Portland and Seattle have developed sizeable communities of disaffected leftists who are antagonistic toward everything that is traditional America. Hundreds of young folks are ready at a moment’s notice to flood into the streets to protest the offense du jour. They block traffic, vandalize cars and stores, break windows, start fires, and attack people. They rant about the evils of capitalism, the despoliation of the environment, and, although most of them are white, the Evil White Man. At the same time, they speak in reverential tones of the original inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest as if the red man were the ideal human being and the various tribes created ideal societies.
I saw an example of Indian idealization a couple of years ago when I visited Fort Clatsop, built by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805 near present-day Astoria. Some of the original fort remains, but most of it is a faithful reconstruction. Visitors are treated to excellent demonstrations by volunteer re-enactors portraying members of the expedition, and also to a video about the Clatsop Indians. The video is a fanciful piece that portrays the Clatsop and other Indians of the coasts of Oregon and Washington as peaceful and loving, kind and generous, trustworthy and honest, and, especially, stewards of a pristine environment. This bucolic idyll ended with the arrival of the white man. The video seemed designed for grammar-school children, not adults, and a ranger told me that kids are often brought from various schools for field trips to Fort Clatsop. Propagandize them when young!
Another example prominent in the Pacific Northwest of the idealized Indian is Chief Seattle. He supposedly delivered a speech in 1854 about the proposed purchase of Indian land that captivated government officials and all others present:
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries memories of the red man. The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man . . .
The speech continues in this vein until Chief Seattle laments, “I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie left by the white man who shot them from a passing train.” In 1854, however, there was no railroad crossing the Great Plains, nor would there be until 1868, when the Union Pacific reached Wyoming, two years after the chief had died. Moreover, Chief Seattle never left the Puget Sound area and could never have seen a buffalo, rotting or otherwise.
The first public mention of Chief Seattle’s speech comes from Henry Smith in a column he wrote for the Seattle Sunday Star in 1887. Smith was a physician, but a poet at heart. He said he was there when Chief Seattle met Governor Isaac Stevens to discuss the sale of Indian lands to white settlers and took notes when Chief Seattle spoke. It’s questionable whether Smith was even there—others who were make no mention of Smith—but, more importantly, if he were, he wouldn’t have understood a word of the chief’s speech because Seattle spoke only the native tongue of his Duwamish and Suquamish people. Moreover, the purpose of the meeting, which resulted in the Treaty of Point Elliott, was not the sale of Indian land but other issues, including abolishing slavery and wars among the tribes, reservations, annuities, schools, and fishing and hunting rights. There were several chiefs representing several tribes at the conference, and a dozen or more government officials and interpreters.
Over the years, authors of histories of the Pacific Northwest have included slightly different variations on Smith’s version of Seattle’s speech. In the late 1960’s, just as the environmentalist movement was gaining steam, a university professor, William Arrowsmith, decided to remove what he saw as Smith’s influences on the speech, which he said made Chief Seattle sound like the Greek poet Pindar. Arrowsmith’s intentions may have been good, but his version was even more environmentally pointed. Arrowsmith’s rendering, in turn, was modified by Ted Perry, when writing a script for an environmentalist documentary. Said Perry,
I first heard a version of the text read by William Arrowsmith at the first Environmental Day celebration in 1970. . . . 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.
It was Perry’s version of Chief Seattle’s speech that gained the greatest currency and was simply accepted as fact rather than what it was: a fictitious version based on a fictitious version based on a fictitious version. Each version was the product of what a white man with an agenda thought Chief Seattle should have said. Various environmentalist groups published Perry’s rendition of the Chief Seattle speech, but it was now often put in the form of a letter to President Franklin Pierce. No such letter ever existed, of course, but no matter—it was quoted widely and became part of schoolbooks, movies, environmental literature, and documentaries. By the mid-1970’s Chief Seattle had joined Iron Eyes Cody—not an Indian but a Sicilian—as a wise Indian chief pleading for the sanctity of Mother Earth.
When whites first encountered the Indians of coastal villages of the Pacific Northwest, they found them to be obsessed not with the environment but with wealth and prestige. Each tribe was marked by class distinctions, based on wealth. At the top were chiefs with several wives each and an abundance of possessions, including slaves. At the bottom were slaves, usually captured enemies. In a few of the villages slaves made up a third of the population. The tribes raided one another’s villages regularly to capture men and women and to carry off furs and other items of value. Clubs, knives, spears, and the bow and arrow were their weapons of choice. The raids were undertaken in canoes, some more than 50 feet long and often decorated with religious symbols.
The larger canoes were also used for hunting whales. The Makahs of Cape Flattery, at the northwestern tip of the Olympic peninsula, were renowned for whaling. For the Makahs whale meat rivaled salmon as the principal food of their diet. Amid much controversy and strong opposition from environmental and animal welfare groups, the Makahs are back to hunting whales today, although not in a canoe with a harpoon but in a power launch with high-powered rifles such as the Weatherby .460 Magnum (favored by Chilton Williamson for big game on the Serengeti Plain). Their right to hunt the huge beast of the sea is guaranteed by the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, but more recent legislation and international treaties have complicated the situation and guaranteed years of court battles.
For most of the tribes food was not a problem. The annual salmon runs provided fish in abundance. The Indians mostly used nets to catch the salmon, but at the height of a run, so plentiful were the fish that an Indian could simply rake them onto a sandbar or riverbank. Some of the catch was eaten fresh, but most was hung in a smokehouse, stored in oil in cedar boxes, or dried and made into pemmican.
The ease of acquiring food gave the men of the tribe plenty of time for raiding and war. Warriors obtained wealth, power, and prestige through battles. A stealthy raid or a victory in battle meant extra wives and more slaves. Chief Seattle earned his reputation not for hugging trees but for leading raids and returning with plunder aplenty and dozens of slaves. In 1847 he led an attack on the Chimakum tribe in their village in the northeastern corner of the Olympic peninsula. Seattle’s warriors took the Chimakum by surprise, slaughtering nearly all the men—upward of 200—as well as some women and children, and taking the surviving women and children as slaves. A few Chimakum were not in the village at the time, and a few escaped during the attack, but the Chimakum ceased to exist as a people. An anthropologist could find only three living Chimakum in 1890.
There’s a statue honoring Chief Seattle in Seattle’s Tilikum Place.
Slaves were useful not only for work in the village but also for sacrifice to the eagle, bear, beaver, salmon, and whale spirits. Slaves also came in handy for the ceremonies of the Cannibal Society. Members of the society would dance themselves into a frenzy, stopping only intermittently to cut pieces of flesh from a slave and devour them. Some of the more frenzied dancers would bite into the slave with their bare teeth and rip the flesh from him. At the climax of the dance the slave was butchered, and the rest of his flesh was consumed.
There was also the occasional party, called a potlatch, in which the host demonstrated his wealth and generosity by giving away or destroying some of his possessions, including furs, canoes, wives, and slaves. The potlatches often became competitions among the wealthy and powerful to see who could afford to destroy or give away more. I don’t think Thorstein Veblen had the tribes of the Pacific Northwest coast in mind when he wrote of conspicuous consumption in The Theory of the Leisure Class, but he should have.
The reality of life among the coastal tribes of the Pacific Northwest does not comport with the bucolic idyll invented by white men with political and social agendas. I wouldn’t want to stop their fertile imaginations from creating Indians who never were, but I do object to seeing their creations pass for history.