Myth-Quoted: Words Of Chief Seattle Were Eloquent - But Not His

Yes, Virginia, there was a Chief Seattle. And, by all reports, he was a very fine fellow indeed.

But no, Virginia, Chief Seattle did not say: "The earth is our mother."

In fact, the earth-mother quote is just one of many ecological insights, widely attributed to Chief Seattle, that are pure, unadulterated myth - and relatively recent myth at that. Try these:

-- "We are a part of the earth and it is part of us." Chief Seattle might have believed this, but there is no evidence he ever said it.

-- "Contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste." Sorry. No way.

-- "I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train." Get serious. Chief Seattle never left Puget Sound, so he never saw a railroad, nor a buffalo - dead or alive.

For at least a generation, local historians and Native Americans have been trying to correct these and other myths surrounding the native patriarch who gave Seattle its name.

But myth dies hard. Especially a myth that serves the ends of a vibrant environmental movement.

Rick Caldwell, the librarian at the Museum of History and Industry, has become something of an authority on what Chief Seattle, also known as Chief Sealth, did not say - and why. Here, he says, is what is known:

In 1854, an aging Chief Seattle attended a reception for territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens, who was trying to buy Puget Sound lands from the Indians. The chief, who spoke no English, delivered a speech, which supposedly was translated by pioneer Dr. Henry A. Smith. And in 1887, Smith published the speech in a Seattle newspaper.

"There was a time when our people covered the whole land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea covers its shell-paved floor," Seattle was reported to have said in his native Duwamish language. "But that time has long since passed away. . . . I will not mourn over our untimely decay, nor reproach my paleface brothers for hastening it, for we too may have been somewhat to blame. . . .

"Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living, and often return to visit and comfort them . . .

"Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory."

And so forth.

Nice speech.

But even that translation is questionable, Caldwell says.

"Dr. Smith claimed to speak Duwamish, but one wonders. . . . He had only been in the Northwest for a year," Caldwell explains. "Smith has been referred to as a poet of no ordinary talent. So you have to wonder if those were Chief Seattle's words, or Smith's."

Still, Smith's has been the authorized version, accepted by local historians from Clarence Bagley to Roger Sale.

Then, some 20 years ago, comes the "green" version, with Chief Seattle waxing eloquent, and at great length, about the earth mother and the buffalo and contaminating one's bed.

Sometimes it is a letter from the chief to the Great White Father, who happened to be Franklin Pierce. Sometimes it is a poem. In 1974, the speech droned from the mouth of a Chief Seattle statue at the Spokane World's Fair. It has been reprinted hundreds, perhaps thousands of times in books, films posters and brochures, published by groups ranging from Friends of the Earth to the Southern Baptists.

Skeptics cried foul. In 1975, Janice Krenmayr wrote an article for The Seattle Times, warning that "Chief Seattle must be turning in his grave." Bill Holm, curator at the Burke Museum, pleaded for environmentalists to step forward and admit they had made it up. Earlier this month, KPLU-FM radio commentator Paula Wissel reviewed the scam on National Public Radio.

But myth is more resilient than history. It persists.

Where did it come from?

It took a West German historian named Rudolph Kaiser to figure that out, Caldwell says.

"Kaiser was intrigued by Chief Seattle and the American West," Caldwell says. "But when he asked where the environmental version came from, he kept running into dead ends."

Eventually, Kaiser tracked it down to an environmental film documentary that was aired on national television in 1971. The script had been written by Ted Perry, an East Coast scriptwriter who composed the new version and referred to Chief Seattle. But something was lost in the editing process.

Efforts to reach Perry for comment were unsuccessful.

"He put in all that fine, ecological prose about the 1,000 rotting buffalo, and it was all credited to Chief Seattle."

And the rest is, well, history.

So what's the difference?

The unauthorized version is a passionate call to ecological responsibility, a plea to halt the slaughter of an animal Chief Seattle had never seen. It reads like it was written by a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club - which it was.

The original speech was something else again.

"Chief Seattle was a strong leader, well-respected, and a great military tactician in his day," Caldwell says. "Most important, he helped smooth the transition in Puget Sound from native control to Western control.

"Unfortunately, he did that by accepting promises of compensation - promises made by people who didn't keep promises very well."

Chief Seattle valued the land not because it was inherently sacred, but because it was the dwelling place of his ancestors, Caldwell says.

"His speech was in part a surrender to the advance of Western civilization. `My people,' he said, `are no long able to withstand your advance.' "