Courtesy of Inside the Divine Pattern. If parts of this quote sound familiar, it’s because many outlets, even seemingly credible ones, have repeated it. It’s been recited in Al Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance, the basis of the popular children’s book Brother Eagle Sister Sky, used by a Stanford professor during a debate, by NASA in its “Mission to Planet Earth”, and now on social media by some to spread the gospel of environmentalism. It’s taken on countless different forms and fragments, but as a general rule, if you see a Chief Seattle quote sounding a lot like a modern environmentalist, it’s fake.
It’s hard to pin down the original “speech” because it’s been frequently altered, but the probable full version is linked here. It’s usually claimed to be from 1854, either a speech that Chief Seattle gave to Isaac Williams, the territorial governor of Washington, or a letter written to President Pierce. It portrays Seattle and his fellow Native Americans as loving and respectful of the environment, contrasted with the Europeans who are greedy and look to exploit the environment without care.
Where Did it Come From?
Historians and skeptics started challenging this speech’s authenticity, in part, because of this line;
I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie left by the white man who shot them from a passing train.
However, the first transcontinental railroad wasn’t finished until 1869, 15 years after the supposed speech and 3 years after Seattle’s death, making it quite unlikely he would witness such a thing. Compounding this problem, Chief Seattle never left the Puget Sound area in his life, over 1,000 miles from the plains, meaning he likely never even saw bison, let alone seeing them being slaughtered from trains that didn’t yet exist.
After much digging, Dr. Rudolph Kaiser, a German scholar, discovered the true source of the speech. It was written in 1971 by Ted Perry, a Texas screenwriter, for an ecological film called “Home”. In a letter to Kaiser in 1980, Perry admitted, “I wrote a speech which was fiction”. While it’s clearly been inspirational to many, there is no link to Chief Seattle, and all evidence points to it being pure fiction.
The Real Chief Seattle Speech?
Chief Seattle did give some sort of speech in 1854 to Governor Williams, when he signed a treaty ceding land to the United States. The first account of it was published in the Seattle Sunday Star in 1887 by Dr. Henry A. Smith, who was there, and claimed it was a direct copy of the speech Seattle gave to Williams. In this version, there is little fodder for environmentalists to use in a meme, as it was mostly a melancholy submission, mainly focusing on religion, even praising the generosity of the president at times.
However, there are problems with this version as well. It was not published until over 30 years after the speech happened, which raises huge questions of accuracy. Second, there are translation issues. Chief Seattle didn’t speak English, the speech was given in Lushotseed, his native tongue, and translated into Chinook jargon (a mix of French, English and Indian words). This was a primitive trading language with a tiny vocabulary of only hundreds of words, meant mainly to barter and exchange goods. It’s doubtful that it could express the flowery and poetic language expressed in Smith’s account. Considering Smith was highly educated and known to be poetic, it’s likely passages such as this are not authentic and were of his making;
Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the 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.
The reality is that since Seattle didn’t speak English, any quotes attributed to him are likely fake, and projections others have of his beliefs.
Were Native Americans Environmentalists?
Even if these quotes were written by elite white males, perhaps it still conveyed the environmentalist beliefs of the natives? Were they living in harmony with untouched nature, treating the environment as sacred and only using what they needed to survive before the Europeans came? The evidence shows this is doubtful, and ironically a misunderstanding and ignorance white people had of their culture and methods.
For example, many tribes used slash and burn methods, vastly transforming the natural landscape, which the white settlers often erroneously attributed to being caused by natural fires. The Choctaw and Iroquois cleared forests to farm, and when that soil lost fertility, cleared the next area of forests for their needs.
Some wiped out entire animal populations in the belief that animals hunted would be reincarnated. The “buffalo jump“, was a technique where hunters lured mass quantities of bison off cliffs with a decoy. The choicest meats were taken, while often tons were wasted and left rotting.
Their impact was certainly limited by technology compared to the Europeans, but it appears Native Americans were more than willing to alter the environment to meet their needs.
In some ways, Native Americans were good stewards of the environment, but in ways contrary to this Chief Seattle meme. While they might not have “bought” the land, many tribes designated hunting and fishing rights in certain areas, where game was scarce or threatened. Similar to western ideas of property rights, this allowed them to not overfish or overhunt certain areas, keeping them solvent over time. In the Pacific Northwest, this happened with certain salmon fisheries. The natives knew the strategic locations the salmon were funneled through, and had sufficient techniques that could have wiped out the fishery. Instead of believing that man wasn’t worthy of owning nature, they established fishing rights and stewardship of the land so they could ensure the fish weren’t wiped out. Those who “owned” these rights made sure enough salmon were left to spawn so the fishery would continue for them and their family. Often, these ownership rights were passed down from generations, similar to western ideas of inheritance.
Should This “Speech” Still Be Inspirational?
Not really. Some regard it as noble and enlightened to view the environment as sacred, and owning land as greedy or exploitative, but it ignores the realities of economics and human nature. In order to survive, humans must alter and change their environment. We are horribly adapted compared to other animals. We are not strong enough to stand up to a bear, fast enough to chase down a buffalo, and would freeze to death in most climates every night. We survive almost exclusively on our ability to reason, letting us create tools, weapons, shelter, clothing, etc. Each of these things requires us to use natural resources and alter our natural environment.
The concept of ownership becomes important in a just society when there is scarcity. The air we breathe is so abundant that it’s not scarce, so it’s not necessary to designated ownership to it. One person breathing doesn’t affect another person’s ability to breathe, and it that sense we don’t need to “own the sky”. Even land, to some tribes in America before European settlers arrived, might have been so abundant that it wasn’t scarce in any real sense. However, when scarcity exists, like in the case of a prime salmon fishing spot, there will be inevitable conflict over the use of that resource.
In the rest of the animal kingdom, these conflicts are resolved by the law of the jungle, aka force. Humans also have the option of resolving it with force, but also the more just and moral concept of ownership. If property rights are understood and respected in a society, and moral claims (aka “ownership”) are designated, it removes the element of violence and coercion over scarce resources.
Tragedy of the Commons
Far from being harmful for the environment, the concept of property rights often enhances it. It’s the tragedy of the commons phenomenon, where no ownership is delegated to a resource, that has repeatedly led to disaster throughout history. When resources are unowned, there is an incentive for everyone to take it before others do, and little incentive to conserve or plan for the future. The buffalo were slaughtered to near extinction, in large part, because property rights weren’t recognized and no one had any claim to them. Both bison and cattle were valuable, yet cattle were never threatened with extinction, or shot from passing trains. In the Great Leap Forward, tens of millions died of starvation when farmers weren’t allowed to own their harvest. The current problem with overfishing and resource depletion in the oceans is another example of what happens when no one has a rightful claim to a resource, and no incentive to reap the rewards of preserving the habitat.
This isn’t to say every piece of private property will become a nature preserve, but that shouldn’t be the goal either, as it doesn’t always further human prosperity and enjoyment. After all, would we be better off if Manhattan, or Paris were a state park? There is much value in plants, animals and natural ecosystems for food, clothing, tourism and aesthetic reasons. Private interests and a society of ownership will tend to preserve and flourish these resources, to the extent they are valued by us, far more than a society that ignores property rights and takes seriously phrases like “the earth doesn’t belong to us”.