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Who Can Buy or Sell the Sky?

Who Can Buy or Sell the Sky?


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 do so, the
white man may come with guns and take our land.
What Chief Sealth says, the Great Chief in Washington 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 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 the 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 fathers’ 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 hear the leaves of spring or the rustle of insects’ 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 a hippoorwill or the arguments
of frogs around a pond at night? The Indian prefers the soft sound
of the wind darting over the face of the pond,
and the smell of the wind itself cleansed by a mid-day rain,
or scented with a Pinon pine. The air is precious to the Redman.
For all things share the same breath ~ the beasts, the trees,
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
a thousand rotting buffalo bodies left by the white man who shot
them from a passing train. I am a savage and I 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 man.
All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the
sons and daughters of the earth. Our children have seen their
fathers humbled in defeat. Our warriors have felt shame.
And after defeat, they turn their days to 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 be left to mourn the
graves of a people once as powerful and hopeful as ours.
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 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 talking
wires, where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone.
And what is to say goodbye to the swift and the hunt, the end of
living and the beginning of survival. We might understand if we
knew what it was that 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 on our
own way. If we agree, it will be to secure our reservation you have
promised. 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 moving across the prairie,
these shores and forests will still hold the spirits of my people,
for they love this earth as the new born 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 mind the memory
of the land, as it is when 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. The earth is precious to Him.
Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny.
This letter, written in 1885 was sent to President
Franklin Pierce by Chief Sealth of the Duwamish tribe
of the State of Washington.
It concerns the proposed purchase of the tribe’s land.
Seattle a corruption of the Chief’s name, is built in the heart of
Duwamish land.