19 February 2008

Chief Seattle's scripture

A bit of 20th-Century scripture:

Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

These words have been widely quoted since the 1970s, and encapsulate much of the ecological awareness developing since then. They are usually attributed to ‘Chief Seattle,’ and thus taken to speak for authentic Native American culture. The real story (like the web of life) is a little more complex.

On October 29, 1887, Henry A. Smith published a column in the Seattle Sunday Star entitled ‘Scraps from a Diary—Chief Seattle.’ This column included what Smith said was a reconstruction, based on his notes taken at the time, of a speech given in 1854 by Chief Seattle, or Seath'tl, of the Duwamish people. There is no other record of this speech. Blaisdell (2000, 117-120) reprints the Smith text as given in Frederic James Grant's History of Seattle (1891).

The Smith text was rediscovered, touched up and rendered into a more contemporary idiom by later writers, notably the poet William Arrowsmith in 1969. His version was used by screenwriter Ted Perry in producing the script for a documentary aired on television in 1971; and this is the source of the famous ‘web of life’ statement. But the producers of the film failed to credit Perry with the script, thus leaving the impression that the words were Chief Seattle's. Perry's text (given in Seed et al. 1988, 67-73) though doubtless very different from whatever the Chief originally said, is now the most widely quoted version of it, and deservedly so: its power and beauty leave the Smith text in the dust. Many cite it as an authentic expression of Native American culture; Joseph Campbell, who recited it in his PBS TV series with Bill Moyers, attributed it to ‘one of the last spokesmen of the Paleolithic moral order’ (Campbell 1988, 41). Fritjof Capra helped to set the record straight by using it for the title and epigraph of his 1996 book The Web of Life, crediting ‘Ted Perry, inspired by Chief Seattle.’ There is no question that Perry's stirring words have inspired many others in their turn.

The Perry text is related to Chief Seattle's original speech in much the same way as the Gospels are related to the original words of Jesus. However much editing, translation and revision took place along the way, the resulting texts have undoubtedly served some readers as a revelation. The history of that revision process may not matter to those readers, but it's an interesting case study for those of us trying to understand the genesis of scriptures.

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