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How Chief Seattle mistakenly inspired an environmental movement

“The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.”

These words are from an 1854 speech that made Chief Seattle famous, inspiring environmental movements in the city that bears his name and beyond.

Except, he never really said that.

Historian David Buerge has been working on a book about Chief Seattle for 20 years, and he says this is what happened: Seattle’s original speech was delivered in front of the first governor of Washington state. The governor had just told tribes in the region that the US government was looking to buy their land in exchange for peace.

In his response, Chief Seattle pointed out that the U.S. government had been taking more and more land from tribes across the nation.

“The gist of the speech, I believe, is that, ‘Well, it’s really good of you to offer us peace,’” Buerge said. “'You say the president, your great white father, regards us as his children. We can’t see how this could possibly be because your god seems far more partial to you than he is to his red children.’”

That first speech was translated from Chief Seattle’s native language of Lushootseed to a kind of Victorian prose. That translation was later retranslated and read at the first Earth Day in 1970.

Those translations have inspired quotes attributed to Seattle such as, "I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by the white man who shot them from a passing train."

Roger Fernandes, a member of the Olympic Peninsula's Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, pointed out, “I don’t think he really left this region so he wouldn’t see buffalo here.”

Buerge said those famous quotes attributed to Chief Seattle are made up – the result of interpretation after interpretation of that original 1854 speech. But that's how Chief Seattle became an “environmental saint,” he said.

Fernandes said the city and the region still have a long way to go.

“Puget Sound right now – various people say – is dying,” he said. “We need a lot more than speeches, we need a lot more action.”

Fernandes said the speech has been embellished over the decades, but a native tone and sensibility was still preserved. And he hopes the core message can be a guide for non-native people today.

“Maybe question themselves as to why did my ancestors leave their home where their ancestors are buried?" he said. "What was it about their nature, our culture that drove them to come to other people’s land, kill them if necessary, drive them off their land and take over their land and say, ‘This is our land now?’

“So perhaps his speech would, I would hope, generate some questions and self-reflection on a cultural level.”

Buerge said Chief Seattle’s real speech ends with a warning: “‘Be just and deal kindly with my people for the dead are not [altogether] powerless.’”

“I believe that’s the main point that Seattle made, that your people need to be aware of what you're doing because what you do has consequences — if not in this life, in the next life,” Buerge said.

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