorting out the issues. Journal of Forest
History 33 (1): 35-42
Devall, W. (1984-5) A sense of earth wisdom. Journal of Environmental Education 16 (2): 1-3
Every Day (Epping, New Hampshire: Earth Day USA) 1991
Green Teacher #23 July-August 1991
Hardin, G. (1989) The gospel of Chief Seattle is a hoax. Environmental Ethics 11 (3) 195-6
Hutton, D. (1987) What is green politics? In Hutton, D. (Ed) Green Politics in Australia (Sydney:
Angus and Robertson): 1-33
Kaiser, R. (1987) Chief Seattle’s speeches; American origins and European reception. In Feest, C.F.
(Ed) Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays (Aachen: Rader Verlag):
Neidjie, B., Davis, S. and Fox, A. (1986) Kakadu Man (Darwin: Resource Managers)
Reid, B. and Bringhurst, R. (1984) The Raven Steals the Light (Seattle: University of Washington
Tribe, D. (1989) Outlook Australia (Sydney: Martin Educational)
Vanderwerth, W.C. (Ed) (1971) Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains
(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press)
Van Matre, S. (1979) Sunship Earth (Martinsville, Indiana: American Camping Association)
I wish to thank Heather Maunder and Annette Gough for excavating some of the dirt in this textual
equivalent of an archeological dig.