Chief Seattle Speech :: Washington State Library

Washington State Library

Olympia, Washington
letterhead (1993)
Nancy Zussy, State Librarian

The speech given by Chief Seattle in January of 1854 is the subject of a great deal of historical debate. The most important fact to note is that there is NO VERBATIM TRANSCRIPT IN EXISTENCE. All known texts are second-hand.

Version 1 appeared in the Seattle Sunday Star on Oct. 29, 1887, in a column by Dr. Henry A. Smith. He makes it very clear that his version is not an exact copy, but rather the best he could put together from notes taken at the time. There is an undecided historical argument on which native dialect the Chief would have used, Duwamish or Suquamish. Either way all agree the speech was translated into the Chinook Jargon on the spot, since Chief Seattle never learned to speak English.

[Version 1 begins: Yonder sky has wept tears of compassion on our fathers for centuries untold, and which, to us, looks eternal, may change. To-day it is fair, to-morrow it may be overcast with clouds. My words are like the stars that never set. ...]
Version 2 was written by poet William Arrowsmith in the late 1960s. This was an attempt to put the text into more current speech patterns, rather than Dr. Smith's more flowery Victorian style. Except for this modernization, it is very similar to Version 1.
[Version 2 begins: Brothers: That sky above us has pitied our fathers for many hundreds of years. To us it looks unchanging, but it may change. Today it is fair. Tomorrow it may be covered with cloud. ...]
Version 3 is perhaps the most widely known of all. This version was written by Texas professor Ted Perry as part of a film script. The makers of the film took a little literary license, further changing the speech and making it into a letter to President Franklin Pierce, which has been frequently reprinted. No such letter was ever written by or for Chief Seattle.
[Version 3 begins: The Great Chief in Washington sends word that wishes to buy our land. The Great Chief also sends us words of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him, since we know he has little need of our friendship in return. But we will consider your offer. For we know that if we do not sell, the white man may come with guns and take our land. How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. ...]
Version 4 appeared in an exhibit at Expo '74 in Spokane, Washington, and is a shortened edition of Dr. Perry's script (Version 3).
[Version 4 begins: The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. Buy our land! But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. ...] ...

The best description of the saga of Chief Seattle's speech can be found in an essay by Rudolf Kaiser: "Chief Seattle's Speech(es): American Origins and European Reception" published in Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature by the University of California Press, 1987. Another excellent discussion appears in David Buerge's article "Seattle's King Arthur: How Chief Seattle continues to inspire his many admirers to put words in his mouth," appearing in the July 17, 1991 Seattle Weekly.


Newsweek, May 4, 1992
An article challenging the authenticity of the Perry text. It is also a chastisement for those who fail to check their sources.
Museum of History and Industry
A brief historical outline of the conditions under which Chief Seattle originally spoke, and how the various textual transcriptions of that text came to be.
Joseph Campbell
Joseph Cambell fooled by the Perry Text.
The Smith Text
The text most often referred to as 'authentic'.