The True Value of the Earth
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
There has been no questioning of the ownership of land obtained through purchase or through legalized or non-legalized military conflicts between the great powers, leading to the acquisition of all the mineral, forest and animal resources that they find. Because of the great global crisis at the moment, I will transcribe below one of the most widely accepted versions of the letter that the famous Chief Seattle sent to then President of the United States, Franklin Pierce, when the latter sent him an offer to buy the territories in the north-eastern United States that now belong to the State of Washington, and promised in return to create a state-protected ‘reservation’ for the indigenous people of the Suquamish tribe.
In 1855 Chief Seattle responded to President Pierce’s offer with the following extraordinary message: “The Great White Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. He also sends us words of friendship and good will. This is kind of him. We appreciate that kindness very much because we know that he has little need of our friendship. We shall consider your offer, for we know that if we do not do so, the white man may come with his guns and take our lands. The Great White Chief can count on the words of Chief Seattle as truly as he can count on the return of the seasons. My words are like the stars: unchanging.
¿How can you buy or sell the sky or the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If no one can own the freshness of the air, or the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to our people. Every shining pine needle, every handful of sand on the shore, the dusk in the dark woods, every ray of light and every buzzing insect, all are sacred in the memory and life of my people. The sap that courses through the body of the trees carries with it the story of the ‘red man’.
‘The white man’s dead forget the land of their birth when they walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful Earth, because she is the mother of the ‘red man’. We are part of the earth and she is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The rocky peaks, the dewy furrows of the meadows, the color of the body of the pony and the body of man, all belong to the same family.
So when the Great White Chief in Washington sends to say he wants to buy our land, he asks much of us. The Great White Chief says he will reserve for us a place where we can live comfortably. He will be our father and we will be his children. Therefore we will consider your offer to buy our land. But that will not be easy. This land is sacred to us. This shining water that runs down the streams and runs through the rivers is not water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that every reflection in the clear waters of the lakes speaks of events and memories in the life of my people. The murmur of the rivers is the voice of my ancestors. ‘
‘The rivers are our brothers; they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes and feed our children. If we sell you our lands, you must remind your children that the rivers are our brothers and theirs too. Therefore, you must give to the rivers the kindness that you would give to any brother. We know that the white man does not understand our ways. For him one portion of the land has the same meaning as any other, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his sister, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves behind the graves of his ancestors and does not worry. He steals his children’s birthright from the earth and does not care.
‘The grave of his father and the birthright of his children are forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth, his brother and the sky above like things that can be bought and sold like sheep or colorful ornaments. His appetite will devour the earth, leaving behind only a desert. I do not understand. Our ways are different from yours, perhaps because I am a savage and I do not understand. Noise seems to just insult the ears. What is left of life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of a bird or the croaking of a frog around a pond at night?I am a red man and I do not understand. The Indian prefers the soft murmur of the wind ruffling the surface of the lake and the wind itself, cleansed by the rain in the daytime, or perfumed by the pines.
‘The air is very precious to the red man, because all things share the same air – the beast, the tree, man – all share the same breath. It seems that the white man does not notice the air he breathes. Like someone dying, he is numb to the stench. But if we sell our land to the white man, he must remember that the air is precious to our life, that the air shares its spirit with the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandparents their first breath also received their last breath. If we sell you our land, you must keep it as a place where even the white man himself can taste the wind sweetened by the flowers of the prairies.
Therefore, we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we decide to accept, I will impose one condition: the white man must treat the animals of this land as his brothers. I am a savage and I do not understand any other way of being. I saw a thousand buffaloes rotting on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo we kill only to stay alive.
‘This we know: the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. When you strip us of this land, you will shine brightly, illuminated by the power of the God who brought you to these lands and who for some special reason gave you dominion over the land and over the red man. This destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand why the buffalo should be slaughtered, the wild horses tamed, the secret corners of the dense forest filled with the scent of many men, and the view of the mountains blocked by talking wires.
What happened to the thick forest? It has disappeared. What has happened to the eagle? It has disappeared. Living has ended. Now is the beginning of survival.
Addendum: I suggest that this letter from Chief Seattle more than 150 years ago be read in the forums where the international disagreements on environmental issues of the last Paris Forum will be discussed.