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HomeWilderness Mind

Chief Seattle's Speech

 
This famous speech was not in fact spoken by Chief Seattle. It was in fact not written by Chief Seattle, and not even by a Native person at all!

There is a great deal of controversy surrounding Chief Seattle's speech of 1854. There are many sources of information, various versions of the speech, debates over its very existence, the date it was given (an irellevant point if the speech was never made by Chief Seattle), and to whom the speech was made! This page presents some versions of this speech, along with some commentary afterwards.

Three versions of this speech are presented, beginning with the most widespread and popularized version.

 

Version 1 - The commonly heard, popularized shortened version

  

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 of 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---
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 buffalos 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.
Where is man without the beasts?
If the beasts were gone, men would die
from a great loneliness of spirit.
For whatever happens to the beasts soon happens to man.
All things are connected.
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.


Original Version

The text was produced in 1854 by Dr. Smith, an early settler in Seattle, who took notes as Seattle spoke in the Suquamish dialect of central Puget Sound Salish (Lushootseed), and created this text in English from those notes. Smith insisted that his version "contained none of the grace and elegance of the original". The last two sentences of the text here given have been considered for many years to have been part of the original, but are now known to have been added by an early 20th C. historian and ethnographic writer, A. C. Ballard.

There are many versions and excerpts from this text, including a wholly fraudulent version mentioning buffalo and the interconnectedness of all life which was written by a Hollywood screenwriter in the late 70's and which has gained wide currency. The bogus version has been quoted by individuals as prominent and diverse as former U.S. President Bush and Joseph Campbell.

At the time this speech was made it was commonly believed by whites and as well by many Indians that Native Americans would inevitably become extinct.

  

Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion upon my people for centuries untold, and which to us appears changeless and eternal, may change. Today is fair. Tomorrow it may be overcast with clouds. My words are like the stars that never change. Whatever Seattle says, the great chief at Washington can rely upon with as much certainty as he can upon the return of the sun or the seasons. The white chief says that Big Chief at Washington sends us greetings of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him for we know he has little need of our friendship in return. His people are many. They are like the grass that covers vast prairies. My people are few. They resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain. The great, and I presume -- good, White Chief sends us word that he wishes to buy our land but is willing to allow us enough to live comfortably. This indeed appears just, even generous, for the Red Man no longer has rights that he need respect, and the offer may be wise, also, as we are no longer in need of an extensive country.

 There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of tribes that are now but a mournful memory. I will not dwell on, nor mourn over, our untimely decay, nor reproach my paleface brothers with hastening it, as we too may have been somewhat to blame.

 Youth is impulsive. When our young men grow angry at some real or imaginary wrong, and disfigure their faces with black paint, it denotes that their hearts are black, and that they are often cruel and relentless, and our old men and old women are unable to restrain them. Thus it has ever been. Thus it was when the white man began to push our forefathers ever westward. But let us hope that the hostilities between us may never return. We would have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Revenge by young men 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, know better.

 Our good father in Washington--for I presume he is now our father as well as yours, since King George has moved his boundaries further north--our great and good father, I say, sends us word that if we do as he desires he will protect us. His brave warriors will be to us a bristling wall of strength, and his wonderful ships of war will fill our harbors, so that our ancient enemies far to the northward -- the Haidas and Tsimshians -- will cease to frighten our women, children, and old men. Then in reality he will be our father and we 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 protecting arms lovingly about the paleface and leads him by the hand as a father leads an infant son. But, He has forsaken His Red children, if they really are His. Our God, the Great Spirit, seems also to have forsaken us. Your God makes your people wax stronger every day. Soon they will fill all the land. Our people are ebbing away like a rapidly receding tide that will never return. The white man's God cannot love our people or He would protect them. They seem to be orphans who can look nowhere for help. How then can we be brothers? How can your God become our God and renew our prosperity and awaken in us dreams of returning greatness? If we have a common Heavenly Father He must be partial, for He came to His paleface children. We never saw Him. He gave you laws but had no word for His red children whose teeming multitudes once filled this vast continent as stars fill the firmament. No; we are two distinct races with separate origins and separate destinies. There is little in common between us.

 To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret. Your religion was written upon tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God so that you could not forget. The Red Man could never comprehend or remember it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors -- the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night 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 land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars. They are soon forgotten and never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return from the happy hunting ground to visit, guide, console, and comfort them.

 Day and night cannot dwell together. The Red Man has ever fled the approach of the White Man, as the morning mist flees before the morning sun. However, your proposition seems fair and I think that my people will accept it and will retire to the reservation you offer them. Then we will dwell apart in peace, for the words of the Great White Chief seem to be the words of nature speaking to my people out of dense darkness.

 It matters little where we pass the remnant of our days. They will not be many. The Indian's night promises to be dark. Not a single star of hope hovers above his horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Grim fate seems to be on the Red Man's trail, and wherever he will hear the approaching footsteps of his fell destroyer and prepare stolidly 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 the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to mourn over the graves of a people once more powerful and hopeful than yours. But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.

 We will ponder your proposition and when we decide we will let you know. But should we accept it, I here and now make this condition that we will not be denied the privilege without molestation of visiting at any time the tombs of our ancestors, friends, and children. Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch. Our departed braves, fond mothers, glad, happy hearted maidens, and even the little children who lived here and rejoiced here for a brief season, will love these somber solitudes and at eventide they greet shadowy returning spirits. And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children's children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless 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 are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them 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. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.


Modern full version

It is said that this version was written by Ted Perry and he wrote the speech in the late 70's for a movie called "Home" which was produced in the US by the Southern Baptist Convention. He had no idea that anyone would consider his work anything other than fiction, and he has spent quite a bit of time in the past few years trying to set the record straight.

  

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.


Commentary
by Ken Fischman

This commentary was posted on one of the Tracker groups on the Internet in March 2003. Reproduced with permission.

  

The only things we know for sure are that Chief Seattle made a speech in 1854, and that 33 years later, Dr. Henry Smith recollected it from notes he had taken at the time. The version we are most familiar with is the one written by a screenwriter, Ted Perry, for a movie that came out in 1972. Perry's version bears little resemblance to Smith's so it is safe to state that what Chief Seattle really did say is lost forever in the mists of time.

Forrest said that the speech is "a total myth", (in the sense, I assume, that it is not authentic). I believe that he is literally correct, but I interpret "myth" in a different way. The great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, once playfully defined a myth as "a lie that tells the truth". Chief Seattle's speech has become a myth in yet another sense. Campbell also said, with tongue in cheek, that "a myth is someone else's religion", and that is more to the point. The reason that the speech has become so famous is that
it beautifully expresses religious sentiments that stir many of us deeply. I cried the first time I read it, and it still has the power to bring tears to my eyes. Why? I believe it is because it expresses, in an intuitive and emotional way, religious feelings which our hunter-gatherer ancestors, held for hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of years, and which may have even become encoded in our DNA. 

Most people know next to nothing about the hunter-gatherer religion, "animism". There is no bible or Koran of animism because they were not a literate culture. Look at any book on religion and you will not find even a mention of  "animism", the religion that probably all our ancient ancestors followed. However, in addition to the few clues that paleontological studies can provide, such as the cave paintings of the Cro-Magnons and the deliberate burials of Neanderthals, we have a rich anthropological literature about  those few contemporary hunter-gatherers that our culture has not yet annihilated. (See: The Lost World of the Kalahari, by Laurens van der Post; The Harmless People, by Elizabeth Thomas; The Forest People, by Colin Turnbull; and Coming Home to the Pleistocene, by Paul Shepard) I think that it is a fair assumption that their religious ideas are similar to those of our ancestors. I base this on the remarkable similarity in religion between such widely separated peoples as the bushmen of south Africa and the Innuit of the arctic.

The truly remarkable thing about Chief Seattle's "speech" is that it sums up perfectly, in poetic form, the animist belief system, which I summarize below:

HUNTER GATHERER PRECEPTS (attributed to Chief Seattle ~ 1854-5)

  • land cannot be possessed because all life depends on it (cannot buy land any more than you can buy sky, air, etc.)

  • every part of the Earth is sacred - all is holy

  • we are part of the Earth

  • all living & non-living things are our brothers & sisters - we are all one family (therefore you must give them the same kindness you would give to any brother/sister)

  • we must preserve the Earth for subsequent generations

  • the Earth is our mother - air, water, etc. supports all life (we love the Earth as a newborn loves its motherıs heartbeat)

  • all things are connected - man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. What he does to the web, he does to himself.

  • the Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth

  • the Earth is precious to God

Do cultural/religious beliefs matter? if you believe that not only are our synagogues and churches holy, but so is the whole earth, and that we are  its relatives, would you rape your sister, the forest, by clear cutting it, or poison your brother, the river, by polluting it?

Why do these precepts have such a powerful appeal to so many of us? Is it because they make sense? All religion's attempt to make sense of the world and to harmonize human beings with what they believe to be the way the world is organized. Hunter-gatherers lived in harmony with the rest of the world for over 2.4 million years, without destroying it and themselves. It is undeniable to anyone with open eyes that our worldwide culture, which began with the invention of agriculture, some 5 - 9,000 years ago, is far from being in harmony with the rest of the world, and is rapidly destroying it and ourselves. People I speak with about this, no matter what their religious or political beliefs, are almost unanimous in this conclusion, and most don't give us more than 100 years. Just contrast hunter-gatherer beliefs with those of our culture, which I compiled a few years ago. I summarized this from Daniel Quinn's Ishmael. (I would think that this incisive book, which was a best seller and won an environmental award, would be must reading for anyone who is moved by Tom Brown's teachings.)

BASIC BELIEFS OF OUR CULTURE (rev. 3/21/03) ... Notice the contradictions:

  • Man is the endpoint or climax of Evolution (Creation).

  • The World (Universe) was made for Man.
    Corollary: Every square foot of the planet belongs to Man.

  • Man was made to rule the World.
    Corollary: The World was in chaos & needed a ruler.

  • Man must have mastery over the World & conquer the Universe.
    Corollary: In order to rule the World, Man had to conquer it.

  • Man is exempt from the Laws that govern the rest of the Community of Life ( e.g. the Law of Finite Growth)

  • There are no bounds to manıs right to compete with other species. (i.e. Man is exempt from the Law of Limited Competition)

  • The resources of the World are inexhaustible.
    Corollaries: We can consume as much as we want. We will always be able to find technological fixes.

  • Man has the right (or obligation?) to unlimited expansion (growth).

  • Man was born flawed.

  • Crime, addiction, pollution, etc. are the price we must pay for our wonderful society.

  • There is only one right way, & it is our way.

  • There is a technological fix for every problem
    or

  • We are doing fine. There is no such thing as:
    -global warming
    -overpopulation
    -non-renewable resources
    -hole in the ozone
    -pollution
    -extinction
    -worldwide cancer epidemic

This returns us to the question as to whether the authenticity of Chief Seattle's speech is important. As Andrew said, "is it the truth of the myth that is important or the story the myth tells that hold the honest truths?" Barry Lopez, one of our greatest environmental writers (Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves and Men) has an interesting observation on this question. In the essay entitled Landscape and Narrative, contained in  his book, Crossing Open Ground, he has just related some Nunamiut Eskimo stories about wolverines to some Cree Indians in a different region of the arctic. His listener replied, "that could happen". By doing that, he revealed that his criteria for ascertaining the "truth" of something differed from our cultural concepts. What mattered to him was how does this fit with his own experience of the world? With that in mind, I have no hesitation in saying of Chief Seattle's "speech", "that could happen". 

Good tracking to you all. 

Ken Fischman