Have you heard this famous quote by Chief Seattle of the Suquamish?

One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover – our God is the same God. You may think that you own Him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of humanity, and His compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator. Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.

Lovely, isn’t it?  Only it isn’t by Chief Sealth (Chief Seattle’s actual name, or as close to it as the white man managed to translate it).  It was written in 1972 by a screenwriter, Ted Perry, for a film, “Home,” produced by the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission.  In the movie, it was presented as a letter written by Chief Sealth to the then-President of the United States (a fictional letter, of course).  But the idea was widely spread about that it was quoted from a speech Chief Sealth made in 1854.

Another version of the speech was published in 1887 by a Dr. Henry Smith, who was in attendance at the actual 1854 speech, and took notes at the time, translating into English as he took the notes, and publishing his version over 30 years later.  The same part that is “quoted” in the “letter” above reads:

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 the stars fill the firmament. No, we are two distinct races with separate origins and separate destinies.

And then there is still another version – the version recorded by the Suquamish people themselves (again, some years later).  It is certainly closer to the Smith version than to the movie version – but it shows yet another perspective:

“Your God seems to us to be partial. He came to the white man. We never saw Hirn; never even heard His voice; He gave the white man laws but He had no word for His red children whose teeming millions filled this vast continent as the stars fill the firmament. No, we are two distinct races and must ever remain so. There is little in common between us. The ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their final resting place is hallowed ground, while you wander away from the tombs of your fathers seemingly without regret.

All three quotes above are from a much longer speech (a speech that includes reference to the Haida in the latter two versions, by the way).  Three versions, three perspectives.  And translated into a foreign language, after a fairly long period of time.  How much is from the actual words of the Chief? How much is lost (or added, or changed) in translation?  How much is informed by the perspective of the writer(s)?  Which is most accurate?  What can we learn by reading and comparing all three?  How should this affect our own perspectives?

Norma J Hill, August 18, 2013


The Smith version of the speech can be found here.

The Suquamish version of the speech can be found here.

And an interesting commentary, “Chief Seattle, er, Professor Perry Speaks: Inventing Indigenous Solutions to the Environmental Problem” (which shows how the speech has been hijacked and made to serve an agenda which it was not meant for), can be found here.