A few years ago, in New Zealand I purchased a poster containing the complete text of the response by Chief Seattle to the President of United States to his offer to purchase land from his tribe, which I posted about yesterday. I had only read part of it before. It was one of the most eloquent statements I have ever heard about a genuine approach to nature that was, to some extent, the position of many North American indigenous people. It was radically different from the approach of the arriving Europeans.
I recognize that there is controversy over the extent to which this version or any other version accurately records what Chief Seattle said to the President, but I believe the general tenor of the letter records a profound philosophy which I am content to ascribe to Chief Seattle as I don’t know who better deserves the credit for it. I certainly think the thoughts deserve our attention.
The renowned English philosopher A. N. Whitehead once said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” I think the same things can be said about Chief Seattle. At least as far as environmental philosophy goes. And to think I learned absolutely nothing of it in 4 years of university studying philosophy, proving how deficient my education was at that time, nearly 50 years ago.
Chief Seattle was a Suquamish and Duwamish chief in what we now call western North America. The city of Seattle, in the U.S. state of Washington, was named after him.
As Chief Seattle said,
“We are part of the earth and it is part of us.
The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers.
The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man—all belong to the same family.”
Another way of saying is to say we are all kin. All people and all creatures of the natural world are kin. This basic premise has profound philosophical consequences. For if we recognize that we are all kin we ought to treat each other, and other creatures too, with respect. I will get to Darwin later, for he gave the scientific basis for this view. I cherish the idea that indigenous philosophy and western science are deeply interwoven. Realizing that also has profound consequences.
To many of the First Nations of North America, they saw themselves as a part of their world. Their philosophies vary from tribe to tribe, but a common thread, is the recognition that the Earth is our Mother and we are all together. We are all connected. We are all part of Mother Earth. Earth is not separate and apart from us. We are woven together. This is profound fellow feeling. This philosophy recognizes that what we do to nature we do to ourselves. That is what I call affinity.
This idea also has profound significance in the history of religious thought. The Indo-European word “religio” , which is the root of the word religion, means “linkage” or “connection” and is in my view the basis of all major religions. In fact, it is the core of all religions. More on this later.
I never learned any indigenous philosophy while I pursued a 4 year Honours Arts program in philosophy and English literature. I never even heard of indigenous philosophy. I did not even think such a thing was possible.
This philosophy echoes or even sums up much of what I have learned over the years, starting with German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of being-in-the-world. Only Chief Seattle was much more clear and easier to understand, without being any less profound than Martin Heidegger. The natives of North America often felt a deep connection to the land. They felt that they were a part of it. To the Europeans on the other hand, nature was a resource ready to be exploited. And from these two disparate attitudes springs much that is wrong with western society.
This is an old attitude to nature, which I am proposing as a new attitude to nature. It owuld be a worthy replacement for the old western attitude,.
Chief Seattle’s statement is a stunning statement about humans and nature, and all the more amazing because a “savage” (as he was wrongly called made it in 1854. Who was the savage?