Many of us who came of age during and after the environmental movement of the 1970s are familiar with Chief Seattle's Treaty Oration of 1854, which some have called one of the most beautiful and profound statements on the environment ever made:
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man. The white man's dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man--all belong to the same family...
The problem is, Chief Seattle never said this. He did give a speech in 1854 that concerned the concession of native lands to the settlers, but it bears little resemblance to the version above, which in fact was written by screenwriter Ted Perry (who is now a professor at Middlebury College) for a movie called Home that was produced for the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission.
How did this happen? When Seattle gave his speech in 1854 (in his own language, Duwamish), a certain Dr. Henry Smith took notes, which he wrote up 33 years later and sent to a Seattle paper. Some scholars suspect that Smith's Duwamish at the time was a little sketchy, and given that he was also a poet, many think he might have taken some license with his rendering of the speech. Flash forward about 80 years to 1970 when Ted Perry was planning a film on the environment. He heard Smith's account read at an Earth Day gathering, which led him to write a script in which a fictitious Native American called for environmental responsibility. However, by the time the film found its way to the silver screen, the words of Perry's fictitious Native American had been put on the lips of Chief Seattle, and the rest (as they say) his history (or in this case, the lack thereof).