Chief Seattle, “We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children” Quote or No Quote?

It’s probably a sin, Buzzkillers, to think of some historical figures as job security for me and for those who work at the Buzzkill Institute. But an avalanche of words and sentiments are mis-attributed to Chief Seattle, the 19th century Native American leader. His “words” appear on bumper stickers, yoga posters, and almost countless Twitter and Facebook accounts. Generally these are taken from highly disputed sources: an 1855 a letter to President Franklin Pierce; and a speech, possibly from the same year, after Seattle agreed to cede land to colonizing white settlers.

Seattle supposedly said to the colonizers, as a piece of wisdom about generational stewardship of land and nature, “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” We did an full episode on this “speech” a while ago, but the frequency with which Chief Seattle quotes appear led us to look more specifically into this one. And, you guessed it, Buzzkillers, the “we do not inherit the earth” quote or sentiment does not appear in either Chief Seattle’s “letter” or his “speech.”

But, like spiritual quotes that get attached to Gandhi, political quips and gibes that get attributed to Churchill, and thoughtful sentiments that drift toward Martin Luther King, “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children” got affixed to Chief Seattle, despite the fact that there’s no evidence he ever said it. The attribution happened during the environmental movement that started in the 1970s, but who first said it is unknown.

The phrase is undoubtedly wise, and it seems to be common wisdom, a distillation of more extensive, paragraph-length ideas, or both. In fact, the nearest that Buzzkill Institute researchers have been able to come to a originator of the quote is the noted American writer, poet, and cultural critic, Wendell Berry. In his 1971 book, Unforeseen Wilderness, Berry wrote that environmental stewardship has been lost by most modern people. It can, however, be recovered. He said,

We can learn about it from exceptional people of our own culture, and from other cultures less destructive than ours. I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children…

Berry is well-known in literary circles, and should probably be much better known in our wider culture. In fact, Buzzkill Institute historians argue that his name should appear on bumper stickers and posters that promote the sentiment usually attributed to Chief Seattle. I don’t hold out much hope for that, but maybe in our children’s day…


Buzzkill Bookshelf

Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge (1971).

Only someone who values land enough to farm a hillside for more than thirty years could write about a wild place so lovingly. Wendell Berry just as easily steps into Kentucky’s Red River Gorge and makes the observations of a poet as he does step away to view his subject with the keen, unflinching eye of an essayist. The inimitable voice of Wendell Berry—at once frank and lovely—is our guide as we explore this unique wilderness.