Seattle, Real and Feigned
Some ten years ago I came across a text called "We May Be
Brothers After All -- A letter to President Franklin Pierce from Chief
Seattle, ca. 1854". It was a stirring call to honor and respect
the natural world, a message that seemed worth spreading. So I copied
it and handed it out to a great many people. Then in 1993 a New York
Times article informed me that the "Seattle Speech" of which
I was so fond was a fiction. Chief Seattle (or "See-ahth")
of the Suquamish tribe in the Puget Sound region did indeed give a
famous speech -- but not the one I knew. That one was penned in 1971
by a Texas screenwriter named Ted Perry. "Well," I thought, "What
of it?" After all, the original speech was apparently lost, and
although this one is fiction, there is a kind of truth in fiction. So
I kept handing out the speech, adding the caveat that, yes, it is
fiction, but it's a worthy document anyway.
Recently, thanks to colleague Jeff Smith, I have had a chance to see
the true Seattle speech [http://www.landreform.org/seattle0.htm]. It
was not lost: the speech was transcribed by a Dr. Henry Smith, and
later published in the Seattle Sunday Star. And now that I have seen
what (it seems that) Chief Seattle actually said, I am stunned by the
contrast between the two statements. I think that those of us who
consider ourselves "environmentalists" have a great deal to
learn from this comparison.
It is immediately apparent that the writer of the fiction was
familiar with the original, for a number of phrases are lifted
verbatim. The other thing that strikes the reader right away is that
the original is by no means unpresentable; there is nothing pidgin-ish
about it; it is a haunting poetic statement in its own right. Given
those two facts, one has to wonder: why was there any need to re-write
the speech? (The Times article suggests, incidentally, that Mr. Perry
was mortified that his work came to be identified as Seattle's words;
he apparently intended to write only a stirring Indian Speech as part
of a screenplay. Nevertheless, Mr. Perry's fiction was what became
famous as Seattle's speech, and it was commemorated on Earth Day and
incorporated into a well-known children's book.)
The fiction is clearly an environmentalist manifesto. It speaks of
the Indians' respect and love for all the world's creatures and their
revulsion to the clatter and stench of the white man's cities. It
tends, in fact, to reduce the differences between the red man and the
white man to one great issue: respect for nature. It romanticizes the
Indians' relationship with the natural world, characterizing them as
noble savages. Indeed, "We are savages," the fictional
Seattle says again and again, "and we do not know any other way."
The real Seattle bandies no such self-disparaging terms; an
unshakeable dignity, in himself and in his people, is evident
The fictional Seattle, it seems, actually cannot comprehend the idea
of buying and selling land. The real Seattle understands it only too
well, and he explicitly rejects it on a moral level. The fictional
Seattle does not. Both speeches agree (for diplomatic purposes, at
least) to sell the land, on one condition. But the conditions couldn't
be more different! The fictional Seattle agrees to alienate his
people's land, to sell it to the Great Father in Washington in fee
simple, on the one condition that the white man be a good steward of
the land and "treat the beasts of the land as his brothers".
The real Seattle agrees to nothing of the sort. He agrees to "sell"
the land, on the condition that "we will never be denied the
right to visit, at any time, the graves of our fathers and our
friends." Throughout the speech Seattle makes it resoundingly
clear that he is not merely talking about cemeteries: he says that "the
ground beneath your feet is the ashes of our grandfathers", that "the
earth is rich with the lives of our kin", and it is on this basis
that "every part of the earth is sacred to our people."
Seattle accedes to the inevitability of the whites' conquest of his
people's lands, but he does not agree to sell their land -- a sale
with unlimited visiting rights in perpetuity is no sale at all! There
is another sense in which the fiction is gratuitously romanticized: it
makes no mention whatever of war. The real Seattle speaks of war from
painful experience, and he wants no more part of it. He even accepts
part of the blame, noting with regret that young men, lusting for
revenge against an overwhelmingly strong enemy, have worsened the
destruction. But Seattle's rejection of war is not pacifistic or
selfless; it is tactical. He cannot win. "Fate hunts the red man
down. Wherever he goes, he will hear the approaching steps of his
destroyer." He deflates Washington's sham generosity with hard
vision: "It matters little where we pass the rest of our days.
They are not many."
All of these differences are notable -- and perhaps they will serve
to kindle more interest in the original document -- but they do not
explain the question we started with: Why the rewrite? Why (to let
screenwriter Perry off the hook) did our culture at this point in
history choose to adopt the fictional Seattle speech in place of the
real one? We will come closer to an answer once we've examined the
last -- and most astounding -- contrast between the two documents.
The fictional Seattle says that his people know -- but whites have
yet to discover -- that their God is the same God, and "his
compassion is equal for the red man and the white." In the
fiction this is a moving call to universal brotherhood. But the real
speech not only provides no basis for that sentiment -- it says
exactly the opposite!
"There is little in common between us," Seattle says. He
has seen the white man's every imperial advance furthered by some sort
of invincible destiny. After all that has happened, the Great Chief
Washington's dictates seem like the very words of nature itself.
"How then can we be brothers? ... 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."
The real Seattle does say, "We may be brothers after all."
This exalted sentiment forms the title of the fictional speech, but
placed in context in the real speech it must be read with a high
degree of sarcasm. They are brothers only in the sense that
civilizations, like individual people, fade away; that is the common
destiny. But at this time, in this century, the white tide has all but
obliterated the last vestige of Seattle's civilization. And the white
man's religion has been instrumental in all he has achieved. About
that religion, Seattle says "Your religion was written on tables
of stone by an angry God, so you would not forget it. The red man
could never understand it or remember it."
If we understand the nature of this difference, then, I believe, we
will see why the rewrite was necessary. If, as the fictional Seattle
says, the white man's God and the red man's God is the same, then it
is possible to heal the rift between the races -- and white people can
do that by being faithful stewards of the land they have bought, by "treating
the beasts of the land as brothers". In effect it legitimizes the
white man's purchase of the land -- or at least it leaves the door
open for such a justification. If only the Europeans will stop raping
the earth, then the red man's God, their God, the universal God, will
forgive them, they can atone, and they can be absolved of their
But the real Seattle gives the white man no such easy out. He says, "Your
God loves your people and hates mine." The white man's God, "who
walks and talks with him as friend to friend" lets him think it
is all right to buy (or seize) the land and restrict the Indians from
visiting the ashes of their fathers. Seattle knows exactly what he is
saying: that white people cannot be forgiven for their extermination
of the Indians. Their "God", which has bestowed such power
to their "manifest destiny", is a blasphemous abomination.
In the end, Seattle's words can be seen as a curse on the white man
-- but Seattle is not making the curse; he is only articulating it.
This land, he says, which is alive with the spirits of all his
ancestors, is the land they have stolen (for there is no legitimacy in
their seizure or purchase of it). Now, he says,
"There is no place in this country where a man can
be alone. At night when the streets of your towns and cities are
quiet, and you think they are empty, they will throng with the
returning spirits that once thronged them, and that still love these
places. The white man will never be alone. So let him be just and
deal kindly with my people. The dead have power too."
Finally: what have Seattle's dark words to tell us who, more than a
century later, strive to heal the wounds and live in harmony on the
earth that we all must share?
The first thing we must do, I believe, is to stop denying those
spirits, those wronged and rended dead who live, as Seattle said, in
every shadow of every piece of land that anyone has the presumption to
call "mine". We must understand that the land cannot be
bought, and to pretend that it can is a dangerous illusion. Let us
heed the message of the real Seattle - - and not be lulled by the
pleasant emptiness of the Hollywood fantasy.