Chief Seattle's eloquent speech isoften used to epitomize how North American Indians revere nature assacred. In books, on T-shirts and posters, Seattle's remarks are calledup to contrast aboriginal people's profound respect for plants andanimals with the Western idea of nature as merely something to exploit.
But two stereotype-smashing books argue that how Chief Seattle'sspeech was reported illustrates something quite different--thatWesterners' view of native Indian spirituality is artificially rosy and hasbeen embellished through the lens of contemporary environmentalism.
The two scholars are anthropologist Shepard Krech of BrownUniversity, author of "The Ecological Indian: Myth andHistory" (Norton), and Canadian political scientist Rod Preece ofWilfrid Laurier University, who has written "Animals and Nature:Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities" (University of British ColumbiaPress).
Their books argue Seattle's speech was not written down until 30years after it occurred, and that this early version was based on atranslation of a translation by Henry Smith, who spoke no nativelanguages but was trying to make his white audience admire the naturalworld.
Even Smith's well-meaning but questionable version of Seattle'sremarks was later enhanced, including by an American screenwriter who in1970 added the chief's most-quoted phrase: "All things are connected."
Chief Seattle probably did speak on an environmental theme,the scholars believe. But what he may have said wasn't unique to nativespirituality.
Preece says Chief Seattle's speech has remarkable similarities toEcclesiastes 3:18-19, which reads: "For that which befalls the sons ofman befalls beasts...They all have one breath; so that a man hath nopre-eminence above a beast."
Both Krech and Preece argue that American Indian spirituality hasbeen romanticized as a way to provoke change in Western society.
Although the two scholars have been accused of being racist forchallenging the stereotype, they are anything but opposed to ecologicalsustainability. They admire many things about aboriginal culture andspirituality, but say they want to set the anthropological record straightso that higher and more discerning standards of honesty are brought tothe study of the religion of diverse cultures.
Both Krech and Preece cite in detail hundreds of examples from thepresent and past of aboriginals' failure to safeguard nature.
For example, Washington state's Macah Indians last year danced withglee on the carcass of a whale killed, they said, in line with their cultural beliefe, noted Preece. An Inuit hunter on hissnowmobile recently chased 162 wolves to their deaths, he added.
Preece and Krech also detail questionable environmental practiceslong before contact with white people: Prairie Indians killed thousandsof buffalo at a time, wasting meat, sometimes just taking their tongues;aboriginal boys in Guyana killed anaconda snakes with their barehands as part of an initiation ritual; aboriginals around the world havedone slash-and-burn forestry; South American natives ate the hearts ofbirds and tossed the rest of the bodies; Mayans diverted precious waterto satisfy royal whims.
Krech even maintains that traditional native Indian belief inreincarnation may have worked against good stewardship. The notionanimals could be killed until extinct, for example, would have made nosense to many Indians. And Krech says aboriginal belief in animism,which attributes a soul to plants and animals, led some tobelieve a spirit would reward them for efficiently killing lots ofanimals by creating more of them.
Among those Krech and Preece say are most responsible forromanticizing native spirituality to effect change are 17th centuryFrench philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau; 20th century anthropologistColin Turnbull, author of "The Forest People"; and contemporary RomanCatholic eco-theologian Thomas Berry, author of "The Dream of theEarth," as well as actor and filmmaker Kevin Costner, director of"Dances With Wolves."
Preece emphasizes that the Western spiritual and secular humanisttradition contains hundreds of notables who have revered nature andanimals, including Plutarch, the Gospel writer Matthew and St. Francisof Assisi, 19th century thinkers Henry David Thoreau and AlbertSchweitzer, and scores of others.
Of course, these people's pro-nature sentiments have not stoppedWesterners from misusing technology to poison rivers, thin the ozone,eradicate forests, wipe out species and mistreat animals.
Krech and Preece show that respecting other cultures and religions--not patronizing them--requires an assessment that includes theirsometimes contradictory fullness.
The authors' point is, even if there are beliefs within bothaboriginal and Western religion and philosophy that urge us to live inharmony with nature, there is a giant gap between teaching reverence forthe environment and actually practicing it.