BROTHER EAGLE, SISTER SKY: DID CHIEF SEATTLE REALLY SAY THAT?
Among many adults, Susan Jeffers's Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, an illustrated adaptation of the 1974 Spokane Exposition adaptation of Chief Seattle's purported speech of 1853 or 1854, is an ideal picture book--gorgeously illustrated and topical in its sensitive ecological message. However, no matter how well-intentioned Susan Jeffers is, no matter how great her respect for traditional and contemporary Native Americans, her book is another example of the creation of a "white man's Indian," a construct which reflects not realities but a view of what a white author, painter, motion picture director, actor, politician, missionary, activist, or conservationist believes Native peoples to be, wants them to become, or wishes they already were.
Technically, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky is an excellent picture book. Individual illustrations, done with fine-line pen, ink, and dyes, not only reveal Jeffers's superb craftsmanship but also enhance and expand on the short, poetic text. Taken in sequence, they create a parallel between events of the mid-nineteenth century and the late twentieth century, events involving a conflict between white settlers and indigenous residents, and they offer a possible solution.
The opening illustration, accompanying a brief account of the nineteenth-century displacement of many Native peoples from their traditional homelands, is a depiction of the famous 1838 "Trail of Tears" forced westward marches of the Cherokee people (unindentified in this book). Mounted on ponies and watched over by rifle-carrying soldiers, the exiles ride through the snow.
The illustrations accompanying Chief Seattle's accounts of the relationship between human beings, the land, the plants, and the animals also imply another western journey. By horse and canoe, men and women and boys and girls from the eastern woodlands and the northern and southwestern plains travel across the prairies toward and through the mountains, each of the areas profuse with the flora and fauna mentioned in the text. However, when they reach the northwest, they confront a scene of devastation: clear-cut logging has virtually denuded the landscape. But hope is not lost; a nuclear white family, descendants of the whites addressed by Chief Seattle nearly a century and a half earlier, are shown planting seedlings among the stumps. In the final illustration, the family leaves the reseeded area followed by the ghostly image of a horse-riding plains Indian and his wife, who walks beside him carrying a papoose. Past and present and the two races are united, and a long ago message about respecting the environment is finally observed.
Certainly few people would quarrel with the message of the words, the actions of the white family, or the respectful and accurate portrayals of the various traditional Native peoples. However, many questions can be raised about the text on which Jeffers based her adaptation and about the use of illustrations of a variety of Native peoples to accompany a speech that referred to a specific historical event related to one northwest coast nation. The first difficulty arises when one studies the dust jacket illustration and title. A plains chief bedecked with a buffalo horn and feathered headdress stands protectively behind a blue-eyed boy wearing a gaily striped tee-shirt. Above is the title Brother Eagle, Sister Sky. As is noted on the copyright page, the illustration is based on a photograph by Edward Curtis. As has been frequently noted, Curtis's photographs were often deliberately staged; he would require his Native subjects to remove their European clothing and don ceremonial regalia seldom used, thus making them more closely conform to the image already popular in the eastern United States and Europe of the "noble savage," a stereotyped individual usually represented as being from the northern plains. Moreover, Jeffers's painting is based on a photograph of a Cheyenne Chief, Two Moons, and was taken in 1910, several decades after Seattle's death. Even overlooking the problems of Curtis's photographs, one is led to ask why Jeffers would choose to depict a northwest chief as a plains leader? More important, perhaps, is the title phrase "Sister Sky." Virtually all Native peoples considered the earth to be the great mother and the sky, the father. In fact, even the text on which the Spokane Exposition text seems to have been based makes reference to "his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky" (Kaiser 1987, 526).
Chief Seattle's speech, which first became widely popular during the later 1960s at about the same time that John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks was rediscovered, was published in a Seattle newspaper in 1887, over 30 years after it was purportedly delivered. It was based on notes taken by Dr. Henry Smith, who reportedly listened to a translation of words being delivered in the Lushotseed language in 1853 or 1854 on the occasion of Governor Stevens's arrival in what is now Seattle. Although Chief Seathl (as his name is generally spelled), a Christian who ceded his people's lands, would probably not be viewed favorably by contemporary Native militants, Smith's version of the speech reveals an embittered and cynical individual, a person who recognized the unbridgeable gaps between the two cultures and despaired of the survival of his people.
The most popular version of the speech, written for and displayed at the Spokane World's Fair Exposition of 1974, omits all of the harsh, critical passages, and is, in the words of one commentator, "wholly ecological and nature-related in outlook" (Kaiser 1987, 511). It concludes with a sentiment totally absent in Smith's version: "There is only one God. We are all brothers" (Kaiser 1987, 532). Smith's Seattle had lamented, "Your God loves your people and hates mine" (Kaiser 1987, 519). The 1974 text, which was clearly designed to be "user friendly" for visitors to the World's Fair, is, with slight changes in order and with brief additions, used almost in its entirety by Jeffers. The Seattle who emerges is not an embattled and cynical chief hopelessly ceding his lands, but a wise Indian generously offering his advice to future whites who can benefit from it.
Jeffers's changes in the order of sentences and phrases are not significant; however, her alterations are. The 1887 text is specifically masculine, the words "man" and "brothers" are used 15 times, with the final word being "brothers." "Sisters" is used once; "mother," twice.
Jeffers, who states in the afterword that "What matters is that Chief Seattle's words inspired a most compelling truth: In our zeal to build and possess, we may lose all we have" (Jeffers 1991, n.p.), has introduced into the speech two modern messages the earliest text does not contain: one ecological, the other gender related. Creating her book in 1991, when gender equality in children's books was emphasized, she casts Seattle's speech as a series of his remembrances of wisdom transmitted to him by both his parents and by ancestors of both sexes: "My mother told me. . . . My father said to me. . . . The voice of my grandfather said to me. . . . The voice of my grandmother said to me. . . . The water's murmur is the voice of your great-great grandmother" (Jeffers 1991, n.p.). While she correctly writes, "The earth is our mother" (Jeffers 1991, n.p.), she incorrectly, as noted above, ascribes the same gender to the sky. Certainly there is no quarrel with Jeffers's modern belief in sexual equality, but it is wrong for her to attribute this view to Seattle. Similarly, her ecological message is appropriate and necessary, but there is no evidence that it was articulated by Chief Seattle in the 1850s.
Jeffers's illustrations, though technically excellent and related to her ecological theme, create serious difficulties. "My aim," she writes on the flyleaf of the dust jacket, "was to portray people and artifacts from a wide array of nations because the philosophy expressed in the text is one shared by most Native Americans." In its most general sense, this is no doubt correct. However, in using illustrations depicting a variety of geographically and culturally diverse Native nations, Jeffers is creating a Pan-Indianism that would not have existed at the time of Seattle's speech. Two early elements of Pan-Indianism, the Ghost Dance religion of the 1880s, on the positive side, and the residential Indian schools of the early twentieth century, on the negative, were at least two generations later than Seattle's speech. The American Indian Movement, the most politically well-known manifestation of modern Pan-Indianism, would certainly not have envisioned the kind of white-Native interrelationships depicted on the picture book's cover and concluding page. Moreover, Seattle, who in the 1853 version of the speech, spoke of "our ancient enemies far to the northward, the Simsians and Hydas" (Kaiser 1987, 519) (a passage omitted from both the Spokane Exposition and Jeffers texts), certainly did not envision any sense of widespread Native brotherhood.
The illustrations include three from the eastern woodlands, four from the plains, and three showing groups from these areas crossing the mountains to the clear-cut areas. There are horses in seven of the illustrations. Only on the title page are a west coast Native, the seashore, and a dugout canoe seen. These illustrations imply an erroneous notion of Pan-Indianism. The dominance of pictures of people riding horses perpetuates a long-held stereotype that people of the nineteenth-century plains horse culture represented the way all traditional Native peoples looked in the past and still look today. Virtually ignoring the landscape, artifacts, and regalia of the west coast peoples--notice that the westward trek stops before reaching the seashore where Seattle lived--Jeffers overlooks the distinct and different Native groups, the uniqueness of each Native nation, and the cultural and environmentally specific aspects of each group's response to its relationships with the animal and natural worlds around it.
Virtually all readers would agree with the ecological message of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky. However, as a visual and verbal representation of Native realities past and present, the book must be approached with extreme caution. It does not use the text most likely to represent what Chief Seattle actually said, and it presents the one it does use in a way that is more in accord with the author's own (worthwhile) views on gender equality and the environment. The depiction of Native peoples and their views reinforces stereotypes, albeit positive ones, for Susan Jeffers has created a portrait of a "good Indian," which she employs to reinforce her own agenda. Although viewed with sympathy and respect, her Chief Seattle becomes an "ecological visionary" created from her imagination. He is as much a "white man's Indian" as were the heathen savages, nature's children, noble savages, and vanishing Americans of earlier eras.
Teachers, parents, librarians, and university students frequently ask: "Should all these books be on the shelves, accessible to children?" The answer is a definite "Yes!" However, they should not be used as resource materials for discovering how things were; they should be used as examples of how and why non-Native peoples presented Native cultures, histories, and individuals the way they did. With adult guidance, children will be able to understand more fully the nature of stereotyping and the importance of creating more accurate portrayals. They will realize the problems involved in depicting "others" and recognize the kinds of stereotypes that were created and are still appearing. For those adults wishing to examine more fully the wide range of stereotypical representations of Native peoples, the following books are recommended: American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children, edited by Arlene B. Hirschfelder; Shadows of the Indian, by Raymond William Stedman; and Books without Bias: Through Indian Eyes, edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale.
Certainly, in the past two decades, creators of children's books have frequently succeeded in their attempts to present more accurate and sensitive books about Native peoples. In examining these books, several questions shall be asked: How accurate are their portrayals of Native cultures? What cultural realities do the books reveal? What visual and verbal methods are used in the presentation? And how do the authors' and illustrators' own non-Native backgrounds and their views about the nature and purpose of children's books and the nature of their intended audiences influence their portrayals?
I'm still here -- a contemporary, aging, Native militant -- to say a historical corrective footnote has to be added to Prof. Stott. He says:
"Although Chief Seathl (as his name is generally spelled), a Christian who ceded his people's lands, would probably not be viewed favorably by contemporary native militants..." and "The American Indian Movement, the most politically well-known manifestation of modern Pan-Indianism, would certainly not have envisioned the kind of white-Native relationships depicted on the picture book's cover and concluding page," Stott concludes.
Those statments are both lies -- crude attempts to portray AIM -- and Native activists -- as a bunch of heartless, ignorant "militant"savages, troublemakers all, who would dislike the Jeffers book because they don't like anything, probably can't even read, whereas Prof. Stott wants to convey how reasonable he is. A white professor, speaking here for Indian people, his summary criticisms were all first made by Indian people writing in protest at this book. I wrote a letter to the publishers myself; others wrote damning reviews of it -- but mostly in Indian journals. His book-passage combines and summarizes (without mentioning where he got it from) what many of us had earlier said in published writings.
In 1974, I was working on a leaflet for the AIM Federation of Indian Survival Schools -- Schools started and controlled by Indian parents, mostly those affilitated with AIM. (We did do quite a lot of other things besides protest, demonstrate, occupy, and get killed, or imprisoned, Stott. Starting and supporting schools, and creating non-racist cultural curriculum materials for them was just one.) Dennis J. Banks, leader and one of the founders of the AIM, specifically instructed me to "Put something from that speech by Chief Seattle in it.".
I did. That was Sealth's original speech (the Funeral Oration for his people) of course, the fakes were in existence then, but we didn't know about them then. No publishers or filmmakers or TV types were cashing in on them, as now they are -- just the Baptist Church (a recruiting film) and the City of Seattle (for its Expo). If we so-called Pan-Indian militants (this is Stott's little attempt to split the Indian people's movement apart, real Indians are tribal, see, so Pan-Indian militants are unreal) didn't admire any chief of the past who was forced to cede his people's lands, who converted to Christianity in hopes of placating the invader hordes on his land, etc., there would be few or none of the great ones of the past for us to admire or learn from.
And that other bit. Stott wants his teacher-readers to think that AIM and militants or dogged-soldier-warriors of the present (I am one: my weapons are numbers and words) would want to savagely treat little children -- white kids -- the way his people did ours. Sneaking in a bit of political propaganda, there, eh, Stott? I guess that's why you're still a university prof, Stott, while I got fired (for poliitical activity) in 1972. And went to work for AIM thereafter. Elsewhere in his book there's more, too. But what he said in Chapter 1 was mostly good, about a couple of the classic bad books. I use it, here especially since it was already all typed up on his publisher's website. Even though it isn't original and is larded with some anti-AIM, anti-militant political propaganda.
My view of Jeffers' book isn't that it's bad because it shows the spirit of a man who died heartbroken interacting kindly and wisely with a white child. It is bad because it incorporates and builds upon a deliberate and propagandistic falsification of our history. I don't know any Indian people who know the Jeffers' book who think any differently.
Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996. except -- as here -- where elsewhere attributed.
CREDITS: This review-essay appears in Native Americans in Children's Literature, Jon C. Stott, Oryx Press, c. 1995. It is part of Chapter 1, "The Way it Wasn't: Stereotypes and Misrepresentations" Oryx reproduces it at their website "sample Chapter" (which actually doesn't reproduce the whole chapter). Stott is Professor of Children's Lit at University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. As well as writing about non-Indian children's lit, he's made something of a specialty on Native, Native American, and Inuit literature for young people, in a mass of professional writings, projects, lectureships, working with educators and librarians in the U.S. and Canada for 2 decades. There are many things (said elsewhere) I dislike about Stott's book, but the startup chapter -- which tackles several other Big Baddies that are going to appear here eventually -- is Right On, escxept for the introjectd swipes at Indian militants and AIM. Note: Stott's numerous citations of "Kaiser, 1987" is not referenced on the web page excerpt, but refers to Rudolf Kaiser, "Chief Seattle's Speech(es): American Origins and European Reception", in Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, ed. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, University of California Press, Berkeley: 1987, pp. 497-536.
Last Updated: Sunday, November 24, 1996 - 12:57:16 PM