In the fading light, the convoy of four wheel drive vehicles stopped under the canopy of a massive riverine tree. We parked at a place called Pel’s Pools, where the dirt road ended on a bluff overlooking the Limpopo River as it snakes its way through the landscape, defining the border between South Africa and Botswana. A large male kudu ran up a rocky cliff to our right. We all got out of the vehicles, and followed the path blazed by the kudu.
Fifteen minutes later, our group–consisting of three seasoned guides, twenty young students from a university in the UK, their two professors, and me–the odd man out, a 50-year-old man from the US–reached the top of the outcrop.
“Find a rock,” Johann told us, “away from everyone else. We’re just going to sit here for about 20 minutes and watch the sun set. It’s also a time for you to reflect on what you’ve experienced here over the last two weeks.”
By “two weeks,” Johann was referring to the time the students had already spent in the Tuli Wilderness of Botswana. While their adventure was coming to an end, mine was just beginning; while they were reflective, I was brimming with anticipation for what would unfold over the next two weeks.
We sat high on a cliff above the Limpopo, a hundred yards or so from the border between South Africa and Botswana, as rock hyrax scampered among the boulders and birds of prey circled overhead. A crocodile slithered slowly off the muddy banks into the water, and in the distance, a troop of baboons barked at each other.
As the sun set over the Limpopo, a few momentary signs of orange and red quickly turned to dull, muted pinks, and then it all was gone behind a low wall of clouds. Our time of reflection over, Johann called us back over to the center of the rocky plateau.
“I have something I want to read to you, to put in context everything you have experienced here over the last two weeks,” he said.
Johann took a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. “This is a speech that Chief Seattle gave in 1854,” he said. “And it’s even more relevant today.”
Hey, I know this speech! I thought to myself. This is that speech I used to have hanging on my office wall for so many years! And then Johann started reading.
“How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of 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?”
Wait…this is that fake speech…
“Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.
“The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, 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.”
Oh my god! Who does this guy think he is? Does he know he’s lying to all of these people? Or is he completely clueless?
“So, when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us. The Great Chief sends word he will reserve us a place so that we can live comfortably to ourselves. He will be our father and we will be his children.
“So, we will consider your offer to buy our land. But it will not be easy. For this land is sacred to us. This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you the land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water 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.”
I can’t believe this! I should really say something…
In fact, this was no speech at all; it was a script for a low-budget environmental documentary film called “Home” that was aired on national television in the United States back in 1971. The script had been written by Ted Perry, an East Coast scriptwriter who composed the new version and referred to Chief Seattle. Somehow this script had been propagated through the rumor and folklore channels for many years, passed off as an authentic piece of Native American history.
“The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes, and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.
“We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s grave behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care. His father’s grave, and his children’s birthright are forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.”
I turned away and started giggling to myself, hiding my face, not wanting to make a scene, but bemused and slightly disgusted by what I was seeing and hearing: a fake Hollywood speech was being used as a motivational tool. But then I noticed something: everyone was glued to their seats–er, rocks–listening to Johann. And from the reaction he was getting, this speech by “Chief Seattle” was striking a chord with every last one of them.
“I do not know. Our ways are different than your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring or the rustle of the insect’s wings. The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around the pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand. The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of a pond and the smell of the wind itself, cleaned by a midday rain, or scented with pinon pine.
“The air is precious to the red man for all things share the same breath, the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days he is numb to the stench. But if we sell you our land, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”
“The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred as a place where even the white man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow’s flowers.
“You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children that we have taught our children that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.”
People were deeply moved. Some were wiping tears from their eyes. Others had that look on their face–that look like everything was different now. The story Johann was reading may have been fake, but the emotions it was eliciting were not.
“This we know; the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. All things are connected. We maybe brothers after all. We shall see. 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. He is the God of man, and His compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.
“But in your perishing you will shine brightly fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land and for some special purpose gave you dominion over this land and over the red man.
“That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires.
“Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone.
“The end of living and the beginning of survival. “
“Sorry that the sunset was kind of a bust tonight,” Johann said. “But even in Africa, not every sunset can be spectacular.”
But what Johann didn’t understand was that it was indeed still a spectacular night. The sunset may have fizzled before it ever really got started, and the motivational speech may have been concocted by a scriptwriter for a two-bit movie, but what really mattered was that we were there, in that moment, and we were feeling it–all of us, even the cynical, skeptical 50-year-old outsider amongst the group of naïve and idealistic young college students.
Over the next two weeks, I would see many amazing sunsets and hear many profound statements. And that evening overlooking the Limpopo River at Pel’s Pools set the stage for one of the most spectacular, amazing, and memorable times of my life.