Remember This is a periodic blog series of thoughts, quotes and inspiration that I want to remember—and you might, too. Things I’ve learned about life so far, and don’t want to forget (like my human brain has a tendency to do). You can view the all the posts in the series here.
The letter below, supposedly written by Chief Seattle to the government in Washington, DC, first came across my path the book The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. A quick online search casts many questions as to the authenticity of the letter—suggesting it was perhaps a speech, not a letter, and without recording technology back then, there’s no way to know 160+ years later whether this, exactly, was what was Chief Seattle (or, more accurately, Chief Si’ahl) said.
Technicalities aside, the content of this letter spoke right to my heart. I choose to believe that the message at its core contains truth, and it is truth even more than relevant than ever. Read on to decide for yourself.
“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? 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 meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family.
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear waters 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. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.
If we sell you our land, 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. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. 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.
One thing we know: our god is also your god. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.
Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalos are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
When the last Red Man has vanished with his wilderness and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?
We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, 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 mind the memory of the land as it was when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it, as God loves us all.
As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know: there is only one God. No man, be he Red Man or White Man, can be apart. We are brothers after all.
After reading this letter, a story began forming in my mind. I pictured a wise old Chief Seattle sitting here with me despite the 160-odd years of history between us (and the full knowledge that he is a projection of my imagination). When faced the wrinkles around his kind eyes, I’d feel instant regret and sorrow, and shame that the people in power—white people, like me—didn’t heed this message, that they dismissed the ancient wisdom of the minority natives. That instead they took what they wanted without a backward glance, and took lives and livelihoods in the process. In their blindness, they stole a better future from everyone living today.
I’m pretty sure he’d know it wasn’t my fault. But I’d assure him that I’d do what was within my power to honor the truth in his words, even though, at best, I’m just another flawed human.
I imagine he is a man who saw the world with eyes wide open. Here is a man who learned English to develop relationships with these people who crushed plants beneath their feet, leveled forests and poisoned the air. And still he believed they were his brothers and sisters.
According to the government, I “own” a small plot of land where my husband and I make my home. (Technically, the bank owns a good chunk of it and we’re paying them back, but that’s a different point). The system isn’t changing anytime soon, and I think he’d be okay with me acting according to this reality.
But I think his eyes would light up when I tell him that I can turn this little patch of land into an oasis he’d be proud of. Sanctified. Nothing less than holy ground.
On this little patch of land, we honor the earth we walk on, the rain that falls on us, the wind that gifts us with fresh air and the bright colors, scents and sounds that nature bestows. The sun and moon and stars shine from the sky the same as any other place, but maybe when they look down they see a vitality and glimmering force of life has been restored in this tiny patch. Where other lawns are manicured and watered, fertilized and sprayed with pesticides within an inch of their life, this one is natural and a little untamed. The modern eye might think it’s disheveled, but it looks the way nature would mean it to look. We plant native species whenever possible. Sections of dirt are used for gardening, and the bounty of the garden is cherished and appreciated as a gift of nourishment that contains sunshine, rain, earth and moonlight.
The outdoor space is used and cherished as living space, both literally and figuratively. We spend time there, and we treat it as kindly as a family member.
In my mind’s eye, I can see Chief Seattle musing over the modern technologies that we take for granted in our modern life. On a cold winter day in Minnesota, I think he’d appreciate the warmth and comfort of my cozy living room couch as much as I do.
I don’t think he’d begrudge us these developments, but I think he’d agree it’s our responsibility to use them wisely, like all resources. To think about the cost of these opportunities, and work to ensure our choices are sustainable.
I would assure Chief Seattle that I won’t let my life get so full (of obligations, tasks, thoughts and objects) that I don’t have the time and space to see the life around me or to ponder my place in it.
I think that if I was pondering my place and feared I wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t changing enough, wasn’t doing my part to create the world he wanted, Chief Seattle would remind me that I was his sister, and he was my brother, just as our mother is the earth and our uncle is the river. He’d reassure me that doing my best is enough, and if I become aware of a change that needs to be made someday in the future, I’ll use my ability to learn better and do better.
Receiving his assurances and the warmth of his hand on my shoulder, I’ll remember that I have everything I need to honor my end of the bargain. I’ve always been a resourceful person; able to make do with what was around me to create the life I want to have. And I’m struck with the realization that this really means, I’m able to see resources, all around me, that others don’t see simply because they aren’t looking for them. They’re looking elsewhere or are so busy, they’re not looking at all.
I imagine that Chief Seattle knew what he was up against. I think he knew when he wrote this letter, that if he didn’t sell the land, these people would take it. These people who were his brothers and sisters, but didn’t recognize it.
I live among many people who think the earth belongs to them. I used to agree.
Today my heart is full of wise Native American teachings, and grateful for them. Even though I don’t share their blood, we share our humanity.
Chief Seattle also must have known that he couldn’t control anyone’s behavior, or the change that was barreling toward him. But he could write a letter. He probably felt powerless when he wrote it, against the machine that was the white man’s misadventures. Centuries later, I will endeavor to live my life as a vote of confidence, to the best of my ability, that his letter mattered.
This post is close to my heart. I’d love to hear what you think, friend! Use the contact page to email me or leave a comment below.