Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens & Chief Seattle

Source: Museum of History and Industry;
Seattle, Washington -- June, 1990

In 1854, the new territorial governor, Isaac Stevens, began the long-awaited process of making treaties with the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. The purpose of these negotiations was clear: the Indians were to sign away their lands to the settlers in return for small reservations and promises of government aid. Dr. David Maynard, sub-Indian agent and a friend of Chief Seattle, arranged for Governor Stevens to meet with Seattle and his people in December 1854. The Indians congregated on the beach just north of the present Kingdome.

At this meeting, Chief Seattle is said to have made an impassioned speech in his native tongue. As Seattle spoke, Dr. Henry Smith, for whom Smith Cove is named, took notes from which he reconstructed the Chief's words some 33 years later, publishing them in the October 29, 1887 edition of the Seattle Sunday Star. Smith's flowery rendering of Chief Seattle's oration does not conform to what we know of the speaking style of the Puget Sound Indians. Native speech was not given to ornate embellishment. Dr. Smith, for his part, was known as a "poet of no ordinary talent" who "wove into verses and essays much of his musings." Thus while this earliest version of the speech may present the gist of Chief Seattle's remarks, it seems likely that it is also the product of Henry Smith's poetic musings. However flawed it may be, this is the only eyewitness account of Chief Seattle's most famous speech.

That fame is due, in part, to the appearance of a magnificent call to environmental responsibility that has been wrongly attributed to Chief Seattle. In the winter of 1971/72, Ted Perry, a screenwriter working for the Southern Baptist Convention's Radio and Television Commission, used Chief Seattle's speech as a model for the script of a film on ecology called _Home_. The film's producer wanted to show a distinguished American Indian chief delivering a statement of concern for the environment, so Perry wove such wonderful lines as "The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth" among pieces of Chief Seattle's 1854 oration. Perry expected to be given credit for writing this film script, but he made the mistake of including the Chief's name in his text. According to Perry, the producer didn't credit his screen writer because he thought the film might seem more authentic without a "written by" credit. Since then, Perry's environmental text has been widely circulated as a prophetic ecological statement by Chief Seattle himself.