Some of our most influential roots are the original cultures of this land. The following letter, sent by Chief Seattle of the Dwamish Tribe in Washington to President Pierce in 1855, illustrates the dignity, wisdom, and continuing relevance of this native continental vision.
THE GREAT CHIEF in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. The Great Chief also sends us words of friendship and good will. This is kind of him, since we know he has little need of our friendship in return. But we will consider your offer, for we know if we do not so the white man may come with guns and take our land. What Chief Seattle says you can count on as truly as our white brothers can count on the return of the seasons. My words are like the stars – they do not set.
How can you buy or sell the sky – the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us? We will decide in our time. 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 every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.
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 and his children’s birthright is forgotten. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the redman. But perhaps it is because the redman is a savage and does not understand.
There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to listen to the leaves of spring or the rustle of insect wings. But perhaps 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 lovely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind itself cleansed by a mid-day rain, or scented by a pinõn pine: The air is precious to the redman. For all things share the same breath – the beasts, the trees, and the man. 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.
If I 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 I do not understand any other way. I have seen thousands of 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 that we kill only to stay alive. What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beast also happens to the man.
All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth.
Our children have seen their fathers humbled in defeat. Our warriors have felt shame. And 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 this earth, or that roamed in small bands in the woods will remain to mourn the graves of the people once as powerful and hopeful as yours.
One thing we know that the white man may one day discover. Our God is the same God. You may think that you own him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot. He is the Body of man, and his compassion is equal for the redman 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 other tribes. Continue to contaminate your 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 the talking 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 the white man dreams, what hopes he describes to his children on long winter nights, what visions he burns into their minds, so 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 your reservation you have promised.
There perhaps we may live out our brief days as we wish. When the last redman has vanished from the earth, and the memory is only the shadow of a cloud passing over the prairie, these shores and forests will still hold the spirits of my people, for they love this earth as the newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. If we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your memory the way the land is as you take it. And with all your strength, with 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. This earth is precious to him. Even the white man cannot escape the common destiny.