CHIEF SEATTLE: 1855 Letter to the President
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 pinġn 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
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
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