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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Seattle (Duwamish)
Seattle (or Seathl) was chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes. Converted by Catholic missionaries in the 1830s, he was a powerful leader of Indian peoples in the Puget Sound area and supported peaceful coexistence with Anglo-American settlers. Shortly after the Washington territory was organized in 1853, the new governor, Isaac Stevens, visited the tribes to discuss treaty arrangements. Seattle’s speech was a formal response to that of Stevens. In 1887, Dr. Henry A. Smith, who attended the meeting, published the speech from what he claimed were his notes taken at the time. Smith professed to understand the Suquamish language, though later commentators have questioned his linguistic capabilities; in any case, Smith himself suggested that his rendition of whatever Seattle said was a pale shade of the original. Thus the authenticity of “Chief Seattle’s speech” has been in question since it was first printed more than thirty years after the event.

The problem was even further compounded in recent years when other versions of a supposed speech by Seattle were fabricated, first by the poet William Arrowsmith, during the 1960s, and later by a script writer, Ted Perry, in the 1970s. Perry’s version was widely circulated, primarily because it placed into Seattle’s mouth sentiments popular in environmentalist circles. The speech has thus become a particularly vivid example of the problem of authenticity in dealing with many supposedly Indian texts, including famous ones like those of Black Hawk and Black Elk. Are these the words of Indian orators, or are they constituted by what white auditors wish to have heard, or thought they did hear, coming, often many years before, from an Indian speaker...or, in fact, from a translator? There are no easy answers to such questions, and they have been extensively debated (on the Internet as well as in scholarly publications).

In the present instance, it is reasonably clear that Seattle delivered a speech on the stated occasion, that he was a powerful orator and an imposing presence. And it is likely that some or much of what he said is contained in Smith’s version. It is also true, perhaps ironically, that authentic or not, this speech has become a part of “Indian” culture, referred to, quoted, and used by Native American as well as white writers. This is not without reason, for the speech may profitably be compared with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or his Second Inaugural, other, perhaps more familiar, reflections on the costs of history. Though the “vanishing Indian” was a common theme in the popular arts of the nineteenth century, as well as an expression of a politically expedient ideology, the speech penetrates to the genocidal guilt behind that image, a motivation well articulated in the twentieth century by D. H. Lawrence and William Faulkner.

In 1855 Seattle signed the Port Elliot Treaty, which confined his and other Washington tribes to a reservation. The city of Seattle is, of course, named after him, though he strongly objected to that appropriation of a part of himself and appears, thereafter, to have preferred not to use the name—though that story, too, may be a part of the complex legend that has been constructed about this man.

Andrew O. Wiget
New Mexico University

Paul Lauter
Trinity College

In the Heath Anthology
Speech of Chief Seattle (1855)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image fileImages of Chief Seattle

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Chief Seattle Arts
A site dedicated to the history and artwork of Northwest Native Americans.

A drawing of Seattle, a brief biography, and a list of his most important quotes.

Secondary Sources

Clarence B. Bagley, "Chief Seattle and Angeline," 1931

Vi Hilbert, "When Chief Seattle Spoke," in Robin K. Wright, ed., A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State, 1990

Rudolph Kaiser, "Chief Seattle's Speech(es): American Origin and European Reception," in Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, eds., Recovering the Words: Essays in Native American Literature, 1987