Listen to Seattle script

One hundred and seventy five years ago on a Pacific Northwest beach, a man sings. A chant in a somber minor key – repeating, descending. His tone is low and gravelly, but the sound carries far across the dark expanse of salt water, through the air blanketed in clouds of grey and charcoal.
The sacred song was bestowed by nature, to evoke a spirit power. The melody harmonizes with the hissing breeze in the trees, the slurping wavelets on the shore, the raven’s rasp, barking seal, and splashing salmon, the crunch of shells underfoot.
Bushes laden with berries and rivers flowing with fish nourish the singing man. Cedar trees approach to offer their trunks for transport across the water and their bark for garments against the rain. Raven and coyote share ancient stories of how the earth came to be.
On the same day 175 years ago, at the sultry mouth of the Mississippi River, a man sits astride his bamboula, sweating over the drum he is permitted to play only on Sundays in Congo Square. Hundreds of African slaves drum, dance, and sing in this New Orleans park, away from the severe restrictions of the British and French cultures left over from colonization. The music and motion weaves a resilient fabric, recalling African village life where rhythms told stories and dancing restored health. Their music is a haven of freedom within the country enslaving them. This taproot of black music, jazz, drinks from the confluence of cultures coming to the shores of the new world.
Today, I would like to bring these two streams of ancient music together. Like the Duwamish tribe, I yearn for a connection to the natural world. Like the descendants of African slaves, I find in jazz freedom, equity, and emotional expression. The sounds I choose to create today are flavored by the fruit of all our family trees.


My name is Steve Griggs. I come from generations of white people who migrated from Europe to the eastern shore of this continent and settled ever westward, displacing indigenous tribes with disease, discrimination, and destruction. In the eyes of the Duwamish tribe, I am what is called a “Boston man.”
While I acknowledge William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation as a relative, I also embrace a truly ancient ancestor. One we all share. The common genetic ancestor of all living things, forged a billion years ago in a single root. That bond connects us and it is that unifying force I want to recognize today.
I come from a family of teachers, including my father, Douglas Meriwether Griggs Jr. He spent his life as a student of the heart. He was a research cardiologist with a quest to learn the secrets of how a heart heals itself – to learn how a diseased muscle will still grow strong. The heart muscle gives each of us our pulse, our drum beat, our rhythm to dance through life – the muscle that I have heard the Duwamish refer to as our “third ear.” We hear words through our ears. We hear feelings through our hearts.
Today I speak to that third ear. I follow in the footsteps of my father. Not as a scientist, but as a musician who wants to create sounds that touch the heart and make it stronger. Stronger and more open. Stronger and more sensitive. Stronger and more generous.
My father bestowed upon me his curiosity, his persistent pursuit of wisdom – to venture to the edge of what he knew, and see beyond. I am grateful for his example. I called upon him throughout the time I spent weaving this program for you. To honor my father and all of our ancestors, we will play this song.


The program today springs from my connection with the place where we live. When I was working on a program about the Panama Hotel in Seattle’s Japantown and the history of Japanese American incarceration in WWII, I learned about the deep roots of racism in our city. Before injustices against Japanese, there were riots against Chinese that brought martial law to Seattle. And even farther back was the Seattle ordinance against Indians living within city limits. Preceding that were violent clashes between settlers and local tribes. In the face of racist frenzy, Chief Seattle walked a path of peace and non-violence for all. We can learn from his example.
How can we listen to Chief Seattle today? We cannot hear his voice with our ears. We cannot watch his gestures with our eyes. He did not put his own words on paper. Can we trust the written and spoken stories about him?
Some say that stories are alive. Some say that stories are our ancestors. Perhaps Seattle is alive in the stories about him. Seattle is alive in the place where he lived. Does the place that bears his name echo words that our hearts can hear?
The most widely known story about Chief Seattle was told by Dr. Henry Smith in an article he published in a Seattle newspaper in 1887. Controversy surrounds this story. Smith recalled in English what Chief Seattle said 30 years before in the indigenous Lushootseed language. This gap in time and translation may cripple the veracity of Smith’s retelling, yet the story has a power that is still strong after many decades. Like any story, the listeners must find their own truths within.
By the waterfront, outside Doc Maynard’s house, Chief Seattle rose to address the regional Governor Isaac Stevens, regarding the change that the whites brought. Settlers and tribes gathered to listen. Smith described the sound of Chief Seattle’s voice. “Old Chief Seattle’s trumpet-toned voice rolled over the immense multitude, like the startling reveille of a bass drum, when silence became as instantaneous and perfect as that which follows a clap of thunder from a clear sky.”

He began, “Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion on our fathers for centuries untold, and which, to us, looks eternal, may change…

“Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors, the dreams of our old men, given them by the great Spirit, and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people…

“Every hill-side, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe…

“In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude…

“At night, when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent, and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love the beautiful land.”

There are many truths to be found in Seattle’s words. I have been wrestling with what he may have said. What truths do you hear?

The following section contains some of my thoughts that may be shared in dialog with the audience:

To me, Seattle was talking about what he believed was eternal, might change. The settlers bring change. The long relationship between nature and his ancestors may change.

Chief Seattle spoke of what guides the indigenous people. From this I learn that Seattle cherished traditions, ancestors, dreams, gifts, visions, and hearts.

Chief Seattle spoke of the sacred connection with nature. Hearing this, I learned of Seattle’s connection of hallowed ground with personal memory and experience.

Chief Seattle spoke of the naturalness of the collective and the aberration of rugged individualism. What does that mean? Seattle taught that solitude is no haven, no home. Self interest is unnatural. Self interest is an idea that promotes individualism, separation, and despair. Self interest leaves a hole, a need, an unquenchable thirst. Self interest fuels the engine of settler culture.

Chief Seattle spoke about limits of the settler perspective. He said, In Seattle’s teaching, the sight of people is not the only measure of living spirit.

I invite us to listen to Seattle. Listen with our heart.
Thomas Phelps was a sailor stationed on the U.S. Warship Decatur, anchored in Elliot Bay during 1854. Standing on the deck of the ship, he gazed at the Seattle landscape, pulled out his journal, and began to sketch what he saw. Nestled within a forested amphitheater, he drew the 20 or so structures on the waterfront – Henry Yesler’s sawmill and house flanked by Doc Maynard’s house, the Methodist church, 2 blockhouses to protect settlers from Indian attack, and Madame Damnable’s house of pleasure. In his notebook, Phelps described the setting as the perfect “business emporium” with the finest timber in the world, soil to produce unsurpassed quantities and qualities of food, a climate teeming with health, water filled with fish, and forests abounding with game. The emporium, or store, he saw was nature – nature that was free to be taken and sold. The U.S. Government issued the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 which made a generous promise: any white male was entitled to 320 acres as long as they cultivated it for 4 years. Any married man was entitled to 640 acres. FOR FREE. 
Look around at the Duwamish landscape now. The towering green cedar trees are replaced by the lifted metal arms of derricks and cranes loading cargo onto ships and dredging toxic sediment from the river. The sound of wind lifting proud eagles is replaced by the whine of polluting aircraft, the wail of passing freight trains, and the growl of heavy trucks. The seaside smells of salmon, kelp, and clams are replaced by the stench of oil, sewage, and diesel exhaust. The meandering Duwamish has been straightened. The forested hills have been stripped and flattened. The rich soil has been buried under asphalt and concrete. The settlers have grown in number. The families of animals have shrunk or disappeared.
As of January 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency listed 113 species as being at risk or vulnerable to extinction in the Salish Sea. Seals that swim near the Duwamish are copper-colored from pollution, instead of black, white, and grey. The Boeing Company built its B-17s on the bank of the Duwamish. Stormwater from King County flows into the Duwamish. The City of Seattle manages public utilities that dump sewage into the Duwamish. The pollution from industrial freight vehicles – ships, trains, and trucks – come together in the Port of Seattle. There are 30 inches of toxins in the Duwamish riverbed.
In stories, the Duwamish speak of the Changer – the being who changed the world to its present form. What being is responsible for changing the world in the last century and a half? We are. We are the changers. We changed the mouth of the Duwamish River from a generous gift giver to a Superfund site filled with long lasting metals, poisons, and cancerous chemicals. What is left of that “business emporium” described 150 years ago with the abundance of nature? What have we done to replenish and strengthen the stock of nature that was capitalized by the wealthy? What can we learn from the wisdom of indigenous peoples?
My purpose today is not to assign blame, wallow in sorrow, or solve the enormous challenge of healing human impact on nature. I want us to hear what has happened, see where we are, and feel connected to each other and all that surrounds us, to add a small fragment to our land’s healing.
The Point Elliot Treaty of 1855 listed government promises to indigenous people if they would move to reservations - payment for land, free schools and medical treatment, and the continued right to fish, hunt, and gather fruit and vegetables where tribal ancestors had for centuries. Chief Seattle was the first of a long list of tribal leaders to sign, a place of respect.
The Duwamish were never granted a reservation. In the 50 years following the treaty signing, whites burned 94 longhouses in 28 native villages. In 1916, the ship canal between Lake Washington and Lake Union lowered Lake Washington by nine feet. The Black River, that had drained the lake into the Duwamish River, dried up. The large tribal winter longhouse there no longer had access to winter salmon runs.
Today, the United States does not recognize the current Duwamish tribal organization as descendants of Chief Seattle’s 1855 tribe. The most recent denial of recognition came to Duwamish chairwoman Cecile Hanson in July this year. Without that recognition, the government will not acknowledge responsibility for the promises it made to Chief Seattle.
Today, I see the Duwamish. I see them as the descendants of the Chief who signed the 1855 treaty. Everyone who lives on the Salish Sea must recognize the tribe. Also, I stand witness to our government’s blind rules, history of our unjust treatment, and damage of our unfair decisions.
The Duwamish have a strong oral tradition of storytelling. On long winter nights in longhouses like this, elders share stories of how the world came to be, how people and nature are connected, how trickster reveals a lesson. I have not received the gift of a tribal story, so I cannot tell you one today. But I know they contain teachings – teaching of respect, responsibility, and reverence. They are not moralistic. There is not only one meaning. Each listener may find a different lesson. What I am learning from them is connectedness over separation, responsibility over impulse, respect over negativity.
Like the Duwamish, my community of jazz musicians has a strong oral tradition of storytelling. When improvising, musicians are encouraged to “tell their story” – to transcend technique and reveal their spirit.
Along with music, musicians pass along stories and jokes about the history and culture of improvising. The stories are not about good versus bad, order versus chaos, friend versus foe. They emphasize what it takes to create in the moment. They are about style as substance, wit as worthiness, improvisation as identity.
In both the culture of the Duwamish and the culture of jazz musicians, stories teach and share truths so the community will endure.
The Duwamish tribe is experiencing a rebirth – reclaiming their language, fighting for their legal rights, establishing a gathering place, teaching wisdom from their ancestors, and leading environmental stewardship. I hope the city that bears the Duwamish ancestor’s name will support this rebirth.
I want to close this program by returning attention to the river. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those advocates working to clean up the Duwamish. One I would like us all to acknowledge today is Duwamish tribal member James Rassmussen. He is the coordinator of the Technical Advisory Group for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. James is working on behalf of the communities whose lives are overlooked, impoverished, and poisoned by the river’s pollution. There is an important interview with James which you can find at But today, he will speak to you directly.
We can all help the Duwamish River. Today, storm water runoff has a bigger impact on the river than industrial pollution. Every drip of oil from our cars, every load of laundry, every chemical we put on our landscapes, and everything that enters drains in our homes can wind up in the mouth of a crab in the Duwamish. We are all connected to the Duwamish. We are all connected to Seattle. We are all connected to each other.