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Chief Seattle’s 1854 Oration – Was it true? Essay

Chief Seattle, leader of the Duwamish tribe, was author of the famous speech to Washington Governor Stevens upon his arrival to Seattle in 1854. However, many doubt Chief Seattle’s speech to have taken place. There is little credible evidence available to back up the existence of the speech with the exception of a newspaper article written by a Doctor Henry A. Smith. The article, titled “Chief Seattle’s Speech,” was published in the “Seattle Sunday Star” on October 27th, 1887. If Doctor Smith was witness to Chief Seattle’s epic speech, he was the sole translator. How are we to know that translation faults and liberations were not made by Doctor Smith? The Duwamish language was not a written language, having no alphabet, thus no official record or writing could have been made. For these reasons, it is highly probable Chief Seattle’s Oration of 1854 never existed.

The first and only published account of Chief Seattle’s Oration was written in the “Seattle Sunday Star” on October 27th, 1887. The author of the article, Doctor Henry Smith, was said to have been a witness at the speech and served as a translator for Chief Seattle; however, no official document of this account exists in any historical archive. Chief Seattle’s speech has been widely cited in numerous books and documents, but every citation leads back to Doctor Smith’s article. Therefore, the only proof available that this speech ever occurred is the newspaper article dating back to 1887 from this one source.

If we are to give the benefit of the doubt to Doctor Henry Smith as having been witness a to this speech, who is to say the translation was correct? For all we know “Doctor” Henry A. Smith made up every word of the speech, nobody would know. Chief Seattle was known to have been illiterate, neither knowing how to read, write or speak English (McCarthy par. 12). His speech was presented in nice paragraph form, almost as if Chief Seattle was reading the address off a piece of paper, even though Chief Seattle could not read.

The Duwamish language had no alphabet, it could not be written, it was only spoken. There is no possible way Chief Seattle could have had anything to read from or look at while giving his speech to Governor Stevens. Due to these facts, no official record of the speech could exist. Yes, Doctor Smith could have written a near-perfect translation, but there is no evidence to suggest this. An account of the speech by the Duwamish tribe, or a copy of the speech in Duwamish, does not exist for anyone to refer to.

The man known as Chief Seattle existed, the Duwamish tribe existed, Doctor Smith existed, these are known FACTS. However, there is only but one written account by a Doctor Henry Smith that this Oration took place, and only one translator was said to have been at Chief Seattle’s Oration and that one man was a Doctor Henry A. Smith. The Duwamish tribe had no written language for an official copy of this speech to have taken place, and there is no reason for anyone to believe that Doctor Smith took an exact translation with no liberations added. For these reasons, Chief Seattle’s Oration of 1854 never existed.

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