Political correctness portrays untamed America before European invasion as a natural paradise, where Indians maintained an exquisite ecological balance, living in a harmonious, idyllic relationship to the natural world. According to conventional wisdom, this pre-Columbian Eden flourished for peaceful millenia until brutal disuprtion by thoughtless, menacing and mercenary white colonists. Stewart Udall, one-time Arizona Congressman and later Secretary of the Interior for President Kennedy, became an early advocate of this point of view in his influential 1973 article, “Indians: First Americans, First Ecologists,” urging modern citizens to follow the native example of treating the landscape with love and respect.
Udall’s arguments received powerful support from the popularization of the moving speech of Chief Seattle, the Duwamish elder who addressed a meeting in 1854 in the raw settlement in Washington Territory that ultimately took his name. “Every part of this earth is sacred to my people,” Seattle supposedly told his listeners. “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.” Later, the aged sage assaulted the insensitive ways of the new arrivals. “There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities,” he lamented. “The clatter only seems to insult the ears…I’ve seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a train.”
Actually, it’s unlikely that Chief Seattle ever saw even a single buffalo, either rotting or otherwise, or ever looked at a train for that matter, since buffalo never lived in his verdant corner of the Pacific Northwest, and railroads (along with “the clatter” of white the man’s cities) only arrived several decades after the alleged speech. His poetic remarks (immortalized in a bestselling children’s book, “Brother Eagle, Sister Sky”) represent an internationally influential hoax-- a more or less whole-cloth invention by a screenwriter named Ted Perry for a now-forgotten 1972 TV documentary, based very, very loosely on an account in a Seattle newspaper (twenty years after the kindly chief’s death) of a real talk he may (or may not) have delivered in his largely indecipherable native language to the drenched but respectful pioneers.