Facts, information and articles about Chief Seattle, a Native American Indian Chief from the Wild West
Chief Seattle Facts
June 6, 1866
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It is said he was born on the Black River near what is now the city of Kent. He was just a young man when he earned the reputation of being both a warrior and a leader because of the many defeating ambushes that he led. He and his group primarily attached the S'Klallam and the Chimakum along the Green River up from the foothills of the Cascades.
At just about six feet he was considered both broad and tall for a Puget Sound native and there for given the nickname, Le Gros or The Big One by the traders with the Hudson Bay Company. He also became known as an orator because of his articulate address regarding relations between the Native Americans and the Europeans.
He was baptized Noah into the Roman Catholic Church. In March of 1854 he gave a speech to a great number of people just outside of Seattle in regards to Native lands. He spoke while resting his hand on the Governor and it has been translated several times. He reportedly thanked the Europeans for their generosity and also asked to have guaranteed access to the Native American burial grounds.
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Among the Indians 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?
What we know of Sealth (pronounced SEE-elth, with a guttural stop at the end) and his life is mostly conjecture based upon myth with a little bit of extrapolated fact. That he was a tyee, or chief, has never been disputed. His father, Schweabe, had been a tyee, and the title was hereditary, though it conferred no power upon the holder. The Suquamish listened to the tyee only when he said what the people wanted to hear. The remainder of the time, a tyee was expected to share his largess with the rest of the tribe during a potlatch.
In 1792, Captain George Vancouver anchored off Restoration Point on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. Sealth, according to the recollections of various old-timers, often spoke of seeing the ship and being impressed with the guns, steel and other goods. Judging from these accounts, he must have been about 6 at the time. Vancouver was not impressed, writing in his log that the village was the most lowly and meanest of its kind. The best of the huts were poor and miserable, and the people were busily engaged like swine, rooting up this beautiful meadow.
As a young adult, Sealth made his mark as a warrior, orator and diplomat. He worked to increase cooperation within the 42 recognized divisions of Salish people occupying Puget Sound, including his own Suquamish. In later years it was remembered that the old chief had a resonant voice that carried half a mile and that eloquent sentences rolled from his lips like the ceaseless thunders of cataracts flowing from exhaustless fountains.
In 1832, he impressed the Hudson's Bay factor at Nisqually, Dr. Fraser Tolmie. The handsomest Indian I have ever seen, said Tolmie. In 1838, Sealth was baptized Noah by Father Modest Demers. One wonders if the tyee saw this as one practical way to ascend to the white man's affluence. When the Denny-Boren party landed in 1851 to found their town on Puget Sound, Sealth was there to encourage the construction of a trading post.
The post failed, but then Dr. David (Doc) Maynard entered the picture in 1855. Maynard had left his wife of 20 years in Ohio to come west and make his fortune. Doc was a dreamer, and he saw dollar signs on the shores of Puget Sound. No sooner had he filed on a large piece of property, next to the Dennys and Borens, than he began to give it away to encourage growth. He opened a trading post along the shores of the Duwamish River, and one of his best customers was Sealth. They became such good friends that Doc named the new city after him, Seattle being as close a pronunciation as most white tongues would allow. The tyee was less than pleased with the distinction, convinced as he was that, after dying, every time Seattle was spoken he would turn in his grave.
The 1850s were a turning point for the Salish peoples in and around Puget Sound. As more and more settlers moved into the country, aggressively displacing the Salish, discontent rose within the various tribes. With the discontent came acts of violence on both sides, with the Salish increasingly on the losing end. In 1853, Washington Territorial Governor Issac Stevens, a man who believed in the late 19th-century philosophy of the only good Indian is a dead Indian, began buying up or seizing Salish lands and removing the tribes to reservations. In December 1854, the governor visited Seattle, and Tyee Sealth made a speech lamenting that the day of the Indian had passed and the future belonged to the white man. On hand to take notes was Dr. Henry J. Smith, a surgeon with a penchant for florid Victorian poetry (his pen name was Paul Garland).
In 1855, Sealth spoke again, briefly, at the formal signing of the Port Madison Treaty, which settled the Suquamish on their reservation across the sound from Seattle. His brief remarks have none of the elaborate pretensions of most speeches recorded during that era. As historian Bernard DeVoto noted, Indian speeches tended to reflect the literary aspirations of the recorder more than the orator.
Three years later, an old and impoverished Sealth spoke one last time for the record, wondering why the treaty had not been signed by the Congress of the United States, leaving the Indians to languish in poverty: I have been very poor and hungry all winter and am very sick now. In a little while I will die. When I do, my people will be very poor; they will have no property, no chief and no one to talk for them. This entire text, as well as Sealth's 1855 comments, are preserved in the National Archives.
Until the 1970s, the story of 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's poetic 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's Lushotseed 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 Victorian English of Dr. Henry Smith an interpretation that retains the tyee's meaning, if not the wording and phrasing. A fourth version displayed at the 1974 Spokane 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-Indian 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.
The chief died in 1866. His grave lies in a little cemetery behind the historic St. Peter's Catholic Church in the hamlet of Suquamish on Washington's Kitsap Peninsula. Through tall Douglas-fir trees toward the west, visitors can gaze across mist-covered Puget Sound on warm summer days. With the snow-clad Cascade Mountains on the far horizon as background, the tiny bumps of downtown Seattle rise like headstones.
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