When the children's book Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message
From Chief Seattle was published in September 1991, it seemed a perfect
marriage of words and pictures. The text was said to be adapted from a
famous 1854 speech by a chief of the Suquamish, Duwamish and allied tribes
of Puget Sound, with a timely environmental message. "The earth is our
mother," Chief Seattle declares eloquently, warning whites to love, not
ruin, the land. "What befalls the earth befalls all the sons and daughters
of the earth."
Artist Susan Jeffers's illustrations were no less compelling. Indians ride painted ponies over meadows and plains, canoe down quiet rivers or look sadly at a clear-cut forest. On the book jacket, an elderly chief in full headdress with buffalo horns, places his hands on the shoulders of a 1990s boy. Smiling, the youngster watches a dragonfly about to light on his outstretched finger. The image suggests how much Chief Seattle's words still resonate with today's young people.
Brother Eagle became the season's hottest children's book, and by January 1992 it was on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, where it remained for 17 weeks. Translations were prepared in several languages.
Then in late April a front-page New York Times article revealed that the speech was a myth. Although Chief Seattle had made a speech in 1854, he had not addressed these environmental issues in that or, as far as anyone knows, any other speech.
To the public, the news was a bombshell. The Times immediately moved the book from its nonfiction list to the "Advice, How-to and Miscellaneous" category, where it did not qualify as a best-seller. Newspaper editorials voiced outrage that a fake speech was being peddled as fact. But Brother Eagle was left on the market, and sales kept skyrocketing. So far, Jeffers's volume has sold well over 400,000 copies and has been read in elementary-school classrooms throughout the country.
Brother Eagle has proved so invulnerable because the people behind it don't seem to care if the facts get in the way of what they consider a higher cause. Such thinking has become disturbingly common. A few months back, NBC-TV showed a General Motors truck catching fire when broadsided by another vehicle. In fact, small rocket engines had been attached to the side of the truck to guarantee a fire. The producers of the segment considered the truck dangerous and believed that their message justified the fraud.
In the documentary Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II, which aired last fall on PBS, poignant footage showed a Jewish survivor returning to the Buchenwald concentration camp with black World War II veterans, implying that the soldiers had liberated the camp. The all-black 761st tank battalion had fought bravely against Nazi Germany--but it may not actually have helped free Buchenwald. The filmmakers, however, were determined to deliver a message of goodwill between blacks and Jews.
NBC has apologized, and Liberators has been pulled off the air pending an investigation. But Brother Eagle is still out there.
The little green lie about Chief Seattle was originally told to grownups, not children. On April 22, 1970, Ted Perry, a young professor of film at the University of Texas at Austin, attended a campus celebration for the first Earth Day. Before a crowd of students and professors, William Arrowsmith, a classical scholar, read a speech in which Chief Seattle told territorial officials that he would think about the government's proposal to buy their land. His tribes would consider giving up land peacefully, Seattle explained, but the spirits of their departed ancestors would continue to roam it.
Moved by the recital, Perry got an idea that, in retrospect, he wishes had never occurred to him. The Southern Baptist Convention's Radio and Television Commission had hired him to write a documentary about pollution. He decided to create a fictitious version of Seattle's speech to warn against environmental destruction.
Perry had an unseen Native American narrate over scenes of idyllic forests and pristine beaches interspersed with ugly images of pollution. The script borrowed some words from the only eyewitness account of Seattle's speech, but Perry merely used them as pegs from which to hang an entirely new message. In the original, Seattle says he thinks his people will accept the whites' "just" offer for their land, then speaks darkly of the tribes' future. Perry changed this friendly attitude into condemnation. "Continuing to contaminate his own bed," Perry's Seattle declares, "the white man will one night suffocate in his own filth."
Perry also used images that Chief Seattle could not have imagined. "I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train," Perry had Seattle say. Yet no buffaloes roamed within hundreds of miles of the chief's Puget Sound home. And it was not until years after Seattle gave his speech that the railroad reached his domain. "What will happen when the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires?" is another Seattle "quote." But the telephone was not invented until after Chief Seattle died.
"I didn't check the historical accuracy of anything I wrote," explains Perry, who today teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. He figured viewers would realize the speech was fictitious once they saw "Written by Ted Perry" at the end of the film. But the film's producer changed the credit to "Researched by Ted Perry"--implying that Perry had merely verified the text, not written it.
Perry did not find this out until he watched the documentary, "Home," on ABC television early in 1972. When he wrote complaining that he had not given permission for the change, producer John Stevens replied that he had decided the film's "impact would be far greater if the emphasis of the words were placed on Chief Seattle rather than Ted Perry."
After the broadcast, the lie spread rapidly. The Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission mailed out 18,000 posters with the bogus speech. Environmental Action magazine reprinted it as a letter from Chief Seattle to President Franklin Pierce. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas quoted it in his autobiography. And the speech played from the mouth of a Chief Seattle statue at the 1974 World's Fair in Spokane, Wash.
Perry's words were also published or broadcast in Germany, Sweden, Holland, Italy, Portugal and Denmark. In England, the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel reproduced the speech on tape. An official of this world missionary organization described it as "a fifth Gospel, almost."
From the beginning, those well versed in Puget Sound history were suspicious of the speech, but no one could trace its origin. In 1984, Rick Caldwell, librarian of the Museum of History and Industry, in Seattle, helped zero in on "Home" and wrote to the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission. A misinformed staff member replied that the scriptwriter had "expired several years ago" and that most of the files had been destroyed. (Ted Perry smiled when he was informed of this much later.) The commission no longer airs the documentary.
Ultimately, Rudolf Kaiser, A German expert on American Indian history, tracked down Ted Perry. Kaiser presented the facts about the fictitious Seattle speech at an American-studies conference in Rome in 1984, and again in a 1987 book. "The truth demands that we say when the speech was written and by whom," Professor Kaiser says.
But the lie lived on. Ted Perry's son heard the speech recited around a summer campfire. And Perry himself was surprised one Sunday morning when he heard his own words in church. As part of a special youth program, one of the children chose to read from the pulpit what he believed were Chief Seattle's words. Perry looked down in resignation. I'm going to be dogged by this for the rest of my life, he thought.
Susan Jeffers, after reading various versions of the speech, decided to adapt them into a children's book. She didn't realize at the time that there was evidence that the environmental versions had been derived from Perry's script. A few months after Brother Eagle, Sister Sky appeared, Ted Perry pointed out to the publisher, Dial Books, that it was "based upon a text of mine." In response, Perry received a letter from the author's lawyer dismissing the matter with the statement, "Susan Jeffers did not violate any copyright." Perry then wrote a letter to the lawyer requesting correct attribution, but this time received no reply.
To the lawyer, the truth didn't matter, only whether Perry had a right to share in the book's profits. But Perry didn't ask for royalties. He wanted the publisher to stop attributing the speech to Chief Seattle. Yet the book, now in a 12th printing, still does not correct the error.
"The origins of Chief Seattle's words are partly obscured by the mists of time," Jeffers writes at the back of Brother Eagle. She notes that the words have been "interpreted and rewritten more than once this century." Incredible as it seems after all the publicity the hoax has received, Jeffers is still unwilling to admit that most of the Indian's words are actually those of a white screenwriter. "Ted Perry can say he wrote them," she declares. "I can't say that he wrote them, because I don't know."
Anyway, Jeffers believes that the message is authentic--that it reflects an American Indian way of thinking. "When you say someone is Native American, you can make certain assumptions about what he felt to be important," she says.
It may be true that the 19th century American Indians lived closer to the land than we do today. But how can we assume that every last one of them thought like a modern-day environmentalist? Isn't it a bit presumptuous for a white person to put words in an Indian's mouth?
In fact, one of Chief Seattle's own tribes has disavowed Perry's words. "I appreciate the environmental overtones of Perry's speech," says Suquamish Chairwoman Georgia George. "But that doesn't excuse misrepresenting Indian leaders."
Despite these facts, as Chief Seattle biographer David Buerge likes to say, "It was a case of the lie going a thousand miles while the truth was just putting on its boots."
In 1992 the Earth Day U.S.A. organization mailed the speech to 6500 religious leaders for inclusion in their celebrations. Al Gore, then a U.S. Senator, quoted it in his book, Earth in the Balance. In these retellings, troublesome references to the dead buffalo and such were quietly removed.
Last summer, America's booksellers gave Brother Eagle the ABBY award, bestowed upon the work they most enjoyed selling the previous year. Environmental philosopher Theodore Roszak, in his new book Voice of the Earth, calls Chief Seattle's speech "apocryphal" but explains that "what we have here is a piece of folklore in the making."
Folklore? Stories passed down orally through generations are folklore. Chief Seattle's bogus speech pretends to be a historic document. That is what makes it seem so profound. Yet, the guy who wrote it lives in our own time. His name is Ted. He is a New England college professor. He is definitely not Chief Seattle.
Over the years, many have recited Ted Perry's words innocently enough, believing they were Chief Seattle's. But now that the truth is out, anyone who continues peddling the speech as fact is perpetuating a lie.
Most parents these days want their children to respect the earth. But when there are plenty of valid reasons for doing so, why give them false ones? We also want our children to respect the truth, to be able to separate fact from fiction, so they won't be duped. A beautiful--but phony--book doesn't make the job any easier.
Readers Digest, May 1994