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Ann Medlock

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Chief Seattle's Screenwriter

Posted: 11/13/07 06:47 PM ET


It isn't what the Chief had in mind, I'm sure, but over the years he's acquired a couple of ghost writers -- one poet/physician and one screenwriter.

The gorgeous environmental speech that is everywhere attributed to the nineteenth-century tribal leader was, in fact, written by screenwriter Ted Perry in 1971. And Perry based his script on the work of a Dr. Henry Smith, who probably made up a good bit of it.

Surprised? So were we. The Giraffe Heroes Project published the full text of the speech, which is seldom seen, as the back cover of our newsletter. Then John De Graaf, the filmmaker who wrote and produced a public television documentary on our work, called and said, "Guess what?" He'd learned the truth while working on a documentary about Chief Seattle's people -- what remains of them. Paula Wissel of KPLU public radio did a report for NPR's Morning Edition that told the nation the real story.

Still the myth persists.

Here's how it all came about --

In December 1854 Chief Seattle made an impassioned speech in his own language, Duwamish. He and other tribal leaders were meeting with the Territorial Governor, who was pressing them to sign away their lands in exchange for protection on a reservation.

Dr. Henry Smith was present and took notes, which he wrote up 33 years later and sent to a Seattle paper. In 1854, Dr. Smith had been in the area only a year and one suspects his Duwamish may have been a little spotty. He was also know to be a poet in his non-medical hours and the Duwamish were plain, unflowery speakers, so the one eye-witness account of the speech is highly suspect.

Ted Perry heard Smith's account read at an Earth Day gathering in 1970, when he was planning a film on the environment. He decided he would write a script in which a fictitious Native American called for environmental responsibility.

Perry told us that he'd mentioned Chief Seattle as his inspiration for the script when he turned it over to the producer. The script also mentioned the Chief by name, which Perry sees in retrospect as a "terrible idea, although at the time it seemed innocent enough. If I had been writing a play I wouldn't think twice about having a fictional Abraham Lincoln say things I wrote, expecting that the audience could figure out from the 'Written by Ted Perry' that the words were not actually those of Abraham Lincoln."

But when the film aired on ABC in 1972, the producer had given Perry no on-screen credit. Perry protested; the producer said the words sounded "more authentic" presented as Chief Seattle's.

Since then, to his great embarrassment, Perry has seen the speech quoted by Joseph Campbell, Buckminster Fuller and hundreds of lesser-known people like you and me. It's been used in songs, oratorios, even on zoo cages.

"One time I had it read to me at church as the sermon of the day," Perry lamented.

He says that Giraffe Hero John Seed got the story right in his book Thinking Like a Mountain and that, "for years I have been telling the truth about the text at every opportunity." Still, he describes himself as cringing at his role in the misattribution.

But when you think about it, the producer was right. How many of us would have put a quote from a guy who teaches film at Middlebury College on our refrigerators or office walls or magazine pages? But what fine and true words they are. It's time we thanked Mr. Perry. Here, for your posting, are his most famous words:

"The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.

All things are connected, like the blood which unites one family. Mankind did not weave the web of life.

We are but one strand within it.

Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves."

--Ted Perry

 

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