CHIEF SEATTLE’S 1854 ORATION
In 1854, the “Great White Chief” in Washington, the President of the United States, made an offer for a large area of Indian land and promised a `reservation’ for the Indian people. Chief Seattle’s reply has been described as the most beautiful and profound statement on the environment ever made.
Chief Seattle was a leader of the Suquamish tribe in the Washington territory in the nineteenth century. His long and moving speech in 1854 has been Americans’ rights and environmental values. The speech is considered as a response to Governor Isaac Stevens’ proposal of surrendering or selling the native people’s land to White settlers. His speech delineates the Native Americans’ reverence for life and respect for human connection with nature.
Later, the city of Seattle in Washington State came to be named after this great Red Indian Chief. A brief description of Seattle in Wikipedia states:
“It is situated on Puget sound in the Pacific Northwest, is surrounded by water, mountains and evergreen forests and contains thousands of acres of Parkland”.
The importance of the above reference from Wikipedia in the context of Chief Seattle’s 1854 oration will soon become apparent.
The content of Chief Seattle’s message judging by excerpts from it below, resonates even more powerfully today, after the passage of almost a century and a half:
In summary, Chief Seattle, as a responsible and wise leader of his people, believed in the sanctity of the land they had inherited from their forefathers, and of the community of all that lived on it: the plants and animals of the fields, the wild in the forests, the hills and the meadows and all the flowers and trees that derived their existence from and thrived upon it. Being weaker than the new invaders of these lands, he was compelled to reach an agreement with them, but in so doing he delivered important admonitions to them about the land and how they ought to treat it. This speech was thus a powerful plea for conservation to which every child and every adult should respond.
Here are his opening words:
THIS EARTH IS PRECIOUS
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 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.
In the context of a government that wants to “buy” the land from the people of Chief Seattle, these first lines of his show a completely different attitude to material possessions by his people: They see nature and its gifts in its different manifestations as something that man can never own – he can have them for a time and hold and make use of them in trust, and with love, and cherish them. As they come out of Chief Seattle’s mouth, the very notion of, for example, owning “the sky and the rain and the wind” are extremely absurd.
Can a civilization built on such foundations really endure? I ask this question which seems to hang in the air from these introductory words.
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.
He says further:
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. This 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 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 scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires.
Where is the thicket?
Where is the eagle?
The end of living and the beginning of survival.
And then in the last part of his address a plea, a warning and an admonition to the representative of those who had come and joined them in battle and “defeated” his people, forcing them into reservations:
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 which 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.
Perhaps it is apposite as a footnote to quote a meteorologist’s statement just less than a day ago:
Caption: “Seattle could remain in smoke all week as cleansing breezes fail to materialize …”
“SEATTLE — I do not have good news for those tired of smoky air and a persistently hazy sky…
A hoped-for breath of fresh air off the Pacific Ocean failed to materialize overnight – at least in significant fashion – and it’s leaving Western Washington still stuck with terrible air quality for at least another day, and possibly several more days.
Forecast charts had been advertising a cleansing push of ocean breezes Sunday night or Monday morning along with an accompanying weather system that was also hoped to bring some badly needed rain to the region, but it appears to be failing on both counts as the low pressure center looks now to remain farther offshore and is quickly weakening, sending only a few widely-scattered light showers our way Monday into Tuesday.
In the meantime, the overall air flow remains light with a strong surface inversion in place keeping a lid on the smoke layer. And if anything, with the low sitting farther offshore, what little winds we get will veer back to the south and potentially tap into additional smoke still pouring from the Oregon wildfires.” [quoted from komonews.com of 14th September, 2020]
The above words make Chief Seattle words of 1854 incredibly prophetic!