As an ecology undergrad I went to a lot of lectures. I received a lot of handouts at lectures, and I made a lot of notes at them too. But I have kept no notes from any of the lectures I went to at university and I have kept the handout from only one. And that lecture wasn’t even part of the course.
The date was 8th March, 1991, and the lecture was “Personal Psychology and the Environmental Crisis.” It was given by a popular lecturer in UEA ENV, John Barkham, and I think that it made an indelible mark, not only on me, but on most of my compatriots. Perhaps as ecologists and environmentalists we were especially vulnerable to the mixture of doom, poetry, inspiration and hope that we heard that day. I am not a religious man – wasn’t then, either, having Attenborough’s Life On Earth to thank for that – but as we filed out of the lecture I probably felt very much like someone leaving an act of communal worship. And I don’t mean just any old Friday/Saturday/Sunday sermon. It would be over-dramatising things to call it something transcendental, the kind of thing that only happens a couple of times in a lifetime. But it was one of those moments when suddenly everything makes sense, when unrelated facts and ideas join together and seem to synergise, explaining more together than separately.
A major part of the lecture’s effect on me was due to Barkham quoting the moving words of Chief Seattle’s speech, which was not something I had heard of before. Here’s a passage quoted in the lecture that I bracketed in red on my handout, either at the time or not long after:
There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring, or the rustle of an insect’s wings… And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? I am a red man and I do not understand.
The quote was referenced as:
In 1854, the ‘Great White Chief’ in Washington made an offer for a large area if [sic] Indian land and promised a reservation for the Indian people. This is part of Chief Seattle’s reply.
I was inspired. This “primitive”, this uneducated man, this “noble savage” had conjured up poetic language in his extemporaneous reply to the Great White Chief’s arrogant proposal that had stabbed me straight through the heart. I wanted to hear the whippoorwills. Damn the white man’s noisy cities.
Barkham spoke of the conflict between our greed and our nobility. Greed was winning. Of course it was. It was a choice of living at one with nature, or merely surviving in filth, as a second quote from Chief Seattle made clear:
That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.
So it was a choice, basically, between the Elysian Fields and the Champs-Élysées (apologies to our French readers). There is no doubt that the poetic words of Chief Seattle were the key part of the magic that Barkham’s lecture cast over me. Away I went, moved, and more certain of the rights and wrongs of things than I ought to have been. So inspired was I by the lecture that, as you know, I kept my paper copy of it. It’s sitting beside me 30 years later.
Now let’s fast forward to September 2020, and a rash of bills that the local chapter of XR pasted everywhere they could. Among them:
“DEMAND YOUR COUNCIL, GOVERNMENT AND MEDIA: TELL THE TRUTH”
“CLIMATE CHANGE MEANS: MIGRATION CRISES, CIVIL WARS, CROP FAILURES, FAMINE, EXTREME WEATHER, LOOTING, WILDFIRES, FLOODING”
Yeah, sure. But there was one slogan that took my eye in particular:
When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realise that one cannot eat money.
Leave aside for a moment the obvious fact that “one” jars horribly and could not possibly have been part of the original quote: it had been transcribed by someone semi-literate at best, which fitted with my general opinion of XR members. My question as I walked past was: is this a mangled quote from Chief Seattle’s noble reply to the Great White Chief? Interesting. So, later, I searched the web for a copy of Chief Seattle’s speech. And that was when the scales began to fall from my eyes…
Propaganda, September 2020
According to Wiki, Chief Seattle’s speech was first reported in 1887 by Henry A. Smith in the Sealttle [sic] Sunday Star… twenty years after the death of Seattle himself and thirty after the actual speech (1854).
Chief Seattle most probably spoke in the Lushootseed language, and someone then translated his words into Chinook Jargon, a limited trading language, that a third person then translated into English.
The speech was written in “flowery Victorian prose.” It seemed likely that Smith, being a bit of a poet himself, had used a little, er, poetic license in his reporting. OK, so that was bad. But wait. The bits of the speech that had inspired me in 1991 were nothing like “flowery Victorian prose.” Wiki again:
In 1989, a radio documentary by Daniel and Patricia Miller resulted in the uncovering of no fewer than 86 versions of Chief Seattle’s speech.
It was looking like the version I had heard bits of in 1991 bore absolutely no resemblance at all to anything that Seattle had actually said at the time. Instead it was a hotchpotch of nonsense written by a succession of environmental mystics imagining what an aged noble savage might have said in 1854 in an alternate universe. The Nomadic Spirit* has four versions of the speech. The first, the Smith 1887 version, is indeed flowery and really wouldn’t warrant an eco-warrior’s second glance. There is no mention of buffalo, frogs, or whippoorwills. None. The version I had heard had not “evolved” from this by mere tidying.
What about the second version? This was written by another poet, William Arrowsmith, in the late 1960s. This version seems to tread a similar path to the “original” – still no mention of the whippoorwills, frogs, or buffalo. The Arrowsmith just takes the Smith version and modernizes the lingo a bit. OK, OK, what about version 3?
Version 3 is perhaps the most widely known of all. This version was written by Texas professor Ted Perry as part of a film script. The makers of the film took a little literary license, further changing the speech and making it into a letter to President Franklin Pierce, which has been frequently reprinted. No such letter was ever written by or for Chief Seattle.
Wait, wind back – what did you say? A flippin’ film script? You cannot be serious.
Now suddenly we’ve got frogs. Of course we have. We’ve got buffalo. We’ve got the damned whippoorwills. They’re all having a rare old time in the flippin’ Elysian flippin’ Fields. So the version I had heard excerpts from was written c. 1970 by a script writer, whose name was struck from the words because a film producer thought it would be more poetic if the words came from a native American instead of some hack. The producer, a guy called Stevens, further edited the words. The film, Home, was made for Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission. Stevens said (Wiki):
I edited the speech to fit our needs [Baptists] more closely. There was no apple pie and motherhood and so I added the references to God and I am a savage to make the Radio and Television Commission happy…
This was all hard to take. I think I read all that and then just stared out of the window for half an hour. Then I paced around for a similar length of time, muttering things like “It wasn’t real. It was all made up.” The noble savage that had inspired the starry-eyed baby ecologist turned out to be an American screenwriter who was probably chewing a Marlboro and drinking J&B while banging out those inanities on his Royal typewriter. (This is probably an unfair image, but it’s one that sprang to my bitter mind.)
So, my question, when I had recovered somewhat was: does it matter? None of us in that lecture, not John Barkham, not me, not any of my fellow ecologists, nor any of the students from the other schools that piled in – none of us knew that the words attributed to Seattle were in fact written by a screenwriter more than a hundred years after the chief had died. We were inspired by some words that, if we had known their true source, we would have sneered at as a cynical attempt to exploit us rather than poetry.
Words do not have intrinsic value. Sometimes the context matters. It’s obvious that some things that are very easy to say now would have been very difficult to say in centuries past. You can insert your own example here, because there are many. Here’s one. Calling for universal suffrage was bordering on sedition two hundred years ago; calling for an end to universal suffrage would be bordering on sedition today. Times change, and the bold becomes the boring, the outrageous becomes the banal. In 1970, culture was influenced by a new spiritual environmentalism unheard of in 1854. We had hippies. We had Silent Spring. Talking about the white man’s noisy cities in 1970 was nothing like talking about them in 1854.
And there’s something else that ought to be obvious. A word spoken and then written down is worth a hundred words written down and then spoken. For an uncultured man in 1854 to give such an impromptu speech would have been a colossal achievement. For an educated man living in the culture of 1970 to write it down with the benefit of time to think, plan, draft and edit his work – not so much.
As you may have gathered from the foregoing, the discovery that Chief Seattle’s speech was not in fact Chief Seattle’s at all came as quite a shock to me. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things of course. It won’t change who I am – I’m still that crazy guy who rescues insects drowning in puddles after a rainstorm if he sees them. It’s just something that I have always relied upon as a true fact has just been deleted from my mind. A noble truth has been revealed as an exploitative lie.
The world has shifted slightly. It has come a little more into focus – but it doesn’t look quite as good as it did before.
As to the words that sparked this bit of textual archaeology, not only are they not Chief Seattle’s, they are not even the words of anyone pretending to be him either. Wikiquote, Alanis Obomsawin:
When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.
Still bad, but slightly better than the XR version. But read further down, and what do we see?
The article of the Quote Investigator states similar expressions had also been used by others around 1972, and the earliest incident found of somewhat similar expressions of the importance of conserving natural resources occurred in the “Biennial Report of the State Fish and Game Commissioner to the Governor of North Dakota from March 17, 1893 to December 1, 1894”:
“Present needs and present gains was the rule of action — which seems to be a sort of transmitted quality which we in our now enlightened time have not wholly outgrown, for even now a few men can be found who seem willing to destroy the last tree, the last fish and the last game bird and animal, and leave nothing for posterity, if thereby some money can be made.”
Looks a lot as if the poetry beloved of these self-proclaimed rebels is also fake. It actually comes, not from the “oppressed,” but from the “oppressors.”
*The three main versions of “Chief Seattle’s Speech” can be found here.
Propaganda, May 2021