By Kirthi Jayakumar
It was January 1999. Seventeen years ago. I walked into my classroom for Class 7, at school. I was in a new year, now. Of all the books we had that year as part of our coursework, the one that I enjoyed most was a compilation of short stories for our English lessons, called “One World”. Over the winter break before school began, I devoured every story in the book, and committed it to memory, in the hope that I would someday act on the messages in them.
One of those stories remains with me even today: ‘Chief Seattle’s Letter’. The letter was written by Chief Seattle, the Chief of the Squamish Indians in the land that we now call the United States of America. The government of the USA in the 1800s wanted to purchase the Salish lands, and in response to the government’s attempt, Chief Seattle wrote this letter. (For those that may be interested, please scroll to the bottom of this post for the letter). It was the first piece in the book, and all I remember thinking was how much truth there was in what he had written, and how much relevance everything he said in the letter continues to have, in contemporary times. In short, he speaks about how we, as humanity, are common inheritors of the earth’s offerings – and that one does not claim ownership over anything, as the earth doesn’t belong to man, it is man who belongs to the earth.
Seventeen years after I read that story, I sat in a digital classroom along with Ziauddin Iqbal, my student from Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. In our weekly exchanges, Zia and I spent time sharing and learning from each other. One of the most beautiful and most meaningful moments in our exchange that stays with me all the time, is a conversation we had about war. Zia spoke of something very powerful and moving. He told me that we tend towards war only because our minds are bent in that direction. As humans, we have plenty to offer back to the world, but we are predisposed to taking, demanding and expecting, while we seldom give back, or do anything for the world around us. Zia then shared that we don’t have a limitation on the basis of war – from politics to religion, to assumed hatred and assumed ideologies, everything has come to be known as a basis of war.
Zia’s words made me think of how we really are war-like in our thought processes. Our communication is laced with violence. We use words and convey emotions that suggest a predisposition towards violence. The root of this is essentially in the belief that we think we own anything and everything around us. If we spend a moment just reflecting on our relationship with the world around us, we will easily be able to find the number of times we make ourselves the centre of the world. I did this. I said that. I want this. I need that. I must. I should. I have. I deserve. I demand. I expect. I. I. I.
It is when these multiple Is cross each other’s paths, that there is conflict. Add to the mix generous dollops of assumptions, demonization, warped ideas of history and borrowed hatred. The end result? War.
Zia’s exposition of this age old truth set me back by seventeen years. I was an idealistic eleven-year-old, and continue to be idealistic, even at twenty-eight. It’s really all in the mind: war, disease, assumption. If only we spend a moment each day to dust these cobwebs away…
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 sell them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, 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 juices in the meadow, the body heat of a pony, and man, all belong to the same family.
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 ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The waters murmur in 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 to the river the kindness 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 it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you 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 of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
One thing we know: Our God is 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 by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
When the last red man has vanished with his 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 all.
As we are a 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.”