Chief Seattle’s speech ‘reflects the spiritual relationship between people and land’

Suquamish elder gives stirring recitation at Poulsbo City Council meeting

POULSBO — It was a cold day, so cold that ice on northern rivers kept many people from attending the treaty talks in Mukilteo that January morning in 1855.

Representatives of the United States, led by Gov. Isaac Stevens, had called a meeting with leaders of the region’s indigenous nations to discuss terms for the U.S. acquisition of the lands. Such a concept of ownership was unfamiliar to the region’s First Peoples; they had their own territories, for sure, but kinship networks gave individuals rights of use throughout the lands that the United States wanted to claim as its own.

The U.S. offered, in a pidgin trade language known as Chinook Jargon, certain guarantees. The indigenous leaders retained land for themselves and their descendants, as well as the right to fish in their usual and accustomed places.

Eighty-two indigenous leaders made their marks on the Treaty of Point Elliott. The first signer was Si’ahl (anglicized as Seattle), leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples, a man who had witnessed First Contact in 1792 with Vancouver’s visit to the waters off what is now the city bearing Si’ahl’s name.

Chief Seattle’s speech was not written down beforehand, like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Rather, in keeping with the oral tradition, it was preserved by individuals passing it down by word of mouth.

The earliest written version of Seattle’s words that day was published in 1887 and is attributed to Dr. Henry A. Smith, a Seattle pioneer who was fluent in the trade language and who would surely have proven useful to Gov. Stevens in his dealings with the Tribes of Puget Sound, according to National Archives researchers. Since then, there have been no fewer than 86 versions of Chief Seattle’s speech — written or adapted by non-Tribal members — according to the documentary “Home,” by Daniel and Patricia Miller.

At its Sept. 6 meeting, the City Council members had the honor of listening to an oral recitation of Chief Seattle’s speech by Bob George, a 90-year-old Suquamish elder, who perpetuated the oral tradition that helped pass the original speech down from elder to young.

“This is probably the closest we have to the actual speech. The message is a good message,” Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman said. “It reflects the spiritual relationship between people and the land.”

The recitation wrapped up a month of mutual appreciation between the Suquamish Tribe and the City of Poulsbo, said Greg George, chairman of Port Madison Enterprises, the economic development arm of the Suquamish Tribe.

The entire audience and City Council applauded when George finished his oration, which reflected the Suquamish Tribe’s oral tradition:

“We have word you wish to buy our land. How can you buy our silver sky or the warmth of the land?

“The idea seems strange to us. We do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us?

“Every part of this earth is sacred to my people.

“We know that the white man does not understand our ways. For one portion of the land is the same to him as the next. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy. Once he has conquered it, he moves on.

“He leaves his fathers’ graves and his children’s birthright is forgotten. There is no quiet place in the white men’s cities; no place to see the leaves of spring, or to hear the rustle of insects’ wings. But, perhaps because I am a savage I do not understand the pleasure of their insults to the earth.

“And where is there true life where a man cannot hear the lovely cry of the whippoorwill or the argument of the frogs around the pond at night?

“The whites, too, shall pass; perhaps sooner than other tribes. For you contaminate your beds that you might suffocate in your own waste.

“When the last red man shall have perished and the memory of my tribe has become a myth among the white men, these shores shall swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe. When your children’s children think themselves alone, in the field, at the store, upon the highway or in the silence of the pathless breaks, they will not be alone.

“Death I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds. The dead are not powerless.”

— Terryl Asla is a reporter for the Kitsap News Group. He can be reached at

Some of Chief Seattle’s famous words are inscribed in English and in Lushootseed on a low concrete wall around his gravesite in the Suquamish Cemetery. (Richard Walker/2014)

Some of Chief Seattle’s famous words are inscribed in English and in Lushootseed on a low concrete wall around his gravesite in the Suquamish Cemetery. (Richard Walker/2014)