Vol 2 January 2000


Chief Seattle: from Life
Chief
Seattle's
Speech


''When the last redman has vanished from the earth, and the memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, these shores and forests will still hold the spirits of my people.''

 
 
Photograph of Chief Sealth (Seattle)The words that follow allegedly came, in one form or another, from a speech delivered by Seattle, chief of the Suquamish, Duwamish, and other tribes around Puget Sound, in 1854 or 1855. In that oration, so the story goes, Seattle agreed to sell two million acres of the tribes' land to the United States government. Others have claimed that the words we now have actually came from the text of a letter that the chief sent to President Franklin W. Pierce. And, finally, the most generally-accepted of the many versions of Chief Seattle's speech was actually crafted by a screenwriter for a documentary in the 1970s. About all we know for certain is that the chief's real name was ''Sealth,'' not Seattle, and that the land ended up in the government's possession.

Chief Seattle's GraveA thorough historical analysis of the speech (or letter) may be found in the National Archives, but the writer concludes that because we cannot prove who said them, the words are meaningless.

We disagree. This speech, in all of its versions, has been accepted by Native Americans everywhere as truth. For it accurately and eloquently represents their feelings about our government and our Mother Earth. Buckminster Fuller calls it ''one of the most profound environmental statements ever made.''

The version that follows can be found on the website of the Suquamish tribe, and we have chosen it for that reason. So please read these words with the understanding that their truth has perhaps transcended historical considerations. And listen with your heart.
The Speech

Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion upon our fathers for centuries untold, and which to us looks eternal, may change. Today is fair, tomorrow may be overcast with clouds.

My words are like the stars that never set. What Seattle says the Great Chief at Washington can rely upon with as much certainty as our paleface brothers can rely upon the return of the seasons.

The son of the White Chief says his father sends us greetings of friendship and good will. This is kind, for we know he has little need of our friendship in return because his people are many. They are like the grass that covers the vast prairies, while my people are few and resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain.

The Great, and I presume, also good, White Chief sends us word that he wants to buy our lands but is willing to allow us to reserve enough to live on comfortably. This indeed appears generous, for the Red Man no longer has rights that he need respect, and the offer may be wise, also for we are no longer in need of a great country.

There was a time when our people covered the whole land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea covers its shell-paved floor. But that time has long since passed away with the greatness of tribes now almost forgotten. I will not mourn over our untimely decay, nor reproach my paleface brothers for hastening it, for we, too, may have been somewhat to blame.

When our young men grow angry at some real or imaginary wrong, and disfigure their faces with black paint, their hearts, also, are disfigured and turn black, and then their cruelty is relentless and knows no bounds, and our old men are not able to restrain them.

But let us hope that hostilities between the Red Man and his paleface brothers may never return. We would have everything to lose and nothing to gain.

True it is, that revenge, with our young braves 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 great father Washington, for I presume he is now our father as well as yours, since George has moved his boundaries to the North - our great and good father, I say, sends us word by his son, who, no doubt, is a great chief among his people that if we do as he desires he will protect us.

His brave armies will be to us a bristling wall of strength, and his great ships of war will fill our harbors so that our ancient enemies far to the northward - the Simsiams and Hyas, will no longer frighten our women and old men. Then he will be our father and we will be 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 arms lovingly around the white man and leads him as a father leads his infant son - but He has forsaken his red children, He makes your people wax strong every day and soon they will fill all the land; while my people are ebbing away like a fast receding tide that will never flow again. The white man's God cannot love his red children or He would protect them. They seem to be orphans who can look nowhere for help.

How, then, can we become brothers? How can your Father become our Father and bring us prosperity, and awaken in us dreams of returning greatness?

Your God seems to us to be partial. He came to the white man. We never saw Him, never heard His voice. He gave the white man laws, but had no word for His red children whose teeming millions once filled this vast continent as the stars fill the firmament.

No. We are two distinct races, and must remain ever so, there is little in common between us.

The ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their final resting place is hallowed ground, while you wander away from the tombs of your fathers seemingly without regrets.

Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God, lest you might forget it. The Red Man could never remember nor comprehend it.

Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors - the dreams of our old men, given to them 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 homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far away beyond the stars, are soon forgotten and never return.

Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living, and often return to visit and comfort them.

Day and night cannot dwell together. The Red Man has ever fled the approach of the white man, as the changing mist on the mountain side flees before the blazing morning sun.

However, your proposition seems a just one, and I think that my folks will accept it and will retire to the reservation you offer them, and we will dwell apart and in peace, for the words of the Great White Chief seem to be the voice of Nature speaking to my people out of the thick darkness that is fast gathering around them like a dense fog floating inward from a midnight sea.

It matters little where we pass the remainder of our days. They are not many. The Indian's night promises to be dark. No bright star hovers above his horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Some grim Nemesis of our race is on the Red Man's trail, and wherever he goes he will still hear the sure approaching footsteps of the fell destroyer and prepare 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 all the mighty hosts that once filled this broad land or that now roam in fragmentary bands through these vast solitudes or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to weep over the graves of a people once as powerful and as hopeful as your own!

But why should I repine? Why should I murmur at the fate of my people? Tribes are made up of individuals and are no better than they. Men come and go like the waves of a sea. A tear, a tamanamus, a dirge and they are gone from our longing eyes forever. Even the white man, whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, is not exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.

We will ponder your proposition, and when we have decided we will tell you. But should we accept it, I here and now make this first condition, that we will not be denied the privilege, without molestation, of visiting the graves of our ancestors and friends.

Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe. Even the rocks, which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.

The sable braves, and fond mothers, and glad-hearted maidens, and the little children who lived and rejoiced here and whose very names are now forgotten, still love these solitudes and their deep fastnesses at eventide grow shadowy with the presence of dusky spirits.

And when the last Red Man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among white men shall have become a myth, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe and when your children's children shall think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the 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 shall be silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled 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.

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