Chief Seattle's Speech
The son of the white chief says his father sends us greetings of friendship and good will. This is kind, for we know he has little need of our friendship in return, because his people are many. They are like the grass that covers the vast prairies, while my people are few, and resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain. There was a time when our people covered the whole land, as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor. But that time has long since passed away with the greatness of tribes now almost forgotten.
Our great father in Washington sends us word that he will protect us. His brave armies will be to us a bristling wall of strength, and his great ships of war will fill our harbors so that our ancient enemies far to the northward, the Simsiams and Hydas, will no longer frighten our women and old men. Then he will be our father and we will be his children.
But can this ever be? Your god loves your people and hates mine; he folds his strong arms lovingly around the white man and leads him as a father leads his infant son, but he has forsaken his red children. He makes your people wax strong every day, and soon they will fill the land; while my people are ebbing away like a fast-receding tide, that will never flow again. The white man's god cannot love his red children or he would protect them. They seem to be orphans and can look nowhere for help. How then can we become brothers? How can your father become our father and bring us prosperity and awaken in us dreams of returning greatness?
Your god seems to us to be partial. He came to the white man. We never saw him; never even heard his voice; he gave the white man laws, but he had no word for his red children whose teeming millions filled this vast continent as the stars fill the firmament. No, we are two distinct races and must ever remain so. There is little in common between us. The ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their final resting place is hallowed ground, while you wander away from the tombs of your fathers seemingly without regret.
Your religion was written on tables of stone by the iron finger of an angry god, lest you might forget it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors, the dreams of our old men, given them by the great Spirit, and the visions of our sachems, and it is written in the hearts of our people.
Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.
We will ponder your proposition, and when we have decided we will tell you. But should we accept it, I here and now make this the first condition: That we will not be denied the privilege, without molestation, of visiting at will the graves of our ancestors and friends. Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, ever plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe.
Even the rocks that seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, and the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.
The sable braves, and fond mothers, and glad-hearted maidens, and the little children who lived and rejoiced here, and whose very names are now forgotten, still love these solitudes, and their deep fastnesses at eventide grow shadowy with the presence of dusky spirits. And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among white men shall have become a myth, these shores shall swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children's children shall think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway or in the silence of the woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night, when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not altogether powerless.
Despite the diversity of these stories, many themes recur. Perhaps the most obvious is reference to the dominant physical elements of the environment in which the tellers lived. Thus the Maori story largely explains storms and the sea, and it devotes considerable attention to fish, whereas in the Jicarilla Apache story fish are created only incidentally, and the creation itself doesn't mention oceans or lakes. Likewise, the Norse story of Ymir involves ice and cold, whereas ice isn't even mentioned in most stories. The Native Americans living around the Great Lakes, like the Potawatomi, tell stories in which the earth floats on or is suspended in water, whereas the Jicarilla Apache assume the earth surface is underlain by a vast dry cavern. The ancient Hebrews lived in a dry region, and thus their image of the paradise from which they were barred is a lush garden.
Another recurrent theme is the superiority of the storyteller's people. The Mossi tell how black-skinned people were least contaminated by the arrogance in the water of a lake in which other peoples of other colors bathed. The Potawatomi tell how white-skinned and black-skinned people were created with flaws and impurities before the more successful creation of people with red skins. The Hebrews tell how one of their ancestors negotiated a special relationship with the only true god. The Menominee tell how the name of their neighbors became synonymous with "thieves". Strikingly, but not surprisingly, no culture has an origin story that justifies the superiority of another people, or even the equality of all people.
Many of the stories either omit the role of women or condemn women. Izanami speaks first and spoils the first effort of Japanese creation. The female of the Upanishad is raped repeatedly. In the Hebrew story, Eve gets humanity expelled from Eden, and no other female is mentioned for generations thereafter. Young girls are likewise responsible for disaster in the Apache story.
Many of the stories justify the human exploitation of nature. The Hebrew myth tells how Yahweh told humans to go forth and multiply on an earth made for them, and the Maori story of the Separation of Heaven and Earth tells how the god of humanity struck back at his brother gods in revenge for their weakness in the face of the winds. Likewise the Jicarilla Apache story tells how the Hactcin told the Jicarilla that plants and hoofed animals would be their food, and that they could roam across the world as their home.
Many stories also justify exploitation of, or at least discrimination between, humans themselves. In the Babylonian creation, humans are created to manipulate and exploit nature, but only as servants of the gods (and their priests). The Chinese story explains that the ancestral upper classes were hand-made by a deity, whereas the lower-classes were mass-produced. The Japanese and Hawaiian stories are even more specific in justifying the position of individual ruling families. There is thus a clear pro-establishment nature to many of these stories.
Many of these stories begin in darkness, and the generation of light is part of the creation itself. Many metaphysical explanations could be offered, but a practical one emerges from Opler's description of story-telling among the Jicarilla Apaches. Stories were told at night, and in fact were a means of whiling away the hours of darkness. Among industrialized peoples, the telling of stories around a campfire or at bedtime persists. Given the dark environment in which these stories were told, it's hardly surprising that darkness and the light that broke through it were a common feature in stories of creation.
In many stories, humans and other beings are made from clay. That's hardly surprising in light of many cultures' use of clay as medium to make both vessels and figurines. Creation from clay has often been cited as evidence of a primitive culture, at least by people from cultures with stories of creation ex nihilo (from nothing). Two stories from seemingly primitive cultures nonetheless have elements that accord well with modern science. The Jicarilla Apache story in which a human is made from a variety of mineral and organic materials is consonant with our modern view that the human body physically consists of many chemical substances, and that our intake of "minerals" is critical to our health. The Menominee story of change of animals into humans provides a striking parallel to the modern understanding of human evolution. One can only wonder what story might have been told if Menominee culture had developed in a region where other primates, as well as humans, lived.
The tremendous diversity of these stories in their materials, characters, and themes suggests they developed independently, rather than being derived from one primeval story told by the first human storytellers. The stories' promotion of their tellers' cultures and races, at the expense of others, likewise suggests independent development rather than common origin. By including what we would consider racism, sexism, violence, and exploitation of nature in their accounts of the origin of the world, storytellers may have inadvertently said much about human nature too.
Despite their diversity, the great commonality of all these stories is a desire to explain the world and its history. Humans today have the same desire, and they satisfy it with microscopes and telescopes, with satellites and seismographs, and with analysis of DNA. Explanations developed millennia ago could not draw on such sophisticated technologies and so seem quaint today, and they were overprinted by the social and political agendas of their tellers, but they reflect the same human desire to understand the world around us.