Texts by and about Natives: Commentary

5. Two Versions of Chief Seattle's Speech

Perhaps the work of Pacific Northwest literature best known around the world is Chief Seattle’s speech in which he discusses relations between Natives and non-Natives and conveys Indian ideas about life, the afterlife, and natural resources. Initially delivered during the 1850s, and first published in a Seattle newspaper in 1887, the speech received very little attention until it resurfaced in non-Native publications during the 1930s. Thereafter, the speech became more widely known, particularly during the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was adopted in numerous guises by environmentalists. In the United States and around the world, Chief Seattle’s speech became recognized as an important text. The only problem—although it is distinctly not a problem for everyone—is that the man known as Chief Seattle never spoke some of the later versions of the speech, and we cannot say for sure how much of the initial version was actually his. What follows borrows heavily from Kaiser (1987).

"H. A. Smith” first put Chief Seattle’s speech into print in the Seattle Sunday Star on October 29, 1887. Dr. Henry Smith, as he was otherwise known, claimed to have heard the speech around 1853 or 1854 (one scholar states that Seattle delivered it in mid-January of 1854 [Buerge 1988: 103]). Smith apparently reconstructed the 1887 version from notes he claimed to have taken in the 1850s, but he also said that his 1887 newspaper rendition represented no more than a fragment of the Indian orator’s presentation. Smith’s notes have never turned up in archives or other collections, so we do not know upon what basis he reconstructed the speech. Moreover, no other historical collection contains evidence of anything like the famous speech, and it cannot be precisely attributed to a specific day. Other potential problems with the idea that the speech came directly and accurately from Chief Seattle leap to mind: How reliable was Smith’s memory, after more than 30 years, for the purpose of reconstructing the speech? Had Seattle delivered the speech in a language that Smith understood? If not, had it been translated once or twice, and what had been lost or added through translation? To what extent did Smith, like others in the nineteenth century who wrote down Indian narratives, add Victorian conventions and ideas? Finally, there are specific phrases in the speech that raise doubts as to whether Seattle could really have uttered them. For example, is it reasonable to think that a Catholic convert such as Seattle would say, “Your God loves your people and hates mine”?

Despite all the reasons why it seems clear that Chief Seattle was not the only—or even primary—author of the famous speech, many argue that his words formed the basis for Smith’s reconstruction years later. For example, Rudolf Kaiser (1987:506) concludes, “We can . . . take it for granted that there is at least a core, a nucleus of authentic thinking and, possibly, language in the text, as Dr. Smith was able to base his version of the speech on ‘extended notes’ in his diary, taken on the occasion of the delivery of the speech.” But can we assume so much? Similarly, David Buerge suggests many reasons to think that Henry Smith was the main author of the famous speech, yet for some reason he is convinced that the Indian chief’s “biting irony succeeds in reaching us” (Buerge 1988: 109). Do we know that Chief Seattle employed irony? In sum, as famous as it has become, we have no precise idea just how much of Chief Seattle’s speech came directly from Chief Seattle himself. It has suited many people’s purposes to think that the Native really said and meant all the things that Henry Smith eventually published, yet it seems likely that quite a few words in the text were put there by non-Natives.

Later versions of the speech took even greater liberties, yet were nonetheless passed off as authentic statements by a famous Native leader. The best known of these versions was written by a man named Ted Perry, who around 1970 was under contract to the Southern Baptists to produce a film about pollution. He borrowed heavily from the Smith version of Chief Seattle’s famous speech, but altered it dramatically in order to introduce a more environmentalist message and make Chief Seattle into an ecologist. Through a series of missteps, the film script became quite popular but was not attributed to Perry. Audiences thought that they were hearing Chief Seattle’s original words, not a creation of a twentieth-century writer under the influence of the modern environmental movement. Chief Seattle’s speech became more famous than ever—“a fifth gospel, almost,” in the words of one man—even though it had become something quite different from what had appeared in 1887. (Who knows what relation it bore to words spoken by Chief Seattle in the 1850s?)

By the 1980s and 1990s the power of Chief Seattle’s speech was so great that Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest tried to reclaim it. The Snoqualmie Tribe, for example, in struggling to gain recognition from the federal government, published a brochure called “In The Beginning” (n.d.) that quoted directly from the famous speech—including words that were never part of the version Smith had offered in 1887. Others translated the speech from English into Lushootseed, Chief Seattle’s native tongue. Even if the Indian leader had never uttered the exact words of the famous speech, modern Indians made sure that they could read the text in their original language. Whites may have put plenty of words in Seattle’s mouth, but in the late twentieth century Natives were eager to claim, use, and translate those words for themselves.

Reading the Region Home

Texts by and about Natives: Main

Texts by and about Natives: Commentary

Texts by and about Natives: Texts

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest