ICSE English Literature … Chief Seattle’s Speech
Background .. The Americans that inhabit the United States of America today were not there before the early eighteenth century, nor was there a single unified country like the United States we see today. After the intrepid Spaniard Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, European migration to the new land began in trickles. Spaniards came here in search of a better way of life, but were soon overtaken in numbers by the British settlers. By the mid seventeenth century, the British had dug their heels well in, and began to extend their control of the land. The migration of Europeans gathered pace in the early eighteenth century, when thousands of people from all over the continent poured into the ‘new Land’ for greener vistas. They wanted to escape poverty, and religious persecution that plagued the European society choking the middle and lower middle class people then.
With Europeans arriving in larger and larger numbers, the original inhabitants in America’s eastern coast, the ‘Red Indians’ began to feel the squeeze. They were no match for the Europeans who were more organized, disciplined, and had superior fire arms. Countless skirmishes began between the white-skinned settlers and the original settlers, who were ejected from their lands in alarming pace. The Red Indians fought ferociously, but their bows and arrows were no match for the arms, ammunitions and the wherewithal of the European settlers. Eventually, they lost the battle, and the Europeans lorded over them. The British became the colonial masters.
The humiliation and the anguish of the Red Indians was insufferable, but they had no option but to bow to the British masters.
Chief Seattle was the chieftain of the vanquished Red Indians – the original settlers. He was a sagacious leader who realized the folly of continuing the hostilities against the British colonial masters. He loved his tribe, he loved his land, and he loved his culture. This is why, he felt a protracted animosity with the British could eventually haemorrhage his dear people to death. So, he led his tribe towards a reconciliation with the new masters. This speech given in 1854 to formally accept British colonial authority is a lament, but has no trace of vengeance or stupid defiance in it. Instead, it exudes statesmanship, rectitude, dignity, foresight, and empathy for his tribesmen.
The text …
First para ..
Chief Seattle looks up at the sky, and alludes to the generous rains it has showered on his land and his people for ages. But, he is worried. He knows the good old days are going to be lost, forever. The sky is changing its colour – from normal to foreboding. Like a sage, he proclaims that his words would hold good for posterity, no matter the impending change in environment. Here, by ‘environment’, he refers to the big change in the social-political status of his tribe under the British colonial administration.
Chief Seattle wants to assure the colonial administrator in Washington that he will stand by all his commitments. The local colonial official says that the Head administrator sitting in Washington has sent his greetings for Chief Seattle. The Chief, is, no doubt, pleased, especially because there is no need for such niceties for a chieftain whose people have already been subjugated.
The British presence is pervasive in the Chief’s land. The Red Indians have to keep low in the face of such dominance of the colonizers. The tribesmen are vastly outnumbered by the British. They look like lone trees standing here and there in a vast wind-swept meadow.
Chief Seattle has been given to understand by the local colonial head (the White Chief) that the latter would buy up all the land of the tribes people. However, he has been good enough to assure the locals that they would still have enough land for their use. Chief Seattle feels it’s a kind gesture. Chief Seattle reflects upon the changed status of his people. They are a defeated lot, and logically, can’t lay claim to any asset. So, the offer to let them have enough land for their sustenance is unusually kind gesture of the colonial masters. After all, during the bygone days, they couldn’t put the vast swathe of land to much use.
Para 2 ..
Chief Seattle becomes nostalgic as he reminisces about the days gone by. There was a time when his people lorded over the landscape. There was no ne to challenge their dominance. But, the Chief rues that those times are history now. But, with rare equanimity, he wants to blame none from his tribe for such bad turn of fate. He is sad, but manages to contain his grief within himself.
When the settlers of European origin began to consolidate their existence in the ‘new Land’ (America), the Red Indians pushed back with savage force. The whites continued to push the Red Indians ever westward. In the ensuing battles that followed, both sides adopted many brutal and inhuman ways to attack the foe. Chief Seattle recounts those days when young people of his side resorted to many questionable tactics in their bloody confrontation with the Whites. The Chief does not approve of these, but absolve the young fighters of any guilt of excesses. He knows, young people are intemperate, and at the heat of the moment, they behave wildly. The Chief thinks, the blame must equally be shared by the older folks for having failed to rein in the young members of the community.
Now, the Chief understands the reality, and the futility of continuing the belligerence against the Whites. He yearns for peace. He knows the welfare of all lies in the continuation of peace in the land. Vengefulness extracts a heavy price. For a land that has been wrenched in blood, peace is the only solution, even if it might mean surrender.
Para 4 ..
The British colonial control of America ended in 1778. In 1854, when Chief Seattle gave his speech, Franklin Pierce was the President of America. The Chief refers to him as “our great father in Washington’.
Chief Seattle hopes that the military men and the naval ships of the President of America will provide a blanket of protection to the Red Indians against their traditional enemies from the north –the Haidas and the Tsimshians. Thus, he reasons that his tribe could expect fatherly care from the American President.
In the next moment, Chief Seattle becomes circumspect, and thinks that such an ethnic assimilation is not possible. He knows the British worship Jesus Christ, where as the local tribesmen worship the Great spirits. The Chief bemoans that Lord Christ will not bestow His affection on the Red tribesmen. In the next breath, he rues that even the Great Spirit has forsaken His own devotees – the Red Indians.
Chief Seattle despairs that with the blessing of Lord Christ, the British will colonize the whole of America, pushing the original inhabitants –the Red Indians – to a corner. The Chief laments that without a God, his tribe would be enfeebled and gradually eclipsed. He is skeptical about Lord Christ ever owning the Red tribesmen as His sons, and bestowing his love on them. The inexorable decline of his tribe from being the lord of the land to a miniscule minority fills the Chief’s mind with all sorts of doubts. He can discern that the Lord of the colonial masters would never adopt the Red tribesmen. He throws up his hands in despair, and concludes that the two races can never be integrated, and can never have a common destiny.
Para 5 ..
With a sense of hurt pride, the Chief outlines the difference between Christianity, and the ancient religious practices of his tribe. In Christianity, the sermons are written on stone, apparently by God himself, so that the followers recite and memorize them. The colonizers, being Christians, bury their dead, and put a tombstone to mark the spot. Over a period of time, everything about the dead man is forgotten. On the contrary, the Red tribesmen hold their dead ancestors with great reverence. They live near the place of burial, and seldom move away from it. For them, the dead ancestors are like loadstars, who protect and bless their descendants. In other words, the Red tribesmen preserve their ancestors in their hearts all their lives.
Para 6 …
Chief Seattle proceeds to bring out more differences between his religion and that of the colonial masters. In case of the latter, the dead never return to look after the well-being of their descendants. Once dead, they leave this world for their abode among the stars. On the contrary, in the Chief’s religion, the dead leave their body, but linger near their near and dear ones to look after their welfare. The Ghosts do not severe their links with the flora and fauna of the land. They love the terrain too much to forget it after their death. For the followers of this religious tradition, the environment with its bounties is sacrosanct. These people continue to benefit from the affection and guidance of their dead ancestors.
Para 7 ..
Chief Seattle reiterates his conviction that his tribe can never co-exist with the white settlers because the gulf between the two races is too wide to bridge. Nevertheless, he realizes that the Red people under him can never stand up to the overwhelmingly more powerful colonizers. So, they must ceded land to their new masters. In a wry tone, he says that the offer of some land to his tribesmen for their sustenance is fair and generous. He calls upon his people to accept it, and shed their belligerence towards the white people. This, perhaps, is the voice of Nature finding expression through the offer of the Great White Chief (meaning President Pierce.)
Para 8 ….
Chief Seattle pours out his grief and hopelessness saying that his Red tribe is doomed. Their extinction is not very far away. The gloomy times have arrived and there is not a ray of hope for them. So, his tribe must await its demise with a sense of equanimity and resignation. Just as the wounded prey hears its hunter’s coming, the Red people must embrace their demise.
Para 9 ….
Chief Seattle paints a subfusc picture of the fate awaiting his tribe. He sees how his dear followers will perish in their own land unsung, and unhonoured. The juggernaut of the white colonial race will mull them mercilessly and rob them of their land, freedom, and dignity. No one would be there to mourn these valiant people when they lie in their graves. He says that every race has to face fortune and failure alternately. The one that ascends must descend. It is the white man’s day. Time will come when the same ignominious fate that has befallen his own tribe today will also devour the white race. Perhaps, then the two races will accept each other as brothers.
Para 10 ….
Chief Seattle takes some time to finally intimate his tribe’s acceptance of the offer made by the British colonial administration. But, he puts a seemingly innocuous, but very important condition. He wants unrestricted access to the tomb of the tribe’s many dead ancestors, even after the land is taken over by the colonizers. His tribe’s emotional attachment to the dead ancestors is behind this demand. He narrates how the memories of the many sad and happy events of his tribe are embedded in the trees, rivers, lands and the rocks. The ancestors trod on the same tracks which now have been occupied by the white men. Even the dust in the land has a story to tell about the days gone by. These repositories of history are, therefore, very sacred to the Red tribe.
Para 11 …
Everyone of the Red tribesmen communities drew their sustenance from the land and the environment. They lived, played, danced, and rejoiced in the lap of this sacred land. They mingled with the spirits joyfully, with no trace of fear, because the latter lavished their affection and care on the living youngsters. Chief Seattle is filled with anguish to imagine that sooner than later, the last member of his tribe would depart. Gradually, the memory of the Red people will fade from memory. Time will come, when no one will remember anything about the Red people. However, the revered ghost of the Red tribe would never abandon the land. Even if cities and towns come up in the land, the ghosts will continue to wander the roads and highways at night.
Last para …
Finally, Chief Seattle beseeches the white people to be genial and accommodative towards the subjugated Red tribesmen, and not treat the ghosts dismissively. He tells his masters that the ghosts, being immortal will outlive all inhabitants of the land.
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