Lost in translation
“Quotations” from Chief Seattle (c.1786-1866), particularly those that have an ecological tone, appear on posters, photographs, and monuments. These “quotes” are used almost everywhere that people want to express the idea that Native Americans had natural wisdom about the land and that the tragedy is that it was taken away from them.
As a young man in the Duwamish tribe in the north-west, Seattle proved himself a great warrior and later a great chief. But by the late 1840s, he was starting to lose territory to other Native American groups such as the Snohomish. Once white settlers started moving in from the east, Seattle and the Duwamish were caught between two expanding forces.
Although he was not happy about it, Seattle was able to negotiate an agreement with the leader of the settlers, David Swinson Maynard, to retreat to a reserved portion of land not under contention with the Snohomish and the settlers. Maynard was genuinely impressed with Seattle’s dignity and care for his people, and he proposed that the city founded in north-western Washington be named after the great chief.
So far, so good. But here’s where the problems start, at least in terms of the ways Chief Seattle’s words and wisdom have come down to us over the years. There is some historical debate about whether the speech occurred on January 12, 1854, March 11, 1854, or January 22, 1855. Even though the March 11, 1854 date is the one you’ll see most often on posters and stuff, the 1855 date is much more solid.
Here’s what happened. Governor Stevens of Washington territory took a tour of Native American settlements in the north west corner of the state in 1854 and 1855. Stevens said he wanted to hear from council chiefs about their grievances, and sign treaties. On January 22, 1855, Governor Stevens met with Seattle and the leaders of many Native American groups in the area, in order to parcel out reservation land, and to sign the Treaty of Port Elliot. After Stevens gave a short speech explaining the Treaty, Chief Seattle got up to speak.
Here is the most popular “version” of what he said:
“Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion upon my people for centuries untold, and which to us appears changeless and eternal, may change. Today is fair. Tomorrow it may be overcast with clouds. My words are like the stars that never change. Whatever Seattle says, the great chief at Washington can rely upon with as much certainty as he can upon the return of the sun or the seasons. The white chief says that Big Chief at Washington sends us greetings of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him for we know he has little need of our friendship in return. His people are many. They are like the grass that covers vast prairies. My people are few. They resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain. The great, and I presume — good, White Chief sends us word that he wishes to buy our land but is willing to allow us enough to live comfortably. This indeed appears just, even generous, for the Red Man no longer has rights that he need respect, and the offer may be wise, also, as we are no longer in need of an extensive country.
There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of tribes that are now but a mournful memory. I will not dwell on, nor mourn over, our untimely decay, nor reproach my paleface brothers with hastening it, as we too may have been somewhat to blame.
Youth is impulsive. When our young men grow angry at some real or imaginary wrong, and disfigure their faces with black paint, it denotes that their hearts are black, and that they are often cruel and relentless, and our old men and old women are unable to restrain them. Thus it has ever been. Thus it was when the white man began to push our forefathers ever westward. But let us hope that the hostilities between us may never return. We would have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Revenge by young men is considered gain, even at the cost of their own lives, but old men who stay at home in times of war, and mothers who have sons to lose, know better.
Our good father in Washington — for I presume he is now our father as well as yours, since King George has moved his boundaries further north—our great and good father, I say, sends us word that if we do as he desires he will protect us. His brave warriors will be to us a bristling wall of strength, and his wonderful ships of war will fill our harbors, so that our ancient enemies far to the northward — the Haidas and Tsimshians — will cease to frighten our women, children, and old men. The in reality he will be our father and we his children. But can that ever be? Your God is not our God! Your God loves your people and hates mine! He folds his strong protecting arms lovingly about the paleface and leads him by the hand as a father leads an infant son. But, He has forsaken His Red children, if they really are His. Our God, the Great Spirit, seems also to have forsaken us. Your God makes your people wax stronger every day. Soon they will fill all the land. Our people are ebbing away like a rapidly receding tide that will never return. The white man’s God cannot love our people or He would protect them. They seem to be orphans who can look nowhere for help. How then can we be brothers? How can your God become our God and renew our prosperity and awaken in us dreams of returning greatness? If we have a common Heavenly Father He must be partial, for He came to His paleface children. We never saw Him. He gave you laws but had no word for His red children whose teeming multitudes once filled this vast continent as stars fill the firmament. No; we are two distinct races with separate origins and separate destinies. There is little in common between us.
To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret. Your religion was written upon tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God so that you could not forget. The Red Man could never comprehend or remember it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors — the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night 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 land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars. They are soon forgotten and never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return from the happy hunting ground to visit, guide, console, and comfort them.
Day and night cannot dwell together. The Red Man has ever fled the approach of the White Man, as the morning mist flees before the morning sun. However, your proposition seems fair and I think that my people will accept it and will retire to the reservation you offer them. Then we will dwell apart in peace, for the words of the Great White Chief seem to be the words of nature speaking to my people out of dense darkness.
It matters little where we pass the remnant of our days. They will not be many. The Indian’s night promises to be dark. Not a single star of hope hovers above his horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Grim fate seems to be on the Red Man’s trail, and wherever he will hear the approaching footsteps of his fell destroyer and prepare stolidly to meet his doom, as does the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter.
A few more moon, a few more winters, and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to mourn over the graves of a people once more powerful and hopeful than yours. But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.
We will ponder your proposition and when we decide we will let you know. But should we accept it, I here and now make this condition that we will not be denied the privilege without molestation of visiting at any time the tombs of our ancestors, friends, and children. Ever part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch. Our departed braves, fond mothers, glad, happy hearted maidens, and even the little children who lived here and rejoiced here for a brief season, will love these somber solitudes and at eventide they greet shadowy returning spirits. And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless 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 are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them 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.”
Undeniably, it’s a beautiful speech, but there’s no good evidence that this is what he actually said.
The problem starts with the transcription and translation. Seattle rose to respond to Governor Stephens and all accounts say that he spoke for a long time and with great dignity. Seattle spoke in the Lushootseed language. Someone translated into Chinook Jargon, which was a pigeon language used for trade and had only a basic vocabulary. A third person, now unknown, translated the Chinook Jargon version into English. Right off the bat, the speech had been filtered down through Chinook Jargon, probably losing almost all its subtleties on the way, and then the Chinook Jargon version got translated into English. In order to translate any trading language like Chinook Jargon into a full language, you have to add words back in. The English translator didn’t know the original Lushootseed words, and so used whatever English ones seemed to fit best.
OK, you say, but this is all a technicality. Even through all those filters, surely we have the essence of what Chief Seattle wanted to say. That’s good enough for posters in dorms and yoga studios, right?
Wrong. The speech that is most well know wasn’t written down until 33 years later by Dr. Henry A. Smith. Smith was at the 1855 speech and took notes that focused more on Seattle’s speaking style than transcription. Because of Smith’s very limited knowledge of the Lushootseed language and vocabulary, he said himself that he only recorded “…but a fragment of Chief
That didn’t stop him from writing a very flowery version of the surviving transcription/translation, that is, the Lushootseed to Chinook Jargon to English “third hand at best” version. And that became the dorm room poster, greeting card, version that people know and love today.
But that’s not all, Buzzkillers. Some of Chief Seattle’s most famous one-liners come from his “Letter to President Franklin Pierce,” asking for concessions to Native Americans and for more respect for nature and the land. In it, many of the themes of the famous speech are repeated. Allegedly, Chief Seattle wanted his name to be removed from the City and disappear when Washington became a state, as if becoming a state was the final nail in the coffin for Native American culture.
“Every part of all this soil is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. The very dust you now stand on responds more willingly to their footsteps than to yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch.
Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only change of worlds.
We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy – and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his fathers’ graves, and his children’s birthright is forgotten.
Tribe follows tribe, nations follow nations like the tides of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless.
Today is fair. Tomorrow may be overcast with clouds. My words are like the stars that never change.
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?
Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.
The sap which courses through the trees carries the memory of the red man.
The perfumed flowers are our sisters, the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man – all belong to the same family. This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors.
If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that the ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells us events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father. The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes, feed our children. If we sell our land, you must learn, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.
You must teach the children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. 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.
Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.
The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to 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.
What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man.”
Alas, Buzzkillers, no such letter to President Franklin exists. There is also no record of the President receiving such a letter (usually secretaries kept logs of correspondence). And, in 1992, the letter was shown to have been a forgery. It was cooked up by Ted Perry, a scriptwriter who was working on a historical epic in 1971.
This has been the only full episode that we’ve devoted to “quote or no quote,” but we hope it shows how famous quotes very come down to us through many filters and many hands.
“Thus Spoke Chief Seattle: The Story of An Undocumented Speech” By Jerry L. Clark