Chief Seattle's eloquent speech is often used to epitomize how North American Indians revere nature as sacred. In books, on T-shirts and posters, Seattle's remarks are called up to contrast aboriginal people's profound respect for plants and animals with the Western idea of nature as merely something to exploit.
But two stereotype-smashing books argue that how Chief Seattle's speech was reported illustrates something quite different--that Westerners' view of native Indian spirituality is artificially rosy and has been embellished through the lens of contemporary environmentalism.
The two scholars are anthropologist Shepard Krech of Brown University, author of "The Ecological Indian: Myth and History" (Norton), and Canadian political scientist Rod Preece of Wilfrid Laurier University, who has written "Animals and Nature: Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities" (University of British Columbia Press).
Their books argue Seattle's speech was not written down until 30 years after it occurred, and that this early version was based on a translation of a translation by Henry Smith, who spoke no native languages but was trying to make his white audience admire the natural world.
Even Smith's well-meaning but questionable version of Seattle's remarks was later enhanced, including by an American screenwriter who in 1970 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 native spirituality.
Preece says Chief Seattle's speech has remarkable similarities to Ecclesiastes 3:18-19, which reads: "For that which befalls the sons of man befalls beasts...They all have one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast."
Both Krech and Preece argue that American Indian spirituality has been romanticized as a way to provoke change in Western society.
Although the two scholars have been accused of being racist for challenging the stereotype, they are anything but opposed to ecological sustainability. They admire many things about aboriginal culture and spirituality, but say they want to set the anthropological record straight so that higher and more discerning standards of honesty are brought to the study of the religion of diverse cultures.
Both Krech and Preece cite in detail hundreds of examples from the present and past of aboriginals' failure to safeguard nature.
For example, Washington state's Macah Indians last year danced with glee on the carcass of a whale killed, they said, in line with their cultural beliefe, noted Preece. An Inuit hunter on his snowmobile recently chased 162 wolves to their deaths, he added.
Preece and Krech also detail questionable environmental practices long before contact with white people: Prairie Indians killed thousands of buffalo at a time, wasting meat, sometimes just taking their tongues; aboriginal boys in Guyana killed anaconda snakes with their bare hands as part of an initiation ritual; aboriginals around the world have done slash-and-burn forestry; South American natives ate the hearts of birds and tossed the rest of the bodies; Mayans diverted precious water to satisfy royal whims.
Krech even maintains that traditional native Indian belief in reincarnation may have worked against good stewardship. The notion animals could be killed until extinct, for example, would have made no sense to many Indians. And Krech says aboriginal belief in animism, which attributes a soul to plants and animals, led some to believe a spirit would reward them for efficiently killing lots of animals by creating more of them.
Among those Krech and Preece say are most responsible for romanticizing native spirituality to effect change are 17th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau; 20th century anthropologist Colin Turnbull, author of "The Forest People"; and contemporary Roman Catholic eco-theologian Thomas Berry, author of "The Dream of the Earth," as well as actor and filmmaker Kevin Costner, director of "Dances With Wolves."
Preece emphasizes that the Western spiritual and secular humanist tradition contains hundreds of notables who have revered nature andanimals, including Plutarch, the Gospel writer Matthew and St. Francis of Assisi, 19th century thinkers Henry David Thoreau and Albert Schweitzer, and scores of others.
Of course, these people's pro-nature sentiments have not stopped Westerners 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 their sometimes contradictory fullness.
The authors' point is, even if there are beliefs within both aboriginal and Western religion and philosophy that urge us to live in harmony with nature, there is a giant gap between teaching reverence for the environment and actually practicing it.