Chief Seattle’s Speech 1854 — An Introduction
Chief Seattle (Si’ahl) (c. 1786 – June 7, 1866) was a public leader, the chief of the native American (Red Indian) Suquamish and Duwamish tribes. The American city Seattle is named after him. He is especially known for his ‘speech’, or sometimes referred to as ‘letter’, delivered in 1854. This speech was a response to the American Government’s land treaty to buy the native lands proposed by Issac Stevens, the Governor of Washington Territory.
Seattle’s speech is regarded as a powerful plea for respect of native American rights and environmental values. Seattle criticized the white people’s imperialistic attitude and their way of reckless developments affecting the natural environment. In fact, it was one of the earliest instances where someone expressed great concern over the degradation of nature and ecological balance. He warned us against the rapid progress of western civilization and pitched for the need to protect nature. And, this is why Chief Seattle’s speech is acclaimed with such high esteem.
One important thing to know, Seattle delivered the speech in his native language Lushootseed and it has been translated and rewritten by several authors since then. Therefore, the authenticity of the available texts is not confirmed. The oldest available record of this document is Henry A. Smith’s transcript published in the Seattle Sunday Star in 1887. But modern critics see it as a “flowery Victorian prose” far from the original speech of Seattle.
Chief Seattle’s Speech: Summary & Explanation
Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion upon my people for centuries untold, and which to us appears changeless and eternal, may change. Today is fair. Tomorrow it may be overcast with clouds.
At the very beginning of the speech Chief Seattle expresses his concern over environmental degradation and its possible impact upon human civilization if we do not take immediate measures. According to him Nature has been a great sympathizer for his native people for a long time now. Nature has given them everything they need to live on this earth. He fears that though this condition seems to be eternal and changeless, it may ultimately change. Human civilization may face great trouble in future if we don’t respect environmental values.
Then the speaker ascertains his reliability by comparing his words to the stars that never change. So, he will not change his stance in response to the Government’s proposal of a land treaty with the natives.
The White Chief (the Governor) had arrived with the proposal and the message of friendship from the Big Chief (the President). Seattle says that it is kind of them to offer the natives their goodwill and friendship, because he knows that the government has no need of the natives’ friendship in return.
Seattle speaks of the deplorable condition of his people. He remembers that once they had filled the entire country, but now, there are only few people left in their tribes. They are on the verge of an extinction. So, actually they don’t need the vast land any more.
And for this doom of the Red Indians, Seattle mainly accuses the White people’s act of forcing their way into the native lands. The white people regard themselves as superior and supreme and do not respect the tribal people’s land rights and cultural values. Seattle also criticizes the reckless manners of the young men of his own tribe. According to him, the youths should be more sensible and responsible.
Seattle says, the President has offered to protect the native women, children and the old men from the attacks of their old outside enemies like the Haidas and Tsimshians if they agree to the land treaty. In that case, the President would really be their protector, their father. But he doubts if that will be ever possible.
According to Seattle, there is so many cultural differences between the White Americans and the native Red Indians that a union or a mutual understanding between the two looks unlikely. After all, they are two distinct races with separate origins and separate destinies.
The white people have received all the love and care of God. The tribal people have been deprived of the love, guidance and protection of God and finally come to their meager existence.
The native Red people of America live closer to Nature than the white people. They love the beautiful aspects of nature and understand the importance of maintaining it.
To the tribal people, the ashes of their ancestors are sacred and they visit their resting ground to show their respect for those. But, as Seattle complains, the white people have no feelings for their ancestors. They wander far from their graves without any regret.
Again, the white people don’t seem to love this world any more after they die. So they never visit their people and places again. But, the tribal people never forget “this beautiful world that gave them being” and continue to visit their loved ones to guide, console and comfort them.
Seattle even says that the White people’s religion, i.e. Christianity, is written upon stones so that people never forget it. It is not felt by heart. Their religion is somewhat artificial and mechanical, as they have no respect for the environment and for their ancestors. But, the native people’s religion is “the traditions of our ancestors — the dreams of our old men“.
The Chief prepares his people for their impending doom by saying that no one will be spared from the hands of time, death and decay. Death is a common destiny that the White men too cannot defy.
Anyway, Seattle says that he may still agree to the government’s proposal but the natives should be allowed to visit the resting grounds of their ancestors.
But should we accept it, I here and now make this condition that we will not be denied the privilege without molestation of visiting at any time the tombs of our ancestors, friends, and children.
He again warns the President to be just and deal kindly with his people. He believes that death is just a change of worlds and the spirits of the natives will still be there after their death to take revenge if they are treated badly.