On Whose Land Do You Stand? A Letter from Chief Seathl (Seattle) of the Suwamish Tribe to then-POTUS Franklin Pierce, 1854

Mother Earth Spirituality by Ed McGaa, Eagle Man


My partner gave me this book, "Mother Earth Spirituality" by Ed McGaa, Eagle Man, for Christmas this year. I've been devouring books along these lines for the better part of a year now. (I'd be happy to share a longer list of what I've read, enjoyed and learned from recently — leave a comment or send a message if you're interested or, even better, if you have a recommendation of your own).

The author, Ed McGaa, is an Oglala Sioux lawyer, writer and lecturer. It turns out he also graduated from the University of South Dakota, on whose fields I used to play baseball several times a year (or watched from the bench, as was often the case, while eating more sunflower seeds than you'd think possible) while I was in college at nearby Augustana University.

That really doesn't matter at all, except that I find it amazing that I grew up where I did and learned nothing of true depth about the people whose land had been stolen and given to my grandparents. I lived 13 years of my childhood in North Dakota, plus four years of college in South Dakota. Yet the brilliance and the extraordinary history and presence and spiritual practices of the elders and tribes still living in my backyard was largely ignored. The cultural and actual genocide that made it possible for me to live in a white neighborhood in a place called "Fargo" was called "manifest destiny" if it was acknowledged at all.

In general, "Native American studies" were presented in school only trivially, as a nod to the distant past, as though the indigenous peoples of what we called the Upper Midwest had simply gone the way of the Neanderthal or the Spartan and to learn about them was as optional as learning to make clay pots or hit a tennis ball. It seemed to be an elective, and nothing more.

I feel so sorry for having lived where I lived for so long without knowing what it meant. I certainly carry some of the blame for taking no initiative to learn, especially as a college student. But I was who I was, and I'd been conditioned in a particular way. It's sad. I'm trying to rectify it.

Anyway, none of that is fully the point of this particular post. All I really wanted was to share this profound letter from a man whose very name was stolen along with his land, one that was reprinted in the first couple pages of this book. Perhaps you've read it before, or heard passages quoted. 

LETTER OF CHIEF SEATHL (Seattle) of the Suwamish Tribe to the President of the United States of America, Franklin Pierce, 1854
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 that if we do not sell, the white man may come with guns and take our land.
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of 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 this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pipe needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries  the memories of the red man. So, when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us...
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. 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. But we will consider your offer to go to the reservation you have for my people. We will live apart, and in peace.
It matters little where we spend the rest of our days. Our children have seen their fathers humbled in defeat. Our warriors have felt shame, and after defeat they turn their days in idleness and contaminate their bodies with sweet foods and strong drinks. It matters little where we spend the rest of our days. They are not many. A few more hours, a few more winters, and none of the great tribes that once lived on this earth or that roam now in small bands in the woods will be left to mourn the graves of a people once as powerful and hopeful as yours. But why should I mourn the passing of my people? Tribes are made of men, nothing more. Men come and go, like the waves of the sea. Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny.
One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover—our God is the same God. You may think that you own Him as you wish to own our land: but you cannot. He is the God of man; and his compassion is equal for the red man 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 all other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.
But in your perishing you will shine brightly, fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land and for some special purpose gave you dominion over this land and the red man. That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival. So we will consider your offer to buy the land.
If we agree, it will be to secure the reservation you have promised. There, perhaps, we may live out our brief days as we wish. When the last red man has vanished from this earth, and his 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 a newborn loves its mother's heartbeat. So, if we sell our land, love it as we've loved it. Care for it as we've 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 mind, 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 God. This earth is precious to Him. Even the white man cannot be exempt from this common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see...


This is the legacy of Seattle, the city I now call home, which sits on land traditionally occupied by the Coast Salish tribes. Our predecessors coerced a "sale" from this wise man, and we now "honor" him by using his name to describe the mess of wires and concrete that now blankets the land he called home.

I am lucky enough to live in a beautiful home with my beautiful family. From our deck, you can see a beautiful patch of Lake Washington. I tried last night to take a photo of the full supermoon rising just above the hills beyond the lake. The result? Mostly "talking wires."

talking wires supermoon.JPG


"Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. 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."

In other words, your liberation is tied up entirely in your neighbor's. Your pathway to resistance lies within. How will you yourself, through the virtue of your everyday life, be part of the solution? How will you live this year?