Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints!

Chief Seattle, whose letter warns us of the need to hold nature dear in our hearts.

At a time when the people of the world cannot agree what to do about climate change and when England is completely covered with snow as if replaying the events of the 2004 film  “The Day After Tomorrow“, it is pertinent to remember the words of a very famous Native American, Chief Si’ahl (anglicised as Seattle).

Chief Si’ahl (c. 1780 – June 7, 1866) , the leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes in what is now the American state of Washington, allegedly wrote the letter in the 1800s to the United States Government.

It is less important to know whether he wrote it or not, than to know what is said in it.

Chief Seattle’s Letter

“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.

We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.

But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land?

The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.

The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother.

If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.

Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

A minimal footprint on nature – Native American girls gathering berries.

One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.

Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.

When the last red man has vanished with this wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?

We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, 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 receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it, as God loves us.

As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you.

One thing we know – there is only one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all.”

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.

This letter, a famous speech and many quotations (including the title of this post) are alleged to have been quoted by Chief Si’ahl.

Read more about Chief Si’ahl here and his quotations here.

Credits Clouds over hills image (author : vsz/Victor Szalvay, CC-BY-SA 2.0), Palouse fields (author : Dsdugan, public domain)- all these images are of Washington State where Chief Si’ahl lived with his tribe. The image Native American girls picking berries (author : Edward S. Curtis, 1868-1952, public domain) as well as the other images, are from Wikimedia Commons. Chief Seattle’s image though public domain and available in Wikimedia Commons was selected from a website using Google Images.

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11 Comments on “Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints!”


  1. Lovely thoughts! Now i Know from where James Cameroon got inpired when he worked upon the story line of Avatar and the imaginative world – Planet Pandora and its inhabitants


    • It is the values of Western civilisation which drown us – competition rather than cooperation, winning rather than succeeding, best rather than optimal, me rather than us, the naked greed of capitalism vs a more equitable society.

      I’m quite sure many Americans would not be able to ‘get’ Avatar just like a friend of mine could not ‘get’ why ‘Inglourious Basterds’ showed Hitler being killed.


  2. Words of wisdom indeed… and timeless words.

    The only way forward is to embrace the ancient vedic way of life. The Red Indians, the Australian aboriginals or even some of the extinct civilisations/cultures like the Mohicans… too followed a way of life similar to this.

    The Vedic way of life is not a ‘religion’. It is a ‘philosophy of life’ or a ‘way of life’. The Vedas are not restricted to some books or scriptures. It is an assimilation of the accumulated knowledge of the ancients… over a period of time… or rather, through the ages. It is the knowledge which will ultimately prevail.

    As time passes, people will realise that the true faiths are the so-called pagan faiths/way of life. Hopefully… it will not be too late then.


    • Very good point about the ‘way of life’. Indeed Religion is too incomplete a word to describe the way the native Americans lived.

      Unfortunately, along with the loss of biodiversity we are losing cultural dversity at a great rate. One part of the problem is globalisation. Everything gets subordinated to the principal languages – in our case English and Hindi. Hindi films are another – they have made ‘standard’ Hindustani the lingua franca. If anyone speaks Bhojpuri or Magadhi or any variation or local dialect, he is likely to get mistaken for a country bumpkin and over time we will lose the dialects and their cultural overtones.

  3. Manjunath Says:

    Nice and meaningful post many times i too thought what rights we have on land and to sell it? is it not properties of all the life forms why only humans?

  4. nimesh Says:

    some time back saw the mizo translation of the letter brought out by the forest department here …


  5. I would like to put up this post on my blog. Of course I’ll provide the backlink. Please let me know if this works well with you…

  6. Snigdha Kar Says:

    how can you buy or sell the sky? the land?

    wonderful thoughts…..thanks for sharing.

    regards
    snigdha


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