Who Really Said "Man Belongs to the Earth"?

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This quote, misattributed to Chief Seattle, greeted visitors to the World's Fair in 1974. - NORTHWEST MUSEUM OF ARTS AND CULTURE PHOTO
Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture photo
This quote, misattributed to Chief Seattle, greeted visitors to the World's Fair in 1974.

Washington Territory in the 1850s was a tumultuous place. To native tribes living along the Salish Sea, it was twilight, as their way of life was about to be devastated; for whites, it was the dawn when a trickle of settlement was about to become a flood. In his new book, Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name, Seattle historian David Buerge recounts this era through the life of Chief Seattle, an enduring Native American icon.

A member of the Duwamish Tribe, young Seattle was a fierce warrior, but by the time Americans arrived he simply wanted peace. When territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens went on his treaty-signing tour of the future state (and its resulting murderous wars that reached even to Spokane), Seattle welcomed him even as some settlers opposed his land grabs.

Seattle addressed Stevens in his native tongue sometime between 1854-55, and that speech has become a pivotal moment in our history. First committed to paper 30 years after the fact by Dr. Henry Smith, who was at the signing and heard it translated, Seattle's speech has since been beloved by admirers — so much so, that they have often changed his words to suit them.

Still, Smith's poetic translation has captivated generations with its pathos and prescience: "Your God loves your people and hates mine," he quotes Chief Seattle as telling Stevens. "He folds his strong arms lovingly around the white man... but he has forsaken his red children; he makes your people wax strong every day, and soon they will fill all the land; while my people are ebbing away like a fast-receding tide..."

Activists behind the first Earth Day in 1970 regarded Seattle as a prophet of their movement, even reciting versions of his speech at some of the celebrations. Which leads to the catch-phrase of Expo '74: "The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth." Expo planners attributed the quote to Chief Seattle, giving it even more gravity. But in fact, as Buerge reminds us, a young Texas filmmaker, Ted Perry, heard the Seattle speech on Earth Day and incorporated his own take on it for film he made about pollution. Perry's words went into the tangled pile of Chief Seattle lore (there are nearly 100 identified "versions" of his speech), and a few years later it wound up three stories tall inside the U.S Pavilion in Spokane. ♦

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About The Author

Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Ted S. McGregor, Jr. grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep high school and the University of the Washington. While studying for his Master's in journalism at the University of Missouri, he completed a professional project on starting a weekly newspaper in Spokane. In 1993, he turned that project into reality...