In the mid 1800s, as European settlement in North America spread westwards, a message was sent by President Franklin Pierce to the Chief of the Suquamish people in the American northwest, to the area around what is now called Seattle in the State of Washington....
....All around, the takeover of ancient lands by the settlers was going on with limited, if any, concern for the wellbeing of the native American population that had lived there for centuries.
But this Chief of Seathl sought peace with the so-called «Bostons», the eastern immigrants, hoping that peoples could respect and live together in harmony.
As a small boy he had watched the arrival of Captain Vancouver in Puget Sound, and had a vision in the form of a white seagull. The gull was to the Suquamish a symbol of peace, and as the vision was a white gull, this indicated that the boy's mission should be to seek peace with the white men.
He was 22 when he became Chief Seathl – Chief of the Suquamish. The message that was sent to the Chief by the President was a request that the Suquamish lands might be sold to the immigrants.
On receipt and consideration of the request, the Chief is known to have made a reply by way of a speech in 1855 to a tribal confederation.
It is not certain what would have happened had the «request» been refused; in all probability lands would have been sequested anyway, as they were in most places.
Chief Seathl's speech was made in the Salish language and was recorded in note form by Dr Henry Smith, a member of the commission to agree settlement regarding lands for native Americans.
All of 32 years after the speech was given, after Chief Seathl had died, Dr Smith submitted an English transcript to the newspaper The Seattle Star, admitting as he sent it that the transcript was only a partial record of what was actually said.
The version of the speech reproduced below is longer than the Seattle Star report, developing the themes of the original speech. We do not claim it to be a verbatim translation of the original but it is believed to be near enough to be worthy as Chief Seathl's Testament for the earth.
The Chief's wisdom remains a powerful inspiration for all of us today.
The Great Chief sends word that he wishes to buy our land. The Great Chief also sends words of friendship and goodwill.
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 that if we do not sell, the white man may come with guns and take our land.
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 that 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 meadow, 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 send 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 the rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors.
If we sell you 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 also your brothers. Therefore you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.
The red man has always retreated before the advancing white man, as the mist of the mountain runs before the morning sun.
But the ashes of our fathers are sacred. Their graves are holy ground, and so are these hills, this portion of the earth is consecrated to us.
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 like a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs.
For him the earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it he moves on. He leaves his father's graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children. He does not care. His father's graves 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 from your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eye of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand....
There is no quiet place in the white man's cities.
No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in the spring or to hear the rustle of insect's wings. But perhaps it is because I am a savage and do not understand. The clatter seems only 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? But I am a red man and do not understand.
The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of the pond, and the smell of the wind itself, cleansed with the midday rain, or scented with the pinion 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 the wind must also give our children the spirit of life. 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. Yet I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. How is the smoking iron horse more important than the buffalo that we would kill only to stay alive?
What is man without the beasts? If all 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.
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 land is rich with the lives of our kin.
Teach your children what we have taught our children: that the earth is our mother.
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the 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 that unites one family. All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children 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.
But we will consider your offer to go to the reservation you have for my people. We will live apart, and in peace.
It matters little where we spend the rest of our days. 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 foods and strong drink.
It matters little where we spend 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 roam now in small bands in the woods will be left to mourn the graves of a people once as powerful and hopeful as yours.
But why should I mourn the passing of my people? Tribes are made of men, nothing more. Men come and go, like the waves of the sea. Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from 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 reap contempt on its creator.
The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Continue to 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 the red man.
That destiny is a mystery for us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the hills blotted out by talking wires.
Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
So we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we agree, it will be to secure the reservation you have promised. There, perhaps, we may live out our brief days as we wish. When the last red man has vanished from this earth, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, these shores and forests will still hold the spirit of my people. For they love this earth as the 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 is when you take it. And with all your strength, with all your mind, and with all your heart, preserve it for your children, and love it as God loves us.
One thing we know: our God is the same God. This earth is precious to him.
Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.