"Just Too Good to Be True:
another reason to beware of false eco-prophets"
by Malcolm Jones Jr. with Ray Sawhill
Newsweek, May 4, 1992
Michael Her Many Horses remembers the first time he doubted
Chief Seattle's famous speech about caring for the planet. It was a TV
program about the Northwest rain forest. The narrator quoted the 19th-century
Suquamish Indian's plea for living in harmony with nature. "My reaction
was that here's a guy that understood what the environment could provide
for his people," recalls Her Many Horses, executive director of the
Oglala Sioux [sic] tribe on the Pine Ridge (S.D.) Reservation. But somehow
the chief's words didn't ring true. "It made me feel good, but it
seemed too perfect."
It is too perfect. Chief Seattle did give a speech in 1854,
but he never said "The earth is our mother." He never said "I
have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white
man who shot them from a passing train." The chief lived in the Pacific
Northwest. He never saw a buffalo.
Those oh-so-quotable quotes were written by a screenwriter named
Ted Perry for "Home," a 1972 film about ecology. Perry
wanted Native American testimony on environmental problems, so he made
up some eco-homilies and stuck them in Chief Seattle's mouth. Since then,
the so-called Fifth Gospel speech [so referred by Monsignor Bruce Kent]
has been widely quoted in books, on TV, from the pulpit. Last week the
organizers of Earth Day asked religious leaders from around the world
to read the speech. And a kid's book, "Brother Eagle, Sister Sky:
A Message From Chief Seattle," has sold 280,000 copies since its
release last September.
The book is one of 10 nominees for the American Booksellers
Association's Abby award for the book booksellers most enjoyed selling
in the past year. Last year, ironically, the Abby was given to "The
Education of Little Tree," the purported autobiography of the late
Forrest Carter, who claimed he was raised by two wise Cherokee grandparents.
Even when it came out that Forrest Carter was in fact Asa Carter, a notorious
white supremacist, the book continued to sell well-it's now sold almost
The public's appetite for environmentally correct Native Americans
is apparently bottomless. ... The Smithsonian Institution's Herman Viola,
an expert on American Indian history, sees little harm in the trend. Chief
Seattle's mythical speech "conveys the feeling a lot of Indians had.
There was some Indian out there who would have said that kind
Open eyes: Ted Perry takes a darker view. Now a professor at
Middlebury College in Vermont, Perry has tried repeatedly to set the record
straight. Moreover, he thinks that the myth is pernicious. "Why are
we so willing to accept a text like this if it's attributed to a Native
American?" he asks. "It's another case of placing Native Americans
up on a pedestal and not taking responsibility for our own actions."
In any case, it's probably too late to do anything for poor
Chief Seattle, who is by now more legend than anything else. Even the
one known photograph of him has been doctored repeatedly. In the original,
his eyes were closed. Subsequent version were retouched so that his eyes
looked open. In some versions, he carries a cane, but not always. And
in the most revisionist makeover, his head has been grafted onto the body
of another man.