Seattle, er, Professor Perry speaks: Inventing indigenous solutions
to the environmental problem
by John Scull
"All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. --Ted Perry, 1972
Ted Perry (0)? Aren't these moving words a direct quotation from the speech by the famous Chief Seattle? Isn't this a clarion call from indigenous people of the 19th century to the environmental movement of today? The interesting history of these stirring words and the equally interesting reactions of some environmentalists to this history raise some provocative questions about the psychology of the environmental movement.
In 1854 Sealth (Seattle), elderly chief of the Suquamish Indians, gave a speech on the occasion of the arrival of the first American territorial governor, Isaac Stevens. Seattle, in common with many Coast Salish leaders, was known as a great orator. Reportedly present at the speech and at another meeting between Seattle and Governor Stevens was Dr. Henry A. Smith who apparently had some knowledge of Coast Salish languages or Chinook Jargon, the trade language of the coast. Dr. Smith published his impressions of Seattle and his English version of the speech in the Seattle Star newspaper 33 years later, in 1887.
Seattle's speech was in his Coast Salish language so Smith's account is a translation. Smith's version and various later rewrites are available on the web (1). The Suquamish Nation has a slightly different version of the speech on their official website (2). Their version is very similar to Smith's but there are some differences, possibly due to their having oral traditions in addition to Smith's written account. We can never know what Chief Seattle actually said, these two sources are the only accounts of the 1854 speech and they were both published many years after the event.
While they are not exactly the same, these documents seem to give us a good deal of insight into Coast Salish spirituality and into Seattle's sadness at what he saw as the demise of his people. He expressed his helplessness in the face of American power and his hope that the two peoples could live in peace. The speech says very little about the environment and certainly does not include the ringing phrases that began this article. It is an excellent speech, but it is mainly about conquest and colonialism, not about environmentalism.
The version of the speech quoted above and so loved and reprinted by environmentalists was written in 1972 by Ted Perry for a film called Home being produced by the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission. In the film (which I have not seen) the words were apparently read as if they were a letter from Seattle to President Pierce. This mis-attribution and many copies of the text of the Perry speech are available on the web (3). Perry was writing an entirely fictional speech and did not intend for the words to be attributed to Seattle rather than to the Seattle character in the film, but the film's producers failed to mention Perry's authorship in the credits (7). Thus, the legend was born.
Reading the different versions, it is clear that Perry's script owed very little to either the words or the message of the Smith speech. While he took a bit of the rhetorical style of the Seattle speech (which was probably Smith's Victorian writing style rather than Seattle's style in Suquamish) he took few of Seattle's ideas. Many of Perry's words are indeed inspiring, and they would be his alone if they hadn't sometimes been edited by the Baptist filmmakers.
The reader is invited to compare the different versions of the speech. For one example, on the subject of religion, the Smith version says:
"Your God seems to us to be partial. He came to the white man. We never saw Him, never even heard His voice. He gave the white man laws but He had not 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."The contemporary words on this topic, fitting the American "melting pot" norm of the day and added to Perry's script by the film's Baptist producers are:
"One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover -- our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot. He is the God of man, and His compassion is equal for red man and the white."The Perry speech, in spite of its Christian editing and its many historical innacuracies, anachronisms, and inconsistencies, was widely distributed and was seen as authentic by many, including such notables as Joseph Campbell (4). The text's lack of authenticity was finally described in 1987 (5) and documented in articles in both Omni and Newsweek in 1992 (6). More detailed accounts of the history of the controversy are available on the web (7) and in printed sources (8).
Anyone can be fooled, and while Perry's intentions were in no way fraudulent, he was trying to write a speech or letter which could credibly be attributed to Chief Seattle. He clearly succeeded. The interesting question remains of why environmentalists have continued to attribute this speech to Seattle even after its authorship has become widely known. Let me give two examples:
Example 1. Theodore Roszak, in Voice of the Earth (1992), quoted the Perry speech with approval, saying that "the words of the semi-legendary American Indian leader Chief Seattle echo in my mind, a voice that has attained nearly prophetic stature among environmentalists. I know the pronouncement to be apocryphal, but it is nonetheless moving." In a footnote, Roszak gives an accurate outline of the history of the speech.
Roszak describes the false attribution of the speech as "folklore in the making, a literary artifact mingling traditional culture with contemporary aspiration that has taken on a life of its own." He continues, "I have it on good authority from anthropologists I know that many (though not all) Native Americans honor the quotation as an accurate reflection of their people's understanding of the land." This is surprising. The evidence before us, without consulting anthropologists, is that this speech was written in about 1972 by someone who was not a Native American. It has been honored by many white environmentalists, including Roszak. Is it a surprise that it should be honored by some Native Americans, too? Roszak is mistaken; the Perry speech does not mingle traditional culture with contemporary aspirations -- it is contemporary aspirations parading as traditional culture.
Example 2. Coming back to Life (1998) by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown is a practical guide to doing community Deep Ecology workshops. One of the workshop activities is called "Reporting Chief Seattle". The participants read the Perry speech (in Appendix A) and then answer, closing the workshop with words like, "May our words to Chief Seattle, like his to us, remain with us for the healing of the world.."
Perry's role is acknowledged but they then go on to say, "Here we use it not as an historical document, but for its powerful evocation of Native American reverence for Earth, and its foreboding of what the white man's lack of reverence would bring." Does it make sense to take this reverential attitude towards a speech written by a "white man" in 1972, years after most of these "forebodings" had already come to pass? The words are just as stirring, whoever wrote them, but what would the impact of the exercise be if everyone reported to Ted Perry instead of Seattle?
Clearly, some environmentalists have a strong desire for these stirring words to come from Chief Seattle -- the words somehow have more impact if they were spoken in the distant past by a "noble savage." Why is there a problem with accepting this view; isn't it just a bit of innocent romanticism? Is there a problem with having Seattle stand as a symbol of ecological integrity? It seems to me there are several related difficulties.
The first is the projecting of our beliefs onto indigenous people. The argument that many Native Americans feel this way is spurious -- these words reflect the beliefs of many members of many ethnic groups. "Native American culture is constantly being exploited and appropriated as illustrations of whatever European theory is in fashion," said Jack Forbes, professor of Native American studies at the University of California at Davis. This sentiment has been echoed by many Native American writers such as Ward Churchill and Vine Deloria, Jr. Perry's environmentalist Chief Seattle is a wonderful literary creation, but like Longfellow's Hiawatha it tells us about as much about authentic Native American culture as the film Ben Hur or Shakespeare's Mark Antony tells us about ancient Rome.
A second difficulty is in the appropriation of the voice of Native Americans. In quoting the Perry speech (3) we are simultaneously suppressing the Smith version (1) of Seattle's words. The earlier version of the speech is a heart-rending indictment of American colonialism and abuse of power and its tragic results for the Suquamish people -- a message not nearly as attractive to contemporary environmentalists as the ecological vision of a romanticized, twentieth-century film version of Seattle. When we put our own words into somebody else's mouth, we can no longer hear what they themselves are saying.
The third difficulty with attributing these words to Seattle resides in the appropriation of Perry's voice by his literary character. Ted Perry is the author of these powerful and moving words so perhaps he deserves to be given some public credit. His speech has justifiably inspired environmentalists for nearly three decades -- shouldn't his contribution to the literature of environmentalism be publicly recognized?
Why are environmentalists so eager to continue to attribute these words to Chief Seattle instead of to their author, Ted Perry? Perry is now a professor of film studies at Middlebury College. He has tried repeatedly to set the record straight, asking: "Why are we so willing to accept a text like this if it's attributed to a Native American? It's another case of placing Native Americans up on a pedestal and not taking responsibility for our own actions." (6).
A similar explanation is offered by Vine Deloria, Jr. Writing about Americans wishing they could be Indians, he said, "They are discontented with their society, their government, their religion, and everything around them and nothing is more appealing than to cast aside all inhibitions and stride back into the wilderness, or at least a wilderness theme park, seeking the nobility of the wily savage who once physically fought civilization and now, symbolically at least, is prepared to do it again." (9)
We environmentalists are fond of attributing the Earth's declining health to "western civilization", "modernity", or "the consumer society" and there is certainly some truth in these ideas. This world view is perhaps threatened if a EuroAmerican in Texas in the 1970s can create what may be the most stirring words ever written about our relationship with our planet. If modern society is as sick as some environmentalists believe, how can one of its mainstream members produce such healthy words?
Perhaps it is time for those of us in the environmental movement to take responsibility for our own beliefs. There is little question that our industrial society is wreaking destruction on the planet and the seeds of that destruction must have taken root in some aspects of contemporary world culture. At the same time, if we accept these stirring words as Perry's, we are able to see that perhaps the means to end the destruction is also inherent in modern culture. These moving words were not written in the nineteenth century; they were written in the 1970s. Can Perry join Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, Naess, and the other visionaries who have laid the foundation of the ecological movement?
The world is in an environmental crisis and needs help, but a mythical Indian chief from the last century is not going to ride over the hill and save it from the industrial cavalry in some reversal of the Hollywood western -- all of us are going to have to work together to save it ourselves. Recognizing that at least some of the answers lie within mainstream contemporary culture might be a good place to start. Knowing the authorship of these powerful words can perhaps give us hope that some of the sources of Macy's "great turning" may be found in modern society.
1. The Smith version and some later variations on this version can be found on the web at:
2. The Suquamish version of Seattle's speech, which
is probably the most credible source, can be found at at their website:
3. Various versions of Perry's speech, some beautifully
displayed, are available at these websites:
4. The Bill Moyer interview with Joseph Campbell can
be found at:
5. Kaiser, Rudolph (1987. A Fifth Gospel, Almost: Chief
Seattle's Speech(es): American Origins and European Reception. In Christian
F. Feest (ed.) Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of
Essays. Aachen: Rader Verlag.
Kaiser, Rudolph (1987). Chief Seattle's Speech(es): American Origins and European Reception. in Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press.
6. The Omni article can be found at: http://www.urbanlegends.com/misc/chief_seattle_environment_speech.html
while the Newsweek article is available at:
7. The web has many accounts of the history of the speeches.
The first link is especially interesting, as it includes Perry's own account
of the origin of his version.
8. Furtwangler, Albert (1997). Answering Chief Seattle.
Albany: State University of New York Press.
Gifford, Eli and Cook, R. M. (eds). How Can One Sell the Air? Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Co., 1992.
Murray, Mary. The Little Green Lie. Reader's Digest (July 1993), pp. 100-104.
Will the Real Chief Seattle Please Stand Up?: An Interview with Ted Perry, in D. Rothenberg and M. Ulvaeus (Eds.) The New Earth Reader.. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999. Pp. 36-51.
9. Deloria, Vine, Jr. (1995). Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the myth of scientific fact. New York: Scribner.
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