27 May 2009
Chief Seattle's speech in 1854
This oft quoted piece from 1854 is attributed to Chief Seattle as his response to President Franklin Pierce’s statement that he would buy the land of Chief Seattle’s tribe.
“Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion
upon our fathers for centuries untold,
and which to us looks eternal, may change.
Today is fair,
tomorrow may be overcast with clouds.
My words are like the stars that never set.
What Seattle says the Great Chief at Washington can rely upon
with as much certainty as our paleface brothers can rely upon
the return of the seasons.
The son of the White Chief says
his father sends us greetings of friendship and good will.
This is kind,
for we know he has little need of our friendship in return
because his people are many.
They are like the grass that covers the vast prairies,
while my people are few
and resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain.
The Great, and I presume, also good,
White Chief sends us word that he wants to buy our lands
but is willing to allow us
to reserve enough to live on comfortably.
This indeed appears generous,
for the Red Man no longer has rights that he need respect,
and the offer may be wise, also
for we are no longer in need of a great country.
There was a time when our people covered the whole land
as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea covers its shell-paved floor.
But that time has long since passed away
with the greatness of tribes now almost forgotten.
I will not mourn over our untimely decay,
nor reproach my paleface brothers for hastening it,
for we, too,
may have been somewhat to blame.
When our young men grow angry
at some real or imaginary wrong,
and disfigure their faces with black paint,
their hearts, also, are disfigured and turn black,
and then their cruelty is relentless and knows no bounds,
and our old men are not able to restrain them.
But let us hope that hostilities
between the Red Man and his paleface brothers
may never return.
We would have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
True it is, that revenge,
with our young braves is considered gain,
even at the cost of their own lives,
but old men who stay at home in times of war,
and mothers who have sons to lose,
Our great father Washington,
for I presume he is now our father as well as yours,
since George has moved his boundaries to the North
- our great and good father, I say,
sends us word by his son,
who, no doubt, is a great chief among his people
that if we do as he desires he will protect us.
His brave armies will be to us a bristling wall of strength,
and his great ships of war will fill our harbors
so that our ancient enemies far to the northward
- the Simsiams and Hyas,
will no longer frighten our women and old men.
Then he will be our father
and we will be his children.
But can that ever be?
Your God is not our God!
Your God loves your people and hates mine!
He folds His strong arms lovingly around the white man
and leads him as a father leads his infant son
- but He has forsaken his red children,
He makes your people wax strong every day
and soon they will fill all the land;
while my people are ebbing away
like a fast receding tide that will never flow again.
The white man's God cannot love his red children
or He would protect them.
They seem to be orphans who can look nowhere for help.
How, then, can we become brothers?
How can your Father become our Father
and bring us prosperity,
and awaken in us dreams of returning greatness?
Your God seems to us to be partial.
He came to the white man.
We never saw Him, never heard His voice.
He gave the white man laws,
but had no word for His red children
whose teeming millions once filled this vast continent
as the stars fill the firmament.
No. We are two distinct races,
and must remain ever so,
there is little in common between us.
The ashes of our ancestors are sacred
and their final resting place is hallowed ground,
while you wander away from the tombs of your fathers
seemingly without regrets.
Your religion was written on tablets of stone
by the iron finger of an angry God,
lest you might forget it.
The Red Man could never remember nor comprehend it.
Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors
- the dreams of our old men,
given to them by the Great Spirit,
and the visions of our Sachems,
and is written in the hearts of our people.
Your dead cease to love you
and the homes of their nativity
as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb.
They wander far away beyond the stars,
are soon forgotten and never return.
Our dead never forget the beautiful world
that gave them being.
They still love its winding rivers,
its great mountains and its sequestered vales,
and they ever yearn in tenderest affection
over the lonely-hearted living,
and often return to visit and comfort them.
Day and night cannot dwell together.
The Red Man has ever fled the approach of the white man,
as the changing mist on the mountain side
flees before the blazing morning sun.
However, your proposition seems a just one,
and I think that my folks will accept it
and will retire to the reservation you offer them,
and we will dwell apart and in peace,
for the words of the Great White Chief
seem to be the voice of Nature speaking to my people
out of the thick darkness that is fast gathering around them
like a dense fog floating inward from a midnight sea.
It matters little where we pass the remainder of our days.
They are not many.
The Indian's night promises to be dark.
No bright star hovers above his horizon.
Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance.
Some grim Nemesis of our race
is on the Red Man's trail,
and wherever he goes he will still hear
the sure approaching footsteps of the fell destroyer
and prepare to meet his doom,
as does the wounded doe
that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter.
A few more moons, a few more winters,
and not one of all the mighty hosts
that once filled this broad land
or that now roam in fragmentary bands
through these vast solitudes or lived in happy homes,
protected by the Great Spirit,
will remain to weep over the graves of a people
once as powerful and as hopeful as your own!
But why should I repine?
Why should I murmur at the fate of my people?
Tribes are made up of individuals
and are no better than they.
Men come and go like the waves of a sea.
A tear, a tamanamus, a dirge
and they are gone from our longing eyes forever.
Even the white man, whose God walked and talked
with him as friend to friend,
is not exempt from the common destiny.
We may be brothers after all.
We shall see.
We will ponder your proposition,
and when we have decided we will tell you.
But should we accept it,
I here and now make this first condition,
that we will not be denied the privilege,
of visiting the graves of our ancestors and friends.
Every part of this country is sacred to my people.
Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove
has been hallowed by some fond memory
or some sad experience of my tribe.
Even the rocks,
which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun
along the silent shore in solemn grandeur
thrill with memories of past events
connected with the fate of my people,
the very dust under your feet
responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours,
because it is the ashes of our ancestors,
and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch,
for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.
The sable braves,
and fond mothers,
and glad-hearted maidens,
and the little children who lived and rejoiced here
and whose very names are now forgotten,
still love these solitudes
and their deep fastnesses at eventide grow shadowy
with the presence of dusky spirits.
And when the last Red Man
shall have perished from the earth
and his memory among white men
shall have become a myth,
these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe
and when your children's children shall think themselves alone
in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway,
or in the silence of the woods,
they will not be alone.
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 this beautiful land.
The white man will never be alone.
Let him be just and deal kindly with my people,
for the dead are not powerless.”
It was rewritten in 1971 and this newer versions still remains a truly poetic explanation of how man really connects (or should connect) to the earth.
“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 memories 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 the 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 grave 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 than your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. 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 the insect's wings. 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 the pond at night? I am a red man and 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 pinon 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 this land as his brothers.
I am a savage and 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 do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be made 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 the 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 our 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 that we have taught our children that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of 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 which unites one family. All things are connected.
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. We shall see. 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 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 over 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.”