Chief Seattle :: Just Too Good to be True

"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 700,000 copies.

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 of thing."

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.