Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Chief Seattle’s Famous Misquote

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Spirituality, environmentalism, Chief Seattle,

Chief Seattle statueApparently, it can’t be repeated enough: Chief Seattle didn’t really utter the words so often attributed to him on environmental posters, T-shirts, and websites. The oft-quoted words, frequently dated to 1854, were instead an adaptation of an adaptation of one man’s “poetic impression” of a speech given by the Suquamish chief, writes Gregory McNamee in a profile of the chief in the May-June issue of Native Peoples magazine (article not available online). While the famous quote’s origins have been debunked for years, from the New York Times in 1992 to Snopes in 2007, the myth persists.

The unfortunate part of all this is that Chief Seattle probably said something vaguely like what the various versions convey. But the most widely circulated version contains “anachronisms and inaccuracies,” writes McNamee, and perhaps more significantly, the whole phenomenon has cast the chief as “a spiritual ancestor of the modern green movement” when his real claim to fame was as “a war leader and shrewd politician.”

In his profile, McNamee paints a multifaceted view of the chief, noting that before the arrival of white people Chief Seattle was known as a “persuasive orator and as a tactician who helped the Suquamish and neighboring Duwamish peoples to dominate the other peoples of the area” and who kept slaves from his conquests. When the whites arrived, he employed his oratorical skills to engage with them, and he freed his slaves when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Despite the high regard in which his sentiments are now held, he “then bore witness to the slow decline and impoverishment of his people on the reservation to which they were now confined.”

Image by the City of Seattle, licensed under Creative Commons.