CHIEF SEATTLE'S LETTER
"How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land ? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them ? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.
The sap which courses through the trees carries the memory of the red man. The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man - all belong to the same family.
So, when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land he asks much of us. The Great Chief sends word he will reserve us a place so that we can live comfortably to ourselves. He will be our father and we will be his children. So we will consider your offer to buy our land.
But it will not be easy. For this land is sacred to us. This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father. The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes, and feed our children.
If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.
We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever
he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it he moves on. He leaves his father’s graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care. His father’s grave and his children’s birthright, are forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.
I do not know. Our ways are different from your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand. There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring, or the rustle of an insect’s wings.
But perhaps it is because I am a savage and do not understand. The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night ? I am a red man and I do not understand. The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of a pond, and the smell of the wind itself, cleaned by a midday rain, or scented with the pinion pine. The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath - the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days, he is numb to the stench.
But if we sell you our land, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where even the white man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow’s flowers.
So, we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we decide to accept, I will make one condition : the white man must treat the beasts of the land as his brother. I am a savage and I do not understand any other way. I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and I do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive. What is man without the beasts ? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts soon happens to man. All things are connected.
You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our
children, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground they spit upon themselves. This we know : the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood that unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life : he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all.
One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover - our God is the same God. You may think now that you own him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of man, and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all the other tribes. Contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.
But in your perishing you will shine brightly, fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land and for some special purpose gave you dominion over this land and the red man.
That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket ? Gone. Where is the eagle ? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival."
Historical Note :
In January of the following year Chief Seattle's lands were ceded to the Government in the Treaty of Point Elliott. Of course, it was not just their lands. His people's culture, language, rights, history and future were being stolen from them - and damaged beyond repair. All across Chief Seattle's continent the same fate had been heaped on all indigenous people and cultures, along with much violence and disruption. Ultimately, he and his people had no choice.
This document is now known around the world as ‘Chief Seattle’s Letter’, however its story is not straightforward. What is known for certain is that in March 1854 Chief Seattle gave a speech at a large meeting in Seattle called by the U.S.-appointed Governor to discuss the surrender or sale of native land to the white settlers. The Chief probably spoke in the Lustoosheed language, someone then translated his words into Chinnook, a third person then translated that into English. Over the following century writers and historians published this version, sometimes adding or changing bits, until in the 1960s articles around the growth of 'environmentalism' revived interest in the speech.
Although there have been claims of an actual letter dated 1855 from Chief Seattle to President Franklin Pierce, it has never been located. So, it was certainly a speech and probably never a letter (it certainly reads, sounds and feels like a speech). Nevertheless, this document as handed down, has - over a century and a half - become a powerful, historic and lucid expression of the connectedness of all things earthly. It has been used widely in the ecology and conservation movements over the past few decades. Today it serves as a vital reminder, in this age of human-induced and out-of-control global warming, when this fundamental connectedness seems to have been forgotten by far too many - certainly by our leaders. So much is now at risk for every person and living thing on this planet. Today the cultures of the most powerful nations in the world are characterised by extreme DIS-connection. However, everything is connected and everything does have consequences - especially for us and life on this planet. Powerful voices from the arts can clarify, crystallise and communicate this and convey its vital importance in the modern world.