How Can One Sell the Air?

poll.jpgThis famous and very pertinent question was addressed by Chief Seattle to the Territorial Governor of Seattle, Washington, on January 10, 1854. Today, when the days of buying, selling and negotiating land boundaries are seemingly over, it may seem like a redundant question to ask, but the beauty of Chief Seattle’s words lies in their eternal value and significance.

“[The earth] is the mother of the red men…We are a part of the earth and it is a part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great condor, 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.”

While the future of the environment and, along with it that of millions of species hangs precariously in the balance, it may do us some good to reflect upon the Native Americans’ perceptive attitude towards the earth. They understood what decades of scientific research, mass media and years of education have failed to teach us – that human beings are not exempt from the circle of life. We are one with the earth and cannot survive either without it or by trampling upon it. What we do to the world, we do to ourselves. Therefore, when we harm the environment, through carelessness or ignorance or both, we harm ourselves. But Chief Seattle’s people did not treat their land well out of fear; they treated it well out of love, because they felt connected to their land. They were a part of it.

“The white man does not understand. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a wanderer who comes in the night and borrows from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has won the struggle, he moves on…He kidnaps the earth from his children. And he does not care…[the white man] treats his mother the earth and his brother the sky as things to be bought, plundered, and sold, like sheep, bread or bright beads. In this way, the dogs of appetite will devour the rich earth and leave only a desert.”

Chief Seattle could very well have been referring to our generation, for all his words describe our thoughts and actions so perfectly. Exploitation is the order of the day – a battle is waged with the earth to reap as much as possible from it and give back nothing in return.

“There is no place in the white man’s cities quiet enough to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring or the rustle of insects’ wings…one is always trying to outrun an avalanche. The clatter only seems to pierce the ears. But what is there to living if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the thrush or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night?”

“The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath – the beasts, the trees, and man, they are all of the same breath. The white man does not mind the foul air he breathes. Like a man in pain for many days, he is numb to the stench.”

Sound familiar? In the bustle of city life, we too have forgotten to take time out to appreciate the simpler, sweeter pleasures of life, the ones we don’t have to strive for, because they’re always there just waiting to be partaken of. The air is fetid and course, but we barely notice it when we breathe it in, because we are so used to it that we’ve forgotten anything better exists.

“For us, the beasts are our brothers. What is man without the beast? Even the earthworm keeps the earth soft for man to walk upon. If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness. For whatever happens to the beasts, happens to man, for we are all of one breath.”

Today, when so many species are sinking under the threat of extinction, perhaps it behoves us to better understand these words.

“Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves. This we know. The earth does not belong to the white man; the white man belongs to the earth. This we know…all things are connected…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.”

Chief Seattle reiterates this point again and again. The Native American tribes strongly believed in the unity of all things, which produced in them a respect and love for their environment and all species within it.

“My words are like the stars. They do not set.”

Indeed, over 150 years later, his words still hold true, not only for the white man, but for all races across the world. His message is immortal and may we never forget it again.

Aishwarya Jha


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