“All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
Some of the most cherished words in the environmental movement were never uttered by the Native American chief to whom they are attributed. The famous “Chief Seattle” speech that contains the lines above was made up for a Southern Baptist film project about pollution in 1971 (thanks to Russell Moore for the trivia tip). The writer, a professor of film named Ted Perry, was under contract to do the script, and he imagined what Chief Seattle might have to say about the environmental problems of the day. The words are moving–so moving that people soon forgot they were invented, and they took on a life of their own.
Conservation writer and activist Andy Kerr has what looks like a fairly complete history of the origins of the speech Chief Seattle never actually made. Snopes.com has a standard copy of the Chief Seattle address.
According to another account of the speech’s origins, Perry’s version was edited to make it more Christian. The version most folks see does contain a fair amount of religious language. It’s more feel-good, pop theology than anything derived from Christian (or Jewish) scriptures (this was done in an era before theological conservatives began to ramp up the quality of Southern Baptist theological reflection). But you see the language cropping up often in environmental writing, and even in scholarly work (!). Al Gore apparently quoted the fake speech in his book Earth in the Balance. You can even find a Chief Seattle quote on the website of the Environmental Protection Agency.
So which is more shocking–(1) that so many people love and adore a fake speech, (2) that in the 1970s Southern Baptists were producing films about pollution, or (3) that environmentalists so often quote a Southern Baptist document?
You can see an example of current Southern Baptist engagement with environmental theology by watching pastor and former SBC president James Merritt preach on the “Theology of Ecology”. Merritt would never have countenanced the dodgy theology of the Chief Seattle speech. He puts Christian environmental thought on a stronger Scriptural footing.
The real Chief Seattle was actually a Catholic, and he did give a speech, but the records are very poor on what he said. The much-published 1971 version has been revealed to be fake repeatedly, starting back in the 1990s, in publications such as Omni, Newsweek, and the New York Times (which published a front-page article on the myth of the Chief Seattle speech).