Wednesday 7 November 2007

Chief Seattle's Letter

Chief Seattle was a famous 19th Century Red Indian chief in Washington State, USA. The state’s biggest cityport is named after him. In 1855 the President of the United States, Franklin Pierce, wrote to Seattle with an offer from the government to buy his people’s land… How did he reply? How would you reply? Well, according to the Conformist Regime, the sensible thing to do would be to sell and be grateful for the opportunity to make some dosh. The US government was offering Seattle a considerable sum. As a “winner” and “success story" in the Conformist world, he would be able to buy his own mansion with servants, a swimming pool, luxury stagecoach and Jacuzzi. He’d be the envy of the town, hosting cocktail parties and polo matches. This is everything we’re supposed to want… isn’t it? Achieving money, property, power and status is The One Goal of life… isn’t it? If Seattle was really wily he could have feigned hesitation to the offer, forcing up the price, waiting for the moment when the government was about to withdraw, then pretending to change his mind. It would have made Seattle hot property on Wall Street!... But this is what Seattle wrote in reply:

The Great White Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. He also sends words of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him since we know he has little need of our friendship in return. But we will consider your offer. What I say the Great White Chief can count on as truly as our white brothers can count on the turning of the seasons. My words are like stars: they do not set.

How can you buy or sell the sky; the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. We do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water, so how can you buy them from us? We will decide in our time, but every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every glade and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.

We know that the white man doesn’t understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the Earth whatever he wants. The Earth is not his brother but his enemy; and when he conquers it he moves on. He leaves his fathers’ graves behind and doesn’t care. He kidnaps the Earth from his children. His father’s graves and children’s birthrights are forgotten. His appetite will devour the Earth and leave behind a wasteland. The sight of your cities pains the eye of the red man. But perhaps this is because the red man is a “savage” and doesn’t understand.

There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the leaves of spring or the rustle of insects’ wings. The clatter insults the ears. But perhaps I am only a “savage” and don’t understand. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lovely cry of the whippoorwill or the argument of the frogs around a pond at night? The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of the pond, and the wind itself cleansed by the midday rain or scented with pinion. The air is precious to the red man for all things share the same breath: the beasts, the trees, the man. The white man doesn’t seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for days, he is numb to his own stench.

If I accept, I will make one condition: the white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers. I am just a “savage” and don’t 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 more important than the buffalo whom we kill only to live. What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone then men would die from a terrible loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth.

Our children have seen our fathers humbled in defeat. Our warriors have felt shame. After defeat they turn their days in idleness and contaminate their bodies with sweet food and strong drink. It matters little where we pass the rest of our days; they are not many. A few more hours, a few more winters, and none of the children of the great tribes that once lived on the Earth, or that roamed in small bands in the woods, will be left to mourn the graves of a people once as powerful and hopeful as yours. One thing we know that the white man may one day discover: our God and your God are the same. 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 pour contempt on its creator. The whites too shall pass, perhaps sooner than other tribes. Continue to contaminate your own bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

When the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed. The secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by telegraph wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift and the hunt, the end of living and the beginning of survival.

We might understand if we knew what it was that the white man dreams, what hopes he describes to his children on long winter nights, what visions he burns into their minds so that they will wish for tomorrow. But we are “savages”. The white man’s dreams are hidden from us. And because they are hidden we will go our own way. If we agree, it will be to secure the reservation you’ve promised. There, perhaps we may live out our brief days as we wish. When the last red man has vanished from the Earth, and our memory is just the shadow of a cloud passing across the prairie, these shores and forests will still hold the spirits of my people, for they love the Earth the way a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat.

If we sell you our land, love it as we’ve loved it. Care for it as we’ve cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land, as it is when you take it. And with all your strength and all your might and with all your heart preserve it for your children, and love it as God loves us all. One thing we know: our God is the same as yours. The Earth is precious to him. Even the white man cannot be exempt from common destiny.

I find this letter incredibly moving. It's on display in a museum for everyone to see and so it should be!

In the Western world we’re all familiar with the concept of “civilizing the savage”. This was what motivated Trevor and the others on Rockall when they discovered the Erkdwala. But forcibly converting indigenous people to the Western lifestyle will deprive us of their wisdom. Chief Seattle’s letter was written over 160 years ago, but in it we can see that he was aware of the dangers of abusing the environment that we have only found our for ourselves much more recently. We will never progress as a civilization when we strut arrogantly over the world in the belief that our way is the only way. When we think like that, we will be able to justify any atrocity to achieve the end of forcing the rest of the world to conform. If we understand that our way is just one way of many, then we can learn from other ways, like Seattle’s, and absorb their wisdom. Then those indigenous cultures in turn can examine our own and take from Western culture only what they choose and leave the rest, without any pressure. Imagine how much better the world will be then! As I read Chief Seattle’s letter, and then look at the world around me, I think that his is an idea whose time is come!

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nessa felagund said...

That letter really moves me--especially the love for the land. How can anyone "own" the earth? It's a ludicrous idea.

I also liked what he said about our God is the same as your God. No one owns God either.

Great post!


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