Seattle (1788-1866) is regarded as the last great leader of the native bands that lived in the Pacific Northwest.

Generally regarded as the last great leader of the native bands that lived in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle was responsible for continued good relations between Native Americans and the new white settlers. He was born around 1788 to Schweabe, his Suquamish father, and Scholitza, his Duwamish mother, in the area of central Puget Sound, Oregon Region (now Washington State). As a member of a patrilineal society, Seattle learned and spoke the Suquamish dialect of his father.

When Seattle was four years old, whites arrived in the Puget Sound area, and the process of cultural assimilation began. By the 1830s, when he was in his mid-forties, Seattle had converted to the Catholicism of the French missionaries and was baptized as "Noah." With his new-found faith, he instituted morning and evening church services among Native Americans that were continued even after his death.


The City

The California Gold Rush of 1849 deluged the Pacific Northwest with white settlers intent on exploring the natural wealth of the area. Seattle, then principal chief of the united Suquamish and Duwamish nations—both Coast Salishan bands—counseled friendship, open trade, and accommodation of white settlers.

In respect for their friend and ally, the whites at Puget Sound took Seattle's name for their own settlement in 1852. Among the Salishan Indians of the Pacific Northwest, however, it was believed that the frequent mention of a dead person's name would disturb that person's eternal rest. In order to use his name—Seattle—as the name of their city, white settlers agreed to prepay the chief for the trouble that his spirit would later experience when his name was mentioned; Seattle was compensated with moneys from a small tax imposed on the settlers prior to his death.


The Land

As white settlers continued to pour into the area, the U.S. Government pressed the issue of land purchase from the Indians. In December of 1854, Seattle met with Washington territorial governor Isaac Stevens to discuss the sale of native lands in exchange for smaller reservations and government annuities. His speech at this meeting was translated into English and transcribed by Henry A. Smith, a poet. Seattle agreed to accommodate the whites and the U.S. Government by moving the Puget Sound bands to a reservation. In 1855, at the age of 67, Seattle became the first signer of the Port Elliott Treaty between the Puget Sound Indians and the United States. But soon after the treaty was made, the terms were broken by whites, leading to a series of Native American uprisings from 1855 to 1858, including the Yakima War of 1855-1856 east of the Cascade Mountains, and the unsuccessful 1856 attack on Seattle's village by Nisqually warriors from west of the Cascade Mountains.

In accordance with the treaty stipulations, Seattle and his people moved to the Port Madison reservation, located west-northwest across the Puget Sound from the current city of Seattle, on the east shore of Bainbridge Island. There he lived in the Old Man House—a large community building.


The Speech

Seattle's 1854 address to the Washington territorial governor regarding the status of his people and their future was said to be eloquent and moving, but today there are at least four variations of the text, which raises the question of cultural authenticity. Seattle spoke in either Suquamish or Duwamish, which was then translated immediately into Chinook, and then into English for the U.S. Government representatives. The only surviving transcript of Seattle's oration was derived from the notes in English that were purportedly taken by Dr. Smith as Seattle spoke. On October 29, 1887, the Seattle Sunday Star published what Dr. Smith claimed was a representative transcription of Chief Seattle's spoken words, although he noted his text "contained none of the grace and elegance of the original." The text begins: "Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion upon my people for centuries untold, and which to us appears changeless and eternal, may change. Today it is fair. Tomorrow it may be overcast with clouds. My words are like the stars that never set. Whatever Seattle says, the great chief at Washington can rely upon with as much certainty as he can upon the return of the sun or the seasons."

Two years later, in 1889, Washington became a state. A year after that, the city of Seattle erected a monument to its ancestral namesake, chief of the Suquamish and Duwamish peoples. Both of these Native American tribal bands are now extinct, but Seattle's speech has continued to fascinate scholars throughout the twentieth century. In the 1960s poet William Arrowsmith revised the speech into modern-day English. Arrowsmith's version begins: "Brothers: That sky above us has pitied our fathers for many hundreds of years. To us it looks unchanging, but it may change. Today it is fair. Tomorrow it may be covered with clouds." Perry's letter, featured in an ecology movie titled Home, is based loosely on Dr. Smith's transcription of Seattle's 1854 oration: "The Great Chief in Washington sends word that [he] wishes to buy our land. The Great Chief also sends us words of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him, since we know he has little need of our friendship in return. But we will consider your offer. For we know that if we do not sell, the white man may come with guns and take our land. How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us."

Seattle was married twice and had six children, four of whom died in childhood. He passed away on June 7, 1866, at the age of 78, on a Washington reservation. His famous speech and its current interpretations and use continue to challenge academics, but according to Native American history expert Herman Viola, as quoted in Newsweek, Seattle's discourse—whether accurate or embellished— undoubtedly "conveys the feeling a lot of Indians had."


Further Reading on Seattle

Kaiser, Rudolf, "Chief Seattle's Speech (es): American Origins and European Reception," in Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, University of California Press, 1987.

Leitch, Barbara A., A Concise Dictionary of Indian Tribes of North America, Algonac, Michigan, Reference Publications, 1979.

Native North American Almanac, edited by Duane Champagne, Detroit, Gale Research, 1994; 1157.

Waldman, Carl, Who Was Who in Native American History, New York, Facts On File, 1990; 318.

Watt, Roberta Frye, Four Wagons West, Portland, Binsford &Mort, 1934.

Buerge, David, "Seattle's King Arthur: How Chief Seattle Continues to Inspire His Many Admirers to Put Words in His Mouth," Seattle Weekly, July 17, 1991.

"Chief Seattle's Treaty Oration—1854," Seattle Sunday Star, October 29, 1887.

Jones, Malcolm, Jr., and Ray Sawhill, "Just Too Good to Be True:Another Reason to Beware of False Eco-prophets," Newsweek, May 4, 1992; 68.

Information from Nancy Zussy, State Librarian, Washington State Library, Olympia, Washington.