Chief Seattle

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Chief seattle.jpg
The only known photograph of Chief Seattle, taken 1864
Duwamish leader
Personal details
Born c. 1786[1]
On or near Blake Island, Washington, US
Died June 7, 1866 (age 79–80)
Port Madison, Washington, U.S.
Resting place Port Madison, Washington, U.S.
Children 8, including Princess Angeline
Known for Namesake of city of Seattle

Chief Seattle (c. 1786 – June 7, 1866) was a Dkhw'Duw'Absh (Duwamish) chief.[2] A prominent figure among his people, he pursued a path of accommodation to white settlers, forming a personal relationship with David Swinson "Doc" Maynard. The city of Seattle, in the U.S. state of Washington, was named after him. A widely publicized speech arguing in favor of ecological responsibility and respect of Native Americans' land rights had been attributed to him. However, what he actually said has been lost through translation and rewriting.

The name Seattle is an anglicization of the modern Duwamish conventional spelling Si'ahl, equivalent to the modern Lushootseed publishing spelling siʔaɫ, Lushootseed pronunciation: [ˈsiʔaːɬ], originally IPA: [ˈsiʔaːt͡ɬ’];[3] He is also known as Sealth, Seathle, Seathl, or See-ahth


Chief Seattle's bust in the city of Seattle

Si'ahl's mother Sholeetsa was Dkhw'Duw'Absh (Duwamish) and his father Shweabe was chief of the Dkhw'Suqw'Absh (the Suquamish tribe).[2] Si'ahl was born around 1780 on or near Blake Island, Washington. One source cites his mother's name as Wood-sho-lit-sa.[4] The Duwamish tradition is that Si'ahl was born at his mother's Dkhw'Duw'Absh village of Stukw on the Black River, in what is now the city of Kent, and that Si'ahl grew up speaking both the Dkhw'Duw'Absh and Dkhw'Suqw'Absh dialects of Lushootseed. Because Native descent among the Salish peoples was not solely patrilineal, Si'ahl inherited his position as chief of the Dkhw'Duw'Absh or Duwamish Tribe from his maternal uncle.[2] In later years, Si'ahl claimed to have seen the ships of the Vancouver Expedition as they explored Puget Sound.

Si'ahl earned his reputation at a young age as a leader and a warrior, ambushing and defeating groups of enemy raiders coming up the Green River from the Cascade foothills, and attacking the Chimakum and the S'Klallam tribes living on the Olympic Peninsula. Like many of his contemporaries, he owned slaves captured during his raids. He was tall and broad for a Puget Sound native at nearly six feet; Hudson's Bay Company traders gave him the nickname Le Gros (The Big One). He was also known as an orator; and when he addressed an audience, his voice is said to have carried from his camp to the Stevens Hotel at First and Marion, a distance of 34 mile (1.2 km).[4]

He took wives from the village of Tola'ltu just southeast of Duwamish Head on Elliott Bay (now part of West Seattle). His first wife La-Dalia died after bearing a daughter. He had three sons and four daughters with his second wife, Olahl.[4] The most famous of his children was his first, Kikisoblu or Princess Angeline. Si'ahl was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, and given the baptismal name Noah, probably in 1848 near Olympia, Washington.[5] The meaning of this ceremony may be called into question by his references to his people's gods in his most famous Talk (below).

For all his skill, Si'ahl was gradually losing ground to the more powerful Patkanim of the Snohomish when white settlers started showing up in force. When his people were driven from their traditional clamming grounds, Si'ahl met Maynard in Olympia; they formed a friendly relationship useful to both. Persuading the settlers at Duwamps to rename the town Seattle, Maynard established their support for Si'ahl's people and negotiated relatively peaceful relations with the tribes.

Si'ahl kept his people out of the Battle of Seattle. Afterwards, he was unwilling to lead his tribe to the reservation established, since mixing Duwamish and Snohomish was likely to lead to bloodshed. Maynard persuaded the government of the necessity of allowing Si'ahl to remove to his father's longhouse on Agate Passage, 'Old Man House' or Tsu-suc-cub. Si'ahl frequented the town named after him, and had his photograph taken by E. M. Sammis in 1865.[4] He died June 7, 1866, on the Suquamish reservation at Port Madison, Washington.[6]

The speech

The speech attributed to Si'ahl concerned the concession of native lands to the settlers. The date the speech was given was January 12, 1854 when the newly appointed Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens, did his first tour of the Puget Sound. The Pioneer, a local newspaper, wrote of Governor Stevens' tour, "We understand the object of his tour is to institute an investigation into the condition of Indian affairs in that direction." Governor Stevens wrote that his purpose was "to visit and take consensus of the Indian tribes, learn something of the general character of the Sound and its harbors ..." He went on to say, "In this trip I visited Steilacoom, Seattle ... We examined the coalmines back of Seattle ... and saw a large body of Indians of nearly all tribes. I was greatly impressed with the importance of Seattle."[7] Si'ahl was the most influential chief in the area so he had to have been there at this time. In 1855 at the Point Elliott Treaty proceedings Stevens spoke to the council of chiefs remembering when he had been there a year earlier and spoken with them. "Did I not come through your country one year since? ... I came through your country ... to know what you were, to know what you wanted, to know your grievances."[6] The date, location, and the actual contents of the speech are unclear and disputed.[8] The National Archives staff concluded that this speech is most likely fiction written about 30 years later. The most common version is that on March 11, 1854, Si'ahl gave a speech at a large outdoor gathering in Seattle. The meeting had been called by Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens to discuss the surrender or sale of native land to white settlers. There is no record to support that Stevens was going to Seattle in January 1854 to discuss the surrender or sale of the land to the white settlers. However, there is a written record by government interpreters of what Governor Stevens said and Si'ahl's reply at the Point Elliott Treaty signing on January 22, 1855. It is not the reminiscence that Dr. Henry A Smith wrote in October 1887 and claimed to be the speech Si'ahl had spoken thirty-three years before.[6] Doc Maynard introduced Stevens, who then briefly explained his mission, which was already well understood by all present.[4]

Si'ahl then rose to speak. He rested his hand upon the head of the much smaller Stevens, and declaimed with great dignity for an extended period. No one alive today knows what he said; he spoke in the Lushootseed language, and someone translated his words into Chinook Jargon, a limited trading language, and a third person translated that into English.[9] Some years later, Dr. Henry A. Smith wrote down an English version of the speech,[10] based on Smith's notes. It was a flowery text in which Si'ahl purportedly thanked the white people for their generosity, demanded that any treaty guarantee access to Native burial grounds, and made a contrast between the God of the white people and that of his own. Smith noted that he had recorded "... but a fragment of his [Sealth's] speech". Recent scholarship questions the authenticity of Smith's supposed translation.[11][12][13] However, a spokesperson for the Suquamish Nation, said according to their traditions Dr. Smith consulted the tribal elders numerous times before publishing the speech in the local paper in 1887. She also said the elders saw the notes Dr. Smith took while he listened to Seathl speak to Governor Stevens. The elders verification of the speech places Smith's version as the "authentic traditional speech" or at the least, it is the message caged in Victorian terminology. His notes may have been lost in the Great Seattle Fire when Smith's office burned down. It seems most likely that Smith's reason for writing the speech was political. The newly arrived emigrants had just thrown out the original pioneers who had dominated local politics. It was a bitterly contested election with one newspaper claiming these new emigrants wanted "the overthrow of our institutions, ... rob you ... of home, of country and of religion." When Smith had Si'ahl saying, "There was a time when our people covered the whole land, as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor ... And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among white man shall have become a myth, these shores shall swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, ..." was he also talking about the demise of the original pioneers who found themselves denounced as "obstacles in the way of progress," as "old mossbacks" and the rhetoric had become so hot that some Sinophobes spoke of hanging them.[6]

In 1891, Frederick James Grant's History of Seattle, Washington reprinted Smith's version. In 1929, Clarence B. Bagley's History of King County, Washington reprinted Grant's version with some additions. In 1931, John M. Rich reprinted the Bagley version in Chief Seattle's Unanswered Challenge. In the 1960s, articles by William Arrowsmith and the growth of environmentalism revived interest in Si'ahl's speech. In the late sixties a professor at the University of Texas, William Arrowsmith, came across the speech. He had picked up a collection of essays the President of Washington State University had recently published. At the end of one of the essays, there were some quotes from Smith's version of Si'athl's speech. Arrowsmith said it read like prose from the Greek poet, Pindar. With interest aroused, he found the original speech. After reading it, he decided to try rewriting the speech removing the Victorian influences. Arrowsmith attempted to get a sense of how Si'athl may have spoken and establish some "likely perimeters of the language."[6] Ted Perry introduced anachronistic material, such as shooting buffalo from trains, into a new version for a movie called Home,[3] produced for the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission.[12] Ted Perry explained what happened, "I first heard a version of the text read by William Arrowsmith at the first Environmental Day celebration in 1970. I was there and heard him. He was a close friend. Arrowsmith's version hinted at how difficult it was for Seattle to understand the white man's attitude toward land, water, air, and animals. For the soundtrack for a documentary I had already proposed about the environment, I decided to write a new version, elaborating on and heightening what was hinted at in Arrowsmith's text ... While it would be easy to hide behind the producer's decision, without my permission, to delete my "Written by" credit when the film was finished and aired on television, the real problem is that I should not have used the name of an actual human being, Chief Seattle. That I could put words into the mouth of someone I did not know, particularly a Native American, is pure hubris if not racist. While there has been some progress in our knowledge of Native Americans, we really know very little. What we think we know is mediated by films, chance encounters, words, images and other stereotypes. They serve our worldview but they are not true."[6] Producer John Stevens, without Perry's permission, added all of the Baptist religiosity and "I am a savage and do not understand." He said. "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 ... I had edited scripts that did not have the Baptists' line dozens of times. This needed to be done so they could justify spending thousands of dollars on a film ... I eventually quit my job as a producer because I got tired of shoehorning those interests into scripts."[6] The original movie sank without a trace, but this newest and most fictional version is the most widely known. The script edited by Stevens was then made into a poster and 18,000 copies were sent out as a promotion for the movie. The first publication of the environmental version was in the November 11, 1972 issue of the Environmental Action magazine; this was the same year that the movie Home was shown. By this time it was no longer a speech, but a letter by Si'ahl sent to President Pierce. The editor had picked it up from Dale Jones, who was the Northwest Representative of Friends of the Earth, and Dale said, "I first saw the letter in September 1972 in a now out of business Native American tabloid newspaper." Here all leads end, but it is safe to assume the origin was that movie poster.[6] Albert Furtwangler analyzes the evolution of Si'ahl's speech in Answering Chief Seattle (1997).[14] Eli Gifford wrote, The Many Speeches of Chief Seattle (Seathl): The Manipulation of the Record on Behalf of Religious, Political and Environmental Causes, that researched the various editings of Si'ahl speech and the possible reasons why people manipulated Si'ahl's words.

The speech attributed to Si'ahl, as re-written by others, has been widely cited as "powerful, bittersweet plea for respect of Native American rights and environmental values".[3]

A similar controversy surrounds a purported 1855 letter from Si'ahl to President Franklin Pierce, which has never been located and, based on internal evidence, is described by historian Jerry L. Clark as "an unhistorical artifact of someone's fertile literary imagination".[8] There is no controversy surrounding the purported letter to President Pierce: it never existed. There is no record of a letter from Seathl in either the private papers of President Pierce in the New Hampshire Historical Society or the Presidential Papers of Pierce in the Library of Congress.[1] The staff at the National Archives has been unable to locate any "letter" among the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the National Archives and "concluded that the letter ... is probably spurious." [2] It would be quite improbable if not impossible for a letter from the Chief of the Suquamish to the President of the United States not to have been recorded in at least one of the governmental offices through which it passed. For the letter to have made it to the desk of the President it would have passed through at least six departments: the local Indian agent, Colonel Simmons; to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, Gov. Stevens; to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs; to the office of the Secretary of the Interior and finally to the President's desk—quite a paper trail for the letter to have left not a trace. It can be concluded that no letter was written for Seathl [3] and sent to President Pierce or to any other President.[6]

[1]Clark, "Thus Spoke", 61. John C. Broderick of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress 1 April 1977 in reply to an inquiry by Lennart Norl'en at the Institute Forestal Latinoamericano in Venezuela about the authenticity of the "letter." 20 March 1977, Transcript at The Seattle Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, Washington. In a letter to Janice Krenmayr, Richard S. Maxwell of Natural Resources Branch of the Civil Archives Division of the National Archives and Records Service, wrote that there was no letter from Seattle to Pierce in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and gave her the addresses of the New Hampshire Historical Society, Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress and Bowdoin College all of which she checked and they had no record of the letter. Richard S. Maxwell, Washington D.C., to Janice Krenmayr, Seattle, 18 September 1974, Transcript at The Seattle Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, Washington.

[2]Crawford wrote that "our staff has spent considerable time and effort attempting to locate the letter or find some indication that Seattle did write the letter, but have been unable to do so." Richard C. Crawford of the Natural Resources Branch Civil Archives Division, 6 April 1977, to Lennart Norlen in response to Norlen's inquiry as to the authenticity of the "letter," Richard C. Crawford, Washington D.C., to Lennart Norlen, Seattle, Washington, 6 April 1977. Transcript at The Seattle Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, Washington. Crawford, Richard C., Washington D.C., to Jodi Perlman-Cohen, Littleton, Colorado, 17 August 1976. Hereafter cited in the text as Crawford, Letter to Norlen. Richard C. Crawford of the Natural Resources Branch of the Civil Archives Division of the National Archives and Records Service, 2 November 1976, to E. Nolan of the Seattle Historical Society in response to Nolan's inquiry as to the authenticity of the "letter," Richard C. Crawford, Washington D.C., to E. Nolan, Seattle, Washington, 2 November 1976. Transcript at The Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, Washington.

[3]Since Seathl did not speak English he obviously could not write English.


Statue (erected 1908) of Chief Seattle, Tilikum Place, Seattle, Washington. The statue is on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Si'ahl's grave site is at the Suquamish Tribal Cemetery.[15]
  • In 1890, a group of Seattle pioneers led by Arthur Armstrong Denny set up a monument over his grave, with the inscription "SEATTLE Chief of the Suqampsh and Allied Tribes, Died June 7, 1866. The Firm Friend of the Whites, and for Him the City of Seattle was Named by Its Founders" On the reverse is the inscription "Baptismal name, Noah Sealth, Age probably 80 years."[4] The site was restored and a native sculpture added in 1976 and again in 2011.
  • Soundgarden, a Seattle rock band, covered the Black Sabbath song, "Into the Void" replacing the lyrics with the words from Chief Seattle's speech.
  • The Suquamish Tribe honors Chief Seattle every third week in August at "Chief Seattle Days".
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commemorates the life of Seattle on June 7 in its Calendar of Saints (Lutheran) The liturgical color for the day is white.
  • The city of Seattle, and numerous related features, are named after Si'ahl.
  • A B-17E Flying Fortress, SN# 41-2656 named Chief Seattle, a so-called "presentation aircraft", was funded by bonds purchased by the citizens of Seattle. Flying with the 435th Bombardment Squadron in the defense of Port Moresby, it was lost with its 10-man crew on August 14, 1942.[16][17]
  • The Chief Sealth Trail is named after Chief Seattle "Chief Sealth Trail". Retrieved February 12, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

See also

Chief Seattle's gravesite on the Port Madison Indian Reservation in Suquamish, Washington
Closeup of Chief Seattle's tombstone in Suquamish, Washington
Chief Seattle's grave updated photo after new landscaping


  1. The Suquamish Tribe: People of Chief Seattle - History & Culture
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Chief Si'ahl and His Family". Culture and History. Duwamish Tribe. Retrieved 2009-09-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 *Emily Inez Denny (1899). Blazing the Way (reprinted 1984 ed.). Seattle Historical Society.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph: From Indians to Icons", by David M. Buerge
  5. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 Gifford, Eli (2015). Many Speeches of Chief Seattle (Seathl): The Manipulation of the Record on Behalf of Religious Political and Environmental Causes. pp. 38–39. ISBN 978-1-5187-4949-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Gifford, Eli (2015). The Many Speeches of Chief Seattle (Seathl): The Manipulation of the Record on Behalf of Religious Political and Environmental Causes. pp. 36–37. ISBN 978-1-5187-4949-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 8.0 8.1 Jerry L. Clark (Spring 1985). "Thus Spoke Chief Seattle: The Story of An Undocumented Speech". The National Archives. Retrieved July 1, 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. William S. Abruzzi (1999), The real Chief Seattle was not a spiritual ecologist, Skeptical Inquirer 23.
  10. BOLA Architecture + Planning & Northwest Archaeological Associates, Inc., Port of Seattle North Bay Project DEIS: Historic and Cultural Resources, Port of Seattle, April 5, 2005. Accessed online 25 July 2008. p.
  11. 12.0 12.1 "Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens & Chief Seattle", Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, Wash., June, 1990; reprinted on The eJournal Website
  12. Records of the Washington Superintencency, 1853–74, NARA Microfilm Publication M5, roll 23. Cited by Jerry L. Clark (Spring, 1985), "Thus Spoke Chief Seattle: The Story of An Undocumented Speech", in the US National Archives Prologue Magazine, Spring 1985, Vol. 18, No. 1.
  13. Furtwangler, Albert (1997). Answering Chief Seattle. University of Washington Press. Retrieved August 31, 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Suquamish Culture". Suquamish Tribe. Retrieved July 1, 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Chief Seattle" and Crew. Retrieved December 27, 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. *Gene Eric Salecker (2001). Fortress Against the Sun bob. Da Capo Press. 978-1580970495.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Lakw'alas (Thomas R. Speer), The Life of Si'ahl, 'Chief Seattle', Duwamish Tribal Services board of directors, for the Duwamish Tribe, July 22, 2004.
  • Murray Morgan, Skid Road, 1951, 1960, and other reprints, ISBN 0-295-95846-4.
  • William C. ("Bill") Speidel, Doc Maynard, The Man Who Invented Seattle, Nettle Creek Publishing Company, Seattle, 1978.
  • Chief Seattle bio, Chief Seattle Arts, accessed online 2009-02-23.
  • Brief analysis of the different versions of the speech by Nancy Zussy, librarian, Washington State Library, accessed online 2010-01-01.
  • The Suquamish Museum (1985). The Eyes of Chief Seattle. Suquamish, WA: Suquamish Museum.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Jefferson, Warren (2001). The World of Chief Seattle, How Can One Sell the Air?. Summertown, TN: Native Voices. p. 127. ISBN 1-57067-095-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links