Answers from Afar
THE SPEECH OF CHIEF SEATTLE must, by now, seem barely credible as an event in history. Corruptions of text, extravagances of language, distortions of translation, and inconsistencies of meaning all stand in the way of our hearing Seattle's voice. Conflicting records and the outlines of myth stand between us and any possible date and place where that voice might have spoken.
And yet the mythic pressure of this speech endures and will endure. Perhaps rightly so. The person who led the Duwamish and Suquamish people has left just a few traces in the historical record. But in his place there remains a legendary figure, a symbol partly created and much enlarged by white men: a “Chief Seattle” officially named by Governor Stevens, and a “sable old orator” reported by Henry Smith and reshaped by later editors. In return for the distortions of white invaders and those who come after them, this figure goes on unceasingly in his reproaches. Looked at squarely, his message in its earliest traceable form is not a testament about ecology or pristine, uninhabited nature. It is rather an expression of mingled pride and sorrow about long habitation in a beautiful region. As he relinquishes his claims to much of the Puget Sound territory, Seattle admonishes the new settlers. He recalls the generations that have dwelled there, to whom every feature in the landscape has had meaning and been precious. He notes that past generations have died and been absorbed into the soil. But their spirits cannot leave their home. They will remain there to the end of time, revisiting those scenes. Seattle's long closing passage dwells on these ideas:
Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hill-side, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe. Even the rocks that seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, and the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.
The sable braves, and fond mothers, and glad-hearted maidens, and the little children who lived and rejoiced here and whose very names are now forgotten, still love these solitudes, and their deep fastnesses at eventide grow shadowy with the presence of dusky spirits. And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among white men shall have become a myth, these shores shall swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children's children shall think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway or in the silence of the woods they will not be alone…. At night, when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent, and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not altogether powerless.
There are analogous appeals in other speeches by Indians, including leaders who met in treaty councils with Governor Stevens. Many objected to leaving familiar places and ancestral burial grounds. But there is no speech quite so sustained on this theme, and none expresses the same point about permanent spirits dwelling in the relinquished lands. Are these Henry Smith's ideas, projected onto a figure from the past? Are they a haunting idea Smith absorbed from local Indians or from one or many speeches
around Puget Sound? Whatever their origin, these ideas, embodied in this now-famous speech, address a deep-running problem of more than local interest. Who does own the American landscape? What peoples have dwelled upon it most harmoniously or wisely? How has the vast invasion from Europe since the sixteenth century been absorbed by the North American continent? How has this land impressed itself back upon the progeny and successors of its invaders? And how can peoples who have now come together here over generations, from every continent around the globe, dwell with a sense of belonging?
The speech does not answer these questions, but it certainly raises them. We have looked with searching scrutiny at its text and historical setting, until nothing but questions remains. But the questions are as powerful as they come.
If we regard the speech — whatever its origins — as a painful voicing of these questions, then the critical problem to be addressed is not just its source but how it can be heard and answered. And to take the speech on its own terms, we need to look to the wider setting of America in the 1850s. How, we must ask, could a figure like Governor Stevens have taken it in, even if he did not leave any record of it? How could Dr. Henry Smith, or others in the early village of Seattle? How could a representative, literate, informed listener from the eastern United States have paid attention to such an utterance? Into what framework of thinking could he have accommodated it?
Three well-known writers of early America provide some suggestive answers: Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some of their most famous works include telling passages about Indians or the inhabiting of American land; they can serve as typical and very articulate examples of three different but very pertinent mental outlooks.
Jefferson's thinking is perhaps the closest to that of Stevens, especially in his official capacities as governor and treaty maker. Jefferson pays close attention to Indian oratory; he also questions the place of Indians and Europeans in the politics, geography, and resources of North America. But in the end, he keeps his official distance, Jefferson is a reader of such extensive learning that he diminishes an Indian to a specimen in a vast collection; he assimilates Indian oratory into his library, his domain of literate power. We might call this attitude an Attentive Official Deafness. That phrase makes a peculiar oxymoron around “official,” but it fits the deep paradox of American curiosity about Indians, combined with a numbed incapacity to recognize their full humanity.
Whitman seems to pay attention very differently, overturning libraries with a sweep of his arm in the name of revitalizing a voice, an authentic, powerful, indigenous American singing voice. But he, too, assimilates Indian voices. He blends them and others into a vast new and individual American breath and personally claims to embrace all people in all regions of this continent. It is worth noticing that Whitman was composing and printing off his first copies of Leaves of Grass in the mid-1850s, just when Isaac Stevens was making his treaties with the Indians of Washington Territory.
Finally, from about this time, we have a different personal voice in the pages of The Scarlet Letter. In its opening section, Hawthorne makes a curious and perplexed meditation about the life of a family or tribe so long in one American place that ghosts haunt descendents and hold them trapped and doomed. Against such a pressure from the past, Hawthorne replies with an emphatic protest.
These figures thus represent tellingly different attitudes — Jefferson, the official, learned, and distant; Whitman, the aggressively,
personally assimilative; and Hawthorne, the awkwardly and painfully dynastic. These are not only individual moods. In a sense they are three aspects of a developed patriotism in the eastern United States. We can find them repeated and varied in other writers and thinkers of this period; we shall meet all of them again, in fact, when we discuss Governor Stevens in detail But for now they deserve analysis in these distinct and famous voices. For these three writers urge separate American answers to Chief Seattle, even though none of them could have heard or read his speech. Their writings anticipate a voice like Seattle's and shape the kind of listening others could have offered on the shores of Puget Sound.
It is largely through Thomas Jefferson's acts as a statesman that Americans came to dwell in the Pacific Northwest. He guided and administered the complicated negotiations known as the Louisiana Purchase, which annexed lands west of the Mississippi to the United States. He shaped important laws about federal lands, the ordinances by which regions could become territories and eventually achieve admission to full statehood. And as a diligent reader and student in many branches of learning, he tried to understand the full dimensions of North America. He mastered an extensive library about its geography, climate, plants, animals, and peoples. He read about the most recent explorations and fostered new ones. Most notably he initiated, sponsored, and directed the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1806. This was the first party of American citizens to reach the headwaters of the Missouri, cross the Rockies, and descend the Columbia River, thus laying legal and intellectual claim to the northern tier of the present United States. When Isaac Stevens went, to Olympia as territorial governor, Indian negotiator, and surveyor of a northern
railway route, he traveled almost fifty years after Lewis and Clark, but he followed maps and guidelines derived from Thomas Jefferson. Stevens was aware of that fact, and proud of it. In many of their attitudes toward the Far West, as we will see in the next chapter, Stevens and Jefferson were of the same mind.
Not all of Jefferson's complicated and sometimes contradictory ideas about the West and Indian policies need detain us here. For our purposes, we can focus on just one celebrated incident, his defense of Indian oratory in Notes on the State of Virginia. His terms are those of a scholar, a person of extensive reading, who stands far removed from any danger of being affected by oratory alone. He frames a great Indian speech within well-worn categories of literate expectation, and so ignores even its most patent appeal.
Jefferson's terms of praise are famous and extravagant: “I may challenge the whole orations of Demosthenes and Cicero, and of any more eminent orator, if Europe has furnished more eminent, to produce a single passage superior to the speech of Logan, a Mingo Chief, to Lord Dunmore, when governor of this state” (Jefferson, 62). He explains that Logan's speech arose from controversies between Indians and “land-adventurers” in western lands along the Ohio River. In 1774 some Indians committed robbery, and the whites retaliated with raids. They murdered women and children, including all of Logan's family. In Jefferson's words:
Among these were unfortunately the family of Logan, a chief celebrated in peace and war, and long distinguished as the friend of the whites. This unworthy return provoked his vengeance. He accordingly signalized himself in the war which ensued. In the autumn of the same year a decisive battle was fought at the mouth of the Great Kanhaway, between the collected forces of the
Shawanese, Mingoes, and Delaware, and a detachment of the Virginia militia. The Indians were defeated, and sued for peace. Logan however disdained to be seen among the suppliants. But, lest the sincerity of a treaty should be distrusted, from which so distinguished a chief absented himself, he sent by a messenger the following speech to be delivered to Lord Dunmore.1
The printed speech is of course a translation. But it was originally made by a fortuitous agent — General John Gibson, who was both Logan's brother-in-law and Lord Dunmore's envoy to the treaty conference (300 n 3). Jefferson notes that the speech was immediately repeated around Williamsburg, copied in newspapers all over the colonies and in Great Britain, and set as a memorization exercise in colonial schools (227). In citing the speech he invokes not only the force of one speaker but a fame enlarged by repetition in white settlements, printed newspapers, and schoolbooks.
Here, from Jefferson's account, is Logan's speech:
I appeal to any white man to say, if ever he entered Logan's cabin hungry, and he gave him not meat if ever he came cold and naked, and he clothed him not. During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace. Such was my love for the whites, that my countrymen pointed as they passed, and said, “Logan is the friend of white men.” I had even thought to have lived with you, but for the injuries of one man. Col. Cresap, the last spring, in cold blood, and unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my
women and children. There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many: I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace. But do not harbour a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan?—Not one. (Jefferson, 63)
As a performance, this is not unlike Chief Seattle's address. Again we have a sole spokesman addressing invaders and yielding to their invasion. Here, too, the Indian professes his longstanding friendship, then makes a melancholy close. Again there is the last flicker of noble resistance, but against an impending threat of black annihilation. Henry Smith seems to have caught some of these similarities in his poem about the name Seattle:
For a name sometimes turns to a slogan,
And stands as a symbol of right,
As once did the name of great Logan,
That led in the van of the fight
There is even the mordant irony that a meeting of beliefs has gone awry. The opening lines here recall a Gospel passage familiar to churchgoers of Jefferson's era:
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for
you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me.” (Matthew 25:31-36, King James version)
Logan's allusion implies at the very least that he has behaved with every kind of Christian charity and been sorely punished for it. But it could be more keenly devastating: at the Last Judgment, Logan will be the blessed heir of a kingdom; when all nations are gathered, his current tormenters will be the ones judged and found wanting. In either case, this speech, like Seattle's, invokes supernatural judgment in a conflict between peoples.
But if Jefferson ever heard these possibilities in Logan's speech he does not say so. His treatment of it is what matters here, and the way he places it in his writings shows that he is deaf to much of what it says. We saw earlier that many transcriptions of Indian speeches are shaped for literate audiences, so that one or two main ideas are stressed. The Indians' expressions of outrage or pain are safely insulated. Here the main message Logan sends to Dunmore is that he accepts a treaty even though he will not sign it. Another safe though affecting point is that he proclaims himself and his people to be on the verge of extinction. A third is that Logan has been dangerous but is no longer: “I have fully glutted my vengeance.” A reader must search in order to bring out other possibilities. In the speech's full context, in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson offers many wider frameworks of judgment, such as that this speech is a specimen of oratory to be judged against the works of Cicero or Demosthenes. Jefferson need not mention that these were also speakers on the losing side of great conflicts of empire. He expects his audience to understand that oratory is a noble but ineffectual art.
He drives this point home in the paragraph that immediately follows the speech;
Before we condemn the Indians of this continent as wanting genius, we must consider that letters have not yet been introduced among them. Were we to compare them in their present state with the Europeans North of the Alps, when the Roman arms and arts first crossed those mountains, the comparison would be unequal, because, at that time, those parts of Europe were swarming with numbers; because numbers produce emulation, and multiply the chances of improvement, and one improvement begets another. Yet I may safely ask, How many good poets, how many able mathematicians, how many great inventors in arts or sciences, had Europe North of the Alps then produced? And it was sixteen centuries after this before a Newton could be formed. I do not mean to deny, that there are varieties in the race of man, distinguished by their powers both of body and mind. I believe there are, as I see to be the case in the races of other animals. (Jefferson, 63)
There seem to be different orders of human beings, and Indians are low among those orders—lower than the Teutons because less numerous, and therefore less likely to emulate each other and “multiply the chances of improvement.” The Teutons in turn are lower than the Romans with their “arms and arts.” And the Romans are at least sixteen centuries behind modern arts and sciences. As Jefferson and his correspondents understood the world, literacy and science rightly gave some people empire or dominion over others.
Jefferson explicitly denies that Indians have such power: “Letters have not yet been introduced among them.” This point is historically incorrect, but it is good evidence of Jefferson's attitudes. Very specifically it means that he cannot have heard
Logan's allusion to the Bible, and certainly cannot have imagined such an Indian being subtle enough to turn a Gospel teaching back upon his teachers, Jefferson wants to draw the conclusion that Indians are capable
of becoming fully human once they become fully civilized. But that may take centuries—and meanwhile whole tribes are becoming extinct
In Notes on the State of Virginia, Logan's speech also fits into Jefferson's argument as a specimen among ranges of collected specimens. The book is organized as a compendium of answers Jefferson made as governor of Virginia to a series of questions posed in 1780 by the secretary of the French legation at Philadelphia. The answers to this questionnaire were delayed and interrupted by events of the Revolutionary War and Jefferson's personal life, and the project grew to be a book in the course of time. But it retains two important features because of these beginnings. It is a report by one public official to another, and a scientific survey of America, addressed to the learned minds of Europe.
The chapter that reports Logan's speech is titled “Productions Mineral, Vegetable and Animal.” It is in this section that Jefferson directly faces and refutes the French naturalist Georges Louis Leclerc, compte de Buffon, who had published the charge that animals of the New World were smaller, fewer in sp...