The myth of Chief Seattle (aka Noah Seeath)

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-8arDH2TkO3.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of’, ‘The myth of Chief Seattle, who lived from 1786 to 1866, has grown over the years.’);

“This we know. The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the 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.”

This profound statement has been the rallying cry of environmentalists for decades, and is probably the most quoted statement used in oral and written pleas for the intelligent use of our natural resources. I have used it many times, as have others, and attributed it to a Native American best known as Chief Seattle. Even former Vice President Al Gore used it in his book Earth Balance.

The only thing wrong with this is that neither Chief Seattle nor any other Native American made that statement. It was written in 1971 as part of a film script for TV by a University of Texas professor named Ted Perry. He mentioned Chief Seattle in the script, but when the show aired, no specific credit was given to the writer, and it was erroneously assumed the Chief had uttered these deeply philosophical and eloquent words.

Chief Seattle did actually exist and lived from 1786 to 1866. When he converted to Catholicism in the 1830s, he adopted the name Noah, but his real name in the Lushootseed language was Seeath. He was a great leader of the Susquamish and Duwamish tribes that inhabited the region of the Puget Sound in the northwestern United States. The city of Seattle was named after him because of his aid to early settlers and a statue of him is to be found in the downtown of that beautiful city.

In 1854, the federal government was attempting to buy back lands already ceded to Seattle’s people, and the loquacious Seattle gave a speech in his native language in reply. During his oration, he is supposed to have said: “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?”

The myth of Chief Seattle’s now famous discourse began when a Dr. Henry A. Smith took notes during the speech and published it verbatim 32 years later in a Seattle newspaper. One wonders how Dr. Smith managed to translate the long address precisely from the obscure Lushotseed language into elegant English prose, and why he waited so long to do so.

Many things in Smith’s translation discredit his claim of exactness in translation. For example, Seattle was a devout Catholic after his conversion, and it is not conceivable that he would say, according to Smith, “Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God.” Also, a reference to the wholesale slaughter of buffalo on the prairie he had witnessed was made, and it is very doubtful that he had ever seen a buffalo.

Over the years many other statements with profound environmental impact have been attributed to Seattle, but there is no proof he actually made any of them. Some of these quoted remarks supposedly made by the Chief on various topics are as follows:

Birthright: “The white man treats his mother the Earth and his brother (a reference to slavery) the same as things to be bought, plundered, or sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.”

Preciousness of the air: “The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath—the beast, the tree, the man; they all share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days, he is numb to the stench.”

Respect for the Earth: “You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our 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 that the Earth is their mother. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit on themselves.”

Whether these sentiments were expressed by Seattle, Dr. Smith, Perry or others does not matter. The message to us is loud and clear, and my hope is that those who continue ruthlessly to rape and desecrate our land will take heed and curtail their greed.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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