Chief of the Suquamish (ca. 1786–1866)
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Growing up in a Suquamish village along the Puget Sound, Seattle witnessed the arrival of the first white settlers in the Northwest. By the time he became chief of his tribe, the early forays of trappers had given way to a steady stream of settlers. It fell to Seattle to devise a strategy for dealing with these invaders. Rejecting violence, Seattle put his trust in peaceful dialogue. But as the intentions of the new settlers became clear, his goal focused simply on the survival of his people. 

In 1830 Seattle converted to Christianity. He tried to integrate his faith with the beliefs of his ancestors. But with each year his traditional world grew smaller. He believed the struggle with the white people represented the contrast between conflicting spiritual values. The new settlers considered the land a commodity to be bought and sold. But as Seattle observed, “Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. . . . We are part of the earth and it is part of us.” 

In 1855 Seattle signed a treaty that transferred the Indian lands to the federal government in exchange for a reservation in the Northwest. The alternative, he believed, was the extinction of his people. In a letter addressed to President Pierce he wrote, “One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover—our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot.” 

Chief Seattle died on June 7, 1866, on the Port Madison Reservation near the city that today bears his name. 

“Humankind did not weave the web of life. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves.” 

—Chief Seattle 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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