To honor Chief Seattle, care for the Earth and all its creatures

April 21, 2021

We are approaching an Earth Day like no other, as dangers posed by environmental emergencies have never been clearer. Opportunities to address these multiple crises have never been more available than they are today.

I am from Suquamish, dxwsəq’wəb, the Place of the Clear Salt Water — a place where, too often, sewage and oil spills from other parts of Puget Sound have washed up on our shores.

We have lived here for thousands of years, relying on salmon, shellfish and other traditional foods to support our way of life. Now our foods are scarce as climate change heats the water, spawning habitat is destroyed or made inaccessible to returning salmon, and toxins make shellfish unharvestable.

The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, signed by our ancestral leader Chief Seattle, established the Port Madison Indian Reservation (where we continue to reside today) and guaranteed our right to fish and hunt in our “usual and accustomed” areas. Despite the promises made in the treaties, federal land policies resulted in the loss of most of our lands. Our grandparents were forcibly taken as children to residential schools, where they were punished for practicing our culture and speaking our language. And pollution, habitat destruction, and overfishing diminished our traditional foods and assaulted our ways of life.

Chief Seattle showed in his famous speech that he understood we faced the possibility of an end to our peoples and ways of life — and that non-Natives could suffer a similar fate: “A few more moons, a few more winters, and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain. … Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come. … We may be brothers after all. We will see.”

The threats are real. Global warming is causing more frequent droughts, wildfires and storms that endanger the web of life. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the waters are becoming warmer and more acidic, threatening the ecological web that supports salmon, orca, and our ways of life as Native peoples. Rising sea level and coastal erosion force coastal tribes to relocate. As conditions in other regions worsen, we can expect more people to move here, creating more impacts from desperate climate refugees.

We, the seventh generation since Chief Seattle, survived great transitions thanks to the foresight and sacrifices of our ancestral leaders. Our resilience has lessons that others could learn from. Among them is the principle of making decisions based on caring for the Earth and its residents, including marine creatures, animals, plants and ourselves.

This principle is a direct challenge to the short-term thinking of today’s world.

Tribal canoe being carried by 20 Tribal citizens

About 20 canoes from Northwest Native coastal tribes landed in July 2019 at Alki Beach on one of several legs of the annual canoe journey that gathers other canoe families from host tribes as they travel to a final landing. (AP Photo / Elaine Thompson, File)

Acting on behalf of seven generations means we invest now in cleaning up Puget Sound and restoring salmon habitat, while protecting the endangered southern resident killer whales. It means rebuilding obsolete sewer infrastructure so spills don’t contaminate our waters and marine life, and it requires that we replace or remove culverts that block fertile salmon spawning streams. It means breaching the Lower Snake River dams that will otherwise condemn to extinction salmon species that have, since time immemorial, fought their way through thousands of miles of ocean and river systems to faithfully return to spawn.

And protecting seven generations means confronting the climate crisis, which threatens us all. This means a commitment to act in the fierce urgency of now, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said.

As the people living seven generations after Chief Seattle, let our generation make good use of the gifts we have inherited from our ancestors to assure future generations will also have the gift of life to pass along to their children.