Much could be learned by modern Americans, indeed all Westerners, from Chief Seattle, a Native American chief who lived in the Puget Sound area of modern-day Washington State. In 1855 he wrote a letter to President Franklin Pierce, which discussed his views on Westerners’ treatment of the environment and the inevitable self-destruction of Western culture by way of environmental destruction. In his letter, Chief Seattle illustrates how his people and the Westerners have exceedingly different cultural paradigms, and therefore cannot understand each other. “We know that the white man does not understand our ways,” writes Seattle, in reference to Native American’s treatment of the environment, or more accurately, the conquering people’s mistreatment. Later, with sarcasm, and seemingly humoring the opposing point of view, he writes, “But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand.” Seattle offers a warning about the fate that Westerners will befall should they not change their ways: “Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.” He condemns Western people for abusing the earth, and he believes that Western culture’s attempt to deny its own bond with nature will be its downfall. His arguments are made in the tone of a man who, while disturbed and saddened by the fate befalling his people, has accepted the inevitability of the situation and is fighting with words, not violence. I wholeheartedly agree with Chief Seattle’s critique of Western attitudes towards the environment. His observations and criticisms; western culture’s abuses of the planet, lack of reverence for nature, and failure to recognize its inescapable bond with the earth, are as relevant in twenty-first century America as they were when Chief Seattle wrote them in 1855.
Chief Seattle was extremely critical of the way Westerners destroy the earth they live on, and his criticism is very pertinent today. He saw the Western settlers as takers, takers “who [come] in the night and [take] from the land whatever [they need].” He believed that the white settlers, who represent Western culture, had no love for the land on which they lived. He shows disdain for the “white man’s” attitude towards the earth: “The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on.” Maybe Chief Seattle had a vision of the future. We must heed his warnings and make changes now, while we still can. Nothing should be of greater importance than the condition of our planet. We must learn from the Native Americans, and make it our priority, or we will surely kill off our own species. Now more than ever, we take everything we possibly can from the earth. We consume land and resources at an alarmingly vicious pace, devouring everything in sight with seemingly no real thought given to the consequences of our actions. We try to cover every square inch of the earth with something that serves a human purpose, and then we dump what we don’t want back into the environment. The amount of waste we leave in our wake is inconceivable. Al Gore writes in Earth in the Balance: “…every person in the United States produces more than twice his or her weight in waste every day.” This is astounding, and every person on the planet ought to be shaken to the core by this news, but still an attitude of indifference prevails. There are those who really care, but for most, the environmental crisis is a small and unimportant footnote on their list of concerns. The environmental situation isn’t helped any by the “I’m just one person, what difference can I make” attitude of so many. The proper question to ask is “What will inevitably happen to the planet if everyone continues to treat it as I do?” For most, the answer is probably frightening. Nobody is more than one person, which is why everyone must participate if we are to avoid killing ourselves. In the ever-relevant words of Chief Seattle, “Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.”
Drowning in our own contaminants is not the only unfavorable consequence of our environmental atrocities. Equally important and just as relevant as the undesirable fate Chief Seattle foresees for us in the future are his observations on the effects of nature, or lack of it, on the human spirit. Chief Seattle wrote, “The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man.” It seems that human nature leads us to find nature beautiful and magical, while we find most man-made things much less awe-inspiring. That is how Chief Seattle saw things, and I believe that he realized the importance of nature’s impact on the human psyche. He understood that a reverence for nature is the only way that human animals can survive in this world. Most humans, indeed probably every human, find joy and peace in a natural setting. Who wouldn’t rather watch a sunset from an isolated beach than from a crowded urban sidewalk? Who wouldn’t prefer to view the stars from a quiet place in the desert rather than from the parking lot of their apartment complex? We find profound peace in nature, so much so that we travel hundreds of miles and spend thousands of dollars just to visit spectacles such as the Sequoia forests or the Grand Canyon. When we must make a specific effort to seek out nature, that is when things have gone wrong. The Native Americans lived in nature, not near it. They experienced the soothing and comforting effect that nature has on all animals, including humans, on a daily basis. It was not a part of their life, but their entire life. As Chief Seattle observed, “There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the leaves of spring or the rustle of insect’s wings.” Humans are meant to hear such sounds on a daily basis; indeed we need to hear these sounds. They sooth and comfort us, and provide us with a basis on which to connect with nature. Without nature, Chief Seattle believed, people are merely surviving, not truly living. He understood that a society living apart from nature, and without reverence for nature, would surely collapse. As time passes, the truths of his observations become more and more apparent.
Another truth to be found in Chief Seattle’s observations lies in his view of the natural connection between the earth and all her species, a view that he believes the newcomers to his land fail to recognize. He is absolutely right: Western society doesn’t understand the strength of the bond it shares not only with all species, but also with the planet itself. According to Chief Seattle, “All things are connected.” It is insane that Americans fail to recognize this, because from our earliest years in school we are taught about the food chain and the “food web”. We’re shown pyramids and flow charts and diagrams that explain the whole concept of the food chain and what interdependency really means. We learn that when all of the worms die, so then do the birds above them. But we fail to see our place in all that mess. Our teachers did us a great injustice by not putting a picture of a man at the top of those pyramids and charts. Western society refuses to consider that the same laws of nature that govern eagles and orangutans also govern human populations. Chief Seattle tells us, “Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth.” If we destroy the other links in the chain, their fate will surely be ours as well.
Sadly, a horrible fate has already befallen the great Native American tribes that once roamed North America. If only Western culture shared their reverence for nature, their appreciation of the human bond with the earth, and their unwillingness to destroy the natural world they lived in; perhaps maybe then we could be saved. But we see the Indians ways as “savage.” Chief Seattle, unable to understand why we must destroy nature, and unable to tolerate the unnatural noises of a city, wrote with heavy sarcasm, “But perhaps because I am a savage and do not understand, the clatter only seems to insult the ears.” Later, when contemplating the end of his way of life and the Westerners’ “beginning of survival”, Chief Seattle says, “But we are savages. The white man’s dreams are hidden from us.” Ironically, if the dreams of our society—whatever those may be—are to be realized, everyone needs to start behaving a little bit like a savage.
Chief Seattle – Letter to President Pierce 1855