"Colors of the Wind" and the letter from Chief Seattle that inspired it

Updated: Jun 1, 2020


Lush Waterfall

On my almost-daily three mile walk I was listening to ballads from movies. Colors of the Wind, a song from the Disney film Pocahontas, coursed through my pods. I played it a second time and realized the message was potent on so many fronts related to environment and climate justice. I wondered how it came to be written. There had to be some history worthy of note for such an anthem. There was.

It was composed in 1995 by Alan Menken (music) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) and received the Academy Award for best song. Initial ideas for the lyrics were inspired in part by words written to President Pierce in 1855 by Chief Seattle of the Suquamish and Duwamish peoples. The authenticity of the words is debated. They are presumed to have been derived from a speech given by the chief to the first governor of the Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens. Since that time at least 86 versions of that speech have been unearthed, including the one below that found its way into our history books. Regardless, the story of the letter, and the words it contains, is consistent with story telling tradition and the animistic reverence for nature of indigenous peoples throughout history.

 

The Letter that inspired Schwartz:


"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 buy them?


Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, 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 dew in the meadow, the body heat of the 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 glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is 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 the rivers the kindness that 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 that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to tast