386. Chief Seattle

Beware, I occasionally rant. Like today.

If this post had a descriptive sub-title in the nineteenth century style, the full spread would be:

Chief Seattle: White Man’s Indian
or, how a movie took a fine old man and turned him
into a puppet and a joke

How’s that for laying out a political agenda for all to see?

Yesterday and today I presented an ersatz Miwuk legend. Ersatz is a fancy word for “I just made it up”. I don’t apologize for that. Spirit Deer is a work of fiction, and I used Miwuk Indians as the basis for Tim’s knowledge because they were the resident Native American’s in the places he finds himself. (When I wrote the book in 1975, it wasn’t yet a crime to say Indian instead of Native American.) Later, I will also have a “family story” about his grandfather’s grandfather. That is also made up, to meet the needs of the novel. Again, no apologies. Fiction is fiction. Historical fiction has some responsibility for maintaining accuracy, but Spirit Deer isn’t even subject to that.

I wrote this novel, all of it, including the legends and family stories. It’s fiction, okay. If it were ever to be published, I would make sure that those facts were clearly stated.

Actually, that’s what I’m doing here.

There is a point to all this, beyond simply taking responsibility for what I have written. When I was a teacher, I came across a book called Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message From Chief Seattle and also the supposed text of Chief Seattle’s speech. This took place decades ago, and I can’t remember which I saw first, but my Hemingway style “writer’s shit detector” went off like a siren. I was sure that this was another white guy putting words in an Indian’s (excuse me, Native American’s) mouth, after he was long dead and couldn’t set the record straight.

It turns out, I was right. The version of Chief Seattle’s speech in question, which comes complete with the statement, “I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by the white man who shot them from a passing train,” was written by screenwriter Ted Perry for the 1971 film Home. Those buffaloes were killed and rotted decades after Chief Seattle made his speech, and half a continent away. To be fair to Perry, he tried for years to claim credit for the speech and counter its false historicity, to no avail.

Actually, as fiction, or as a soupy environmental statement, it is a powerful piece of writing. But it has nothing to do with Chief Seattle.

The publication of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky led to a 1992 Newsweek article that named Perry as the author of the speech. In researching for this post, I also found a more complete article from the New York Times. You can check them out for yourself.

All this slapped me in the face four ways.

As a writer, I work hard to keep my fiction from telling lies, either morally or factually. I am a long time student of ecology, and I abhor the way a hard-edged science gets turned into a set of slogans. As an anthropologist (B.S., M.A., and two summers on archaeology digs), I hate the way Native Americans are rarely seen for themselves, but as savages or saints, according to whatever is the current fashion. I am a student of history as well, and . . . you get the picture.

You might have guessed by now that I can be irritated by lies, and seeing a screenwriter’s version of “Chief Seattle’s” speech accepted as history grinds all my gears.

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