#10: William Drannan's Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains
#9: Chief Seattle's Speech
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest it was impossible to evade some sort of consideration of the aboriginal peoples who had come before us. They themselves didn't put in much of an appearance--oh, there was one fellow who used to show up at assemblies and explain to us the ceremonial dances, but not much past that--but their dead surrounded us. Their names littered the landscape, their legends were featured in classroom and museum presentations, and of course there was that large hole not far from summer camp that had once held their bones, until some treasure-hunters dynamited it.
"Sometimes the Indians win, and sometimes the real people win," one of my brothers observed as a child, explaining why he liked a particular show. The Indians weren't real to us; they belonged to the realm of pirates and leprechauns. So the image of the Indian, as it were, was available for any sort of use anybody would like. Test patterns, for example, or team icons. Whatever.
The environmental movement and the American Indian seem to be a perfect match, image-wise anyway. The untrammeled wilderness, the Bald Eagle, a native American in a canoe--perfect. And what would be better than, say, a native American prophet, excoriating the Euro-American for the destruction of the natural environment?
Let us say that a native American prophet once said:
Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the Earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.Them are some words, aren't they? Personally, I wish that Chief Seattle (or Seathl or Sealth) really had said them. The Duwamish leader, after whom the city of Seattle is named, is credited with saying them at any rate. There is room for doubt on the face of it. Native American speeches in the Pacific Northwest tended to go through two levels of translation to get to English--first into Chinook Jargon, and then into English. Now the Jargon was a marvelously flexible instrument for trade and the like, but was rather limited in expressing abstract thoughts. "Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of Earth. Man did not weave the web of life--he is merely a strand in it." I'd love to see what the Jargon actually said before the English translator got hold of it. I can't help but feel that the guy is being a bit fancy with his renderings, to say the least. And then when we get down to the part about the buffalo being slaughtered and the view obstructed with wires--when exactly was Chief Seattle supposed to be talking? In 1854? Something is wrong there; he is describing events of the future, things that had not happened in his time. Further, why on earth would a Puget Sound dweller give a damn about the buffalo? The odds are--and I'm by no means the first person to think this--that the chief never so much as saw a buffalo in his life. This is salmon country, damn it. Not the great plains. No buffalo here. And the great slaughters of the buffalo herds was still in the future in 1854, along with wires blocking the views of the hills. If this speech is authentic, it is remarkable in its anticipation of future events and attitudes. If it is authentic, then Chief Seattle was indeed a prophet.
This we know - the Earth does not belong to man--man belongs to the Earth. This we know. ... Whatever befalls the Earth--befalls the sons of the Earth. 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. ... we do not understand when the buffalo are slaughtered, the wild horses tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the Eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.
So let's take a look at the evidence, shall we? I don't mean to be sarcastic here, but when something looks like a late-twentieth-century artifact, sounds like late-twentieth-century prose, and is informed by late-twentieth-century attitudes, I tend to suppose that it is a piece from the late twentieth century. If it isn't, well then we've got something really amazing here, and it deserves some checking out.
So let's go back to 1854 for the moment. What were the historical circumstances? It was not an easy time for anybody in the Pacific Northwest, or Oregon Country, as it was then known. James K. Polk, as everybody will recall from American History in high school, had got himself elected president on the slogan "Fifty-four Forty or fight," and then proceeded to sell out the people who had voted for him by (wisely) accepting forty-nine as the dividing line between American and British Oregon (and thus avoiding a two-front war with both Britain and Mexico). The reward for this was the gain of what is today western Washington, including the present city of Seattle and the whole Puget Sound region, as the wise money had been on the Columbia River as the dividing line between the nations. It was a blow to Hudson's Bay Company, which had significant holdings north of the Columbia and south of the forty-ninth parallel. And it was serious blow to those native hunters and trappers who owed their present prosperity and entire way of life to trade with the Hudson's Bay Company.
This, however, was only the beginning. With the title (so to speak) to Oregon Country cleared, a main block to immigration was removed. Starting in 1847 settlers from the United States starting streaming over the borders and taking up land claims. Conflicts with the local peoples inevitably followed. Ben Wright's expedition against the Modocs, the Rogue River Wars, and a host of other conflicts followed. Propagandists--especially one Charles S. Drew--argued for a war of extermination against all the coastal peoples, from California (newly a state) to the forty-ninth parallel. Drew was adamant that the time to begin was now, before the native Americans acquired guns and learned how to use them.
Even without active conflict the local peoples were in turmoil. Many were frankly starving. Settlers destroyed native food supplies, and nobody did anything towards providing a substitute. The attitude of the settlers towards them was a compound of racism and class disparagement--the locals were widely considered much as the homeless are today--disgusting people who brought their problems on their own heads by being drunken and lazy.
When Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens was appointed, one of his main jobs (the position of Commissioner for Indian Affairs went along with the appointment) was to get the original inhabitants of the lands off the backs of the newcomers, primarily by getting them to agree to a greatly reduced range of lands for occupation. As he went through his new territory, planting the seeds of future conflicts with a liberal hand, making promises he had neither the ability nor the intention of keeping, he held talk after talk with various local groups. It was on one of these occasions, in 1854, that he met with Chief Seattle.
There is no contemporary transcription of the speech, and no good reason to suppose that one ever existed. There is, however, one record of Chief Seattle's spoken words from the general process: he said a few words on the occasion of the Point Elliott Council, held 21-2 January 1855. Governor Stevens was there to work out the details of a treaty, and to get something on paper to send back to Congress. He explained:
The Great Father thinks you ought to have homes, and he wants you to have a school where your children can learn to read, and can be made farmers and be taught trades. He is willing you should catch fish in the waters, and get roots and berries back in the mountains. He wishes you all to be virtuous and industrious, and to become a happy and prosperous community. Is this good, and do you want this? If not, we will talk further.All answered "We do," according to the record, and after some further comments on the sale of their lands, and a mass celebrated by the native Americans (who were Roman Catholic), the following exchange was recorded. Governor Stevens spoke:
Does any one object to what I have said? Does my venerable friend Seattle object? I want Seattle to give his heart to me and to his people.Seattle replied:
I look upon you as my father. All the Indians have the same good feeling toward you, and will send it on the paper to the Great Father. All of them—men, old men, women, and children—rejoice that he has sent you to take care of them. My mind is like yours; I don't want to say more. My heart is very good towards Dr. Maynard [a physician who was present] ; I want always to get medicine from him.That's it. For a moment we hear the voice of the Duwamish chief, and then he disappears into the background again. He emerges once again in the record a day later, during a token presentation of gifts. Seattle presented a white flag to the governor, saying:
Now, by this we make friends, and put away all bad feelings, if we ever had any. We are the friends of the Americans. All the Indians are of the same mind. We look upon you as our father. We will never change our minds, but, since you have been to see us, we will always be the same. Now! now! do you send.this paper of our hearts to the Great Chief. That is all I have to say.And that is indeed all Chief Seattle has to say, at least for decades.
Now, let's fast-forward past the massacre at Sand Creek, the Modoc War, Little Big Horn, and the rest, to the year 1887. In that year--but let me digress for a moment.
As the memories of the frontier faded into the past--and for the residents of Oregon and Washington, anyway, frontier times were long gone by the 1880s--it became fashionable for newspapers to run series of articles regaling the readers with tales of these now forgotten and near legendary times. They range considerably in value, some of them adding plausible details to the bare historical record, and others seemingly made up of cobwebs and moonshine. The one I'm about to mention seems to fall in the territory somewhere between.
So in 1887 a piece by one Henry A. Smith appeared in Seattle Sunday Star. It was the tenth article in the series "Early Reminiscences." The subject: a particularly memorable speech by Chief Seattle, a speech at which the author was present and took notes. According to Smith, "Chief Seattle arose with all the dignity of a senator, who carries the responsibilities of a great nation on his shoulders. Placing one hand on the, governor's head and slowly pointing heavenward with the index finger of the other, he commenced his memorable address in solemn and impressive tones."
Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion on our fathers for centuries untold, and which, to us, looks eternal, may change. Today it is fair, tomorrow it may be overcast with clouds. My words are like stars that never set. What Seattle says, the great chief, Washington, can rely upon, with as much certainty as our paleface brothers can rely upon the return of the seasons.In this speech Chief Seattle muses on the differences between his people and the governor's:
The son of the white chief says his father sends us greetings of friendship and good will. This is kind, for we know he has little need of our friendship in return, because his people are many. They are like the grass that covers the vast prairies, while my people are few, and resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain.
No, we are two distinct races and must ever remain so. There is little in common between us. The ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their final resting place is hallowed ground, while you wander away from the tombs of your fathers seemingly without regret.He looks ahead to a time when his people will have vanished:
Your religion was written on tables of stone by the iron finger of an angry God, lest you might forget it, The red man could never remember nor comprehend it.
Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors, the dream of our old men, given them by the great Spirit, and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people.Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.
Day and night cannot dwell together. The red man has ever fled the approach of the white man, as the changing mists on the mountainside flee before the blazing morning sun. ...
It matters but little where we pass the remainder of our days. They are not many.
The Indian's night promises to be dark. No bright star hovers about the horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Some grim Nemesis of our race is on the red man's trail, and wherever he goes he will still hear the sure approaching footsteps of the fell destroyer and prepare to meet his doom, as does the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter. A few more moons, a few more winters, and not one of all the mighty hosts that once filled this broad land or that now roam in fragmentary bands through these vast solitudes will remain to weep over the tombs of a people once as powerful and as hopeful as your own.
But why should be repine? Why should I murmur at the fate of my people? Tribes are made up of individuals and are no better than they. Men come and go like the waves of the sea. A tear, a tamanawus, a dirge, and they are gone from our longing eyes forever. Even the white man, whose God walked and talked with him, as friend to friend, is not exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.
He refers to his people's connection with the land:
Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe.
Even the rocks that seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, and the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.
And he concludes with a warning:
And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among white men shall have become a myth, these shores shall swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children's children shall think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway or in the silence of the woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night, when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent, and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not altogether powerless.Here, it seems, at last, we have the authentic voice of the old chief. Or do we? As Jerry L. Clark notes, "The sentiments expressed in the speech attributed to the old chieftain are consonant with those held by persons disturbed by the destruction of the Indian world by the development of the American frontier." And unlike the 1855 speeches quoted above, this one shows no signs of having passed through a Chinook Jargon stage.
Ah, but Henry Smith was fluent in the Duwamish language, we are told, and was thus able to bypass the translation into the Jargon altogether.Okay, fair enough--though as Smith only arrived in the area at the beginning of 1853, it is natural to wonder just how fluent he could have been. Still, maybe he was a quick study. A biography describes him as a "rare scholar".
So can we establish the time and place of this speech? Jerry Clark observes that Governor Stevens visited the area three times--in January 1854, March 1854, and in January 1855. The last was the occasion of the treaty-related speeches quoted above. Internal evidence shows that this speech cannot belong to the last visit; the possible treaty is spoken of as something in the future, something still to be discussed by Seattle's people. So can we establish which of the two earlier occasions is the likely occasion for this speech?
The strongest probability is the March 1854 meeting. According to Clark this meeting occurred when "Stevens rushed to the area at the head of a detachment of troops in search of Indians who had murdered a settler. During a tense meeting with Seattle and Chief Patkanan of the Snoqualmies, Stevens introduced himself and explained the purpose of his visit. Surveyor George Gibbs later recalled that 'Seattle made a great speech declaring his good disposition toward the whites.'" Clark argues that this can't be the speech, however, "because another local citizen, Luther Collins, served as a translator into Chinook, the trade language of the Puget Sound tribes, and an Indian in turn translated into the local tongue. Obviously, Dr. Smith and his language skills could not have been available to Stevens during this important confrontation. In fact, Dr. Smith is not listed among those present at this council."
Now with all due respect to Jerry L. Clark, this doesn't actually settle the matter. Who did the translating wasn't always a function of who was best suited for the job, and not everybody who was present was necessarily listed. If Dr. Smith was simply a local resident hanging around and taking notes (which is what it sounds like--he admits he did not take notes of what the other speakers said; only of Chief Seattle's speech), his presence might well not be noted. And as a relative newcomer, his knowledge of the local languages might well be discounted.
But taken together--the difficulty in seeing how Dr. Smith could have become fluent in the language in less than a year, the lack of evidence for his being at the council, and the fact that the quoted portions of the speech do not match the description given by George Gibbs, but rather seem to reflect the concerns of people decades later--these points cast considerable doubt on it. It would be a lot more reassuring, frankly, if Dr. Smith had been there, and if there were any hard evidence for his alleged knowledge of the Duwamish language. At the very least.
The next change was relatively minor, but illustrates the sort of thing that happens in uncontrolled transmission of a text: somebody in the early twentieth century added to the end of the speech the words, "Dead--did I say? There is no death. Only a change of worlds." (The editor was John M. Rich according to Jerry Clark, and A. C. Baillard according to Donald Simanek.) In any case John Rich's 1932 book, Chief Seattle's Unanswered Challenge, appears to be the source for subsequent reprints.
Again, let's zoom forward a bit. Enter William Arrowsmith, translator, scholar, film critic, political activist--in fact, what wasn't he? If you've ever spent time with Aristophanes or Euripides, or with Petronius, even, chances are that you've read one of Arrowsmith's translations. In the late 1960s he came out with what some called a new translation of Chief Seattle's speech. For example, where's Smith's version had read:
Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.
Your dead forget you and the country of their birth as soon as they go beyond the grave and walk among the stars. They are quickly forgotten and they never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth. It is their mother. They always love and remember her rivers, her great mountains, her valleys. They long for the living, who are lonely too and who long for the dead. And their spirits often return to visit and console us.
Now William Arrowsmith was an amazing guy, truly a "rare scholar"--but could even he somehow conjure up the lost Duwamish original of a century-old speech and re-translate it into English? He knew his way around ancient Greek and Latin the way a blind man knows the inside of his own house--but did he also include this relatively obscure native American dialect among his accomplishments? This is way beyond the boundaries of the possible, and in fact the Arrowsmith "translation" is simply a paraphrase of Smith's version, minus some of the over-the-top Victorianisms, and given a distinctly twentieth-century twist. It's a nice job--here for example is his version of the conclusion of the speech:
When the last red man has vanished from this earth, and his memory is only a story among the whites, these shores will still swarm with the invisible dead of my people. And when you children's children think they are alone in the fields, the forests, the shops, the highways, or the quiet of the woods, they will not be alone. 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.
As I said, a nice job. But a paraphrase, not a new translation.
The next stage in this saga came fairly quickly, around 1970, when film critic Ted Perry wrote a screenplay for an environmentally-conscious film put out by the Southern Baptists. Ted Perry, who knew William Arrowsmith, was inspired by his version of the speech to write a speech for a native American chief on the sanctity of the land. Never having seen the film Home myself, I'm not clear on how this speech fit into things--and besides, apparently the film altered Perry's text further, turning it into a letter from Chief Seattle to the President of the United States. Linda Marsa wrote in Omni "The film's producer Christianized Seattle's sensibilities and dropped Perry's name--despite his protests--from the script, which left the impression that these were Seattle's words." Ted Perry has always claimed authorship of the speech. "Why are we so willing to accept a text like this if it's attributed to a Native American?" he is quoted as saying. "It's another case of placing Native Americans up on a pedestal and not taking responsibility for our own actions."