The indigenous people of America have always had great regard for Nature and consider all of the environment to be their home. Nevertheless, in the 1800s, the Imperial Government of America, led by Sir Issac L Stevens, was determined to buy and retain a large portion of their land to expand Washington’s territory. Chief Seattle, a widely respected Red Indian leader, wrote an extensive letter to the ruling party to reconsider this decision. It could have adverse complications in the future, resulting in environmental degradation.
Chief Seattle’s Speech: Setting and Plot
Regarded as a great tribal leader, Chief Seattle was a wise man who could perceive the adverse effects of overall capitalization and human greed upon Nature, even way back in the 1800s. Born into the tribes of both Duwamish and Suquamish, Chief Seattle gained popularity as a dynamic warrior from a very early age. He grew up respecting the land and the forests around him, and he considered himself to be their protector. He gained the respect of his people by avoiding unnecessary bloodshed through regal diplomacy, and he also made many political friendships over time which always served him well.
In 1854, the Native American Chief delivered a letter to Sir Issac Stevens, the then Governor of Washington territory. The letter’s contents held an important message regarding the land treaty proposed to the tribal chiefs earlier that year by Sir Issac. According to many leading researchers, the letter, which has now taken on the title of a speech, had the potential of a powerful plea written regarding respect for Native American land rights and their environmental values. These values were considered sacred in their culture.
The white American Government’s move to acquire more land for industrial development was seen as a ploy to increase the Government’s political rule by the Native Americans. To control the rising unrest among his people and to make peace with the Government, Chief Seattle wrote his famous speech with the hopes of administering a public appeal to the Governor.
Chief Seattle’s Speech: Line-by-Line Summary
Environmental degradation and its effects on climate change were matters of deep concern to the Native American Chief, and he begins his speech with a direct remark on it. He discusses the various negative impacts it can have upon human civilization and how a man can suffer if proper precautions are not taken. The speech also includes a few endearing tribal legends and tales based on Mother Nature and how she has been a constant source of guidance and wisdom to all from the very beginning. The wise Chief points out all the aspects through which Nature has sheltered humans and provided sustenance to all living beings.
Then the text takes a dire turn, and the speaker admonishes modern civilization for not showing due respect to Nature and ruthlessly exploiting unrenewable resources. This is where he puts forward his opinions regarding the ecological responsibilities we all have towards Nature. Here, he mentions the Native American land rights he was fighting with the Imperial authorities. The Chief pleaded with dignity that the hostilities shown by the White Americans should end so that they can all live in peace and harmony together. With sad regret, he accepts that due to plague and famine, the tribal people have suffered a lot and are now much less in population. Keeping this fact in mind, he even proposes that the White Chief should look after the Native Americans and protect them like their own. The indigenous people should also abide by the rules of the Whites and live within the territory marked for them.
The Chief recognizes the Governor’s offer of friendship as an act of kindness because, in fact, the imperialist Government is far too powerful, and the smaller indigenous tribes are not matched in front of them. If they want their land, they can very quickly take it from them through force. Nevertheless, with great determination and courage, the speaker decides not to accept the White Chief’s offer and come to terms with the land treaty because, as inevitable as it may seem, it was an act of treason against Mother Nature for him to do so. This is why Chief Seattle refuses to comply with Issac Steven’s proposal despite understanding that he was fighting for a lost cause. Chief Seattle, with absolute courtesy, thanks the White Chief, which is the Governor, for extending a hand of friendship towards his tribe and warns him about the future consequences of the land treaty proposal. The author then symbolizes the truth of his words by comparing them to the eternal stars. Hence, he says that just like the unchanging stars in the sky, his terms, too, shall remain faithful till the end of time.
In the next half of the speech, Seattle makes a positive statement for the Whites by saying that their proposition regarding the land treaty was not unjust. They were within their boundaries because they were respectable enough to ask when they could have invaded their lands. Nevertheless, the Chief was still apprehensive about the tribal lands being misused and exploited, which would be detrimental to the delicate ecological balance preserved by the Native Americans for thousands of years. The tribal leader also requests the Governor to allow his people to visit the graves of their ancestors as and when they wished. With this recourse, Chief Seattle ends his speech with a final entreaty that his people be treated with justice and kindness under the White man’s reign.
This piece of literature has been given a great deal of value, considering its role in the environmental movement. It was a heroic stance in the history of Native Americans, and most historians would agree that the city of Seattle in America was named in honour and memory of Chief Seattle. The charm of the Chief’s speech lies in its simplicity and humility, even while addressing important topics which are of indefinable value to us today. However, despite the immense popularity of the text, the authenticity of this speech has not been fully approved yet. The original text was written in the native dialect of Lushootseed, and it has been written and re-written by many different translators, which has resulted in the distortion of the text.
You can also refer to Chief Seattle’s Speech: Analysis, Theme, and Character Sketch here.
Updated by Anjali Roongta on 13th April 2023
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