Chief Seattle vs. John Donne

Whew! It's been a wild week of Saintly Sixteen action, which concludes with today's battle between Chief Seattle and John Donne.

Yesterday, Jonathan Daniels swept past Josephine Bakhita 72% to 28% to advance to the Saintly Sixteen, where he'll face Florence Li Tim-Oi.

Enjoy (or rue) the weekend voting respite, and we'll be back to conclude the Saintly Sixteen first thing on Monday Morning as Martin de Porres faces Leoba. The Elate Eight looms...

But for now, go vote!

Chief Seattle

Most of the words that we have from Chief Sealth come from his famous 1854 speech (prior to signing the Port Madison Treaty) that was translated from his mother tongue into a trade language then into English and published by Henry A. Smith some 30 years later. Smith’s recollections of the speech are worth reading in full and are available here.

Chief Sealth was a man deeply acquainted with loss and grief, losing his first wife after the birth of their daughter and losing his son in a battle. The agony of these losses is felt in Sealth’s speech: “Revenge by young men is considered gain, even at the cost of their own lives, but old men who stay at home in times of war, and mothers who have sons to lose, know better.”

Sealth was forced to make less than ideal compromises for the health and wellbeing of his people. Sealth makes this clear when he says, “Big Chief at Washington sends us greetings of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him for we know he has little need of our friendship in return. His people are many. . . . My people are few.” Sealth thus felt forced to concede that “the Red Man no longer has rights that [the United States] need respect, and . . . we are no longer in need of an extensive country.”

Although he admitted that they may not have need for so much land, the connection of his people to the land (and the pain of its loss) is still underscored, “Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe.” The contrast he sets up against the White settlers invites critical self-reflection even today: “Your dead . . . wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.”

Years before the speech, Sealth built deep and lasting relationships with the White settlers and traders. In his work with Doc Maynard, Sealth envisioned a settlement where Native Americans and White settlers lived in a collaborative blended community. This desire to work together and help one another inspired Maynard to advocate that the new town established be named after Sealth (Sealth himself was not too keen on the idea). In 1853 the Town of Seattle was established. Sealth’s vision never came to fruition. Soon, influential White settlers began their work to keep their people separate from the Native American population.

Sadly, as history has shown, the final plea and warning in his speech was not heeded: “Let him [the White man] be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless.”

David Creech

John Donne

John Donne – priest, poet, playboy – and not always in that order, left a rich tome of words to express the messy holiness of humanity. His early poems, while not overtly religious, showed a sharp ability to observe and satirize the English society in which he lived, especially its surface sexual morality leaders embraced while ignoring deeper societal ills like poverty. He often used nature to speak of edgier topics (sex was a favorite). In The Sun Rising, Donne chides the sun for rising and disturbing he and his lover in their bed. Go and do something useful like wake others up from their blindness to the needs of the world around them, but let the lovers get back to their business.

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
            Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
            Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
            Late school boys and sour prentices,
        Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
        Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Donne eventually found a suitable job as a private secretary to one of the highest officials in the queen’s court, then unsuitably secretly married Ann More. Her father and John’s employer were totally opposed to the match. Donne got sacked and landed in jail, along with the priest who married them. Donne summed up the experience in one sentence: “John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone.”

As Donne began to deeply explore his faith, his poetry found new words, new questions, and new depths of mysticism. His friends began to urge him to consider holy orders. He resisted, noting that some in England considered him a pornographer and that, “some irregularities of my life have been so visible to some men.” Eventually, Donne was ordained and soon became known as a great preacher in an era of great preachers. Soon after his ordination to the priesthood, Donne wrote the Holy Sonnet with the opening lines, “Batter my heart,” which reads as Donne finally succumbing to God’s ravishment to call to ordination.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

During his 10-year tenure as Dean of St. Paul’s the Black Plague swept through London thrice (this is about Donne; I can use thrice). His beloved wife Ann died before he became Dean and 5 of his 12 children died in childhood. He had a painting done of himself in a death shroud before he died. Death was a familiar companion and theme of his writings, yet his words focus not on the hopelessness of death, but the embrace of God’s love that awaits us through the gates of death.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me....
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Donne’s life – all of it – preached. His sermons, his poetry, his satire, and his essays weave the fullness of human life together. Courageously he did not edit out the distasteful, racy parts, but allowed all the words he lived and wrote to be offered to the glory of God. Donne’s life was filled with love, loss, passion, mistakes, poverty, riches and redemption. No chapter was wasted or ignored by Donne or God.

— Laurie Brock



* indicates required

Recent Posts



68 comments on “Chief Seattle vs. John Donne”

  1. Chief Stealth reminds all of us that truth is truth and must be spoken, though justice frequently fails to come.

  2. I voted for Sealth, Chief Seattle... because we need more people willing to do what he did - he "built deep and lasting relationships with the White settlers and traders...and envisioned a collaborative blended community... Still, influential settlers began their work to keep their people separate from the Native American population".

    Reminding ourselves that we are united in Christ can be the only lasting way to prevent that sort of separationist influence from taking hold, and for this, Chief Seattle is setting a saintly example.

  3. I love and honour them both, and expect... hope almost, that Chief Sealth wins. But Donne has been a central poetic voice throughout my life; i can recite, most from memory, all the poems that Ms. Brock sites. So he gets my vote this morning because, to parody: "When thou hast Donne, thou art not done..."

  4. I also voted for Sealth. A very difficult choice as I greatly admire both men. We desperately need Sealth's pragmatic model of speaking truth to power.

  5. This is one of those matchups that encourages a conversation on what makes a saint a Saint and a presence on a liturgical Calendar. Chief Seattle is certainly worthy of remembrance and honor. I respect him, admire him, and learn from him. I don’t see anything in his write-ups that show how his Christian identity motivated him or strengthened him other than a baptism that has not been explored further. In what way would his witness inspire one to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior? With that, my vote is for John Donne.

    1. Alas, that's a matter of the writeup, not of the Chief. Sometimes, it helps to dig a little deeper for info.

      For example, in one online source, there's more detail about him, which demonstrates that it was after his baptism that he became a man of peace; before that, he participated in raids and other warfare with local tribal groups. Like others, he held slaves (probably from other native groups); however, he freed them after his baptism, something a lot of Christians in history did not do.

      Although accused by some of consorting with whites too much, he clearly worked to foster good relationships, even after white leaders enforced separations between whites and native peoples.

      "The death of one of his sons during [a raid against another indigenous group] appears to have affected him deeply, for not long after that, Seattle sought and received baptism into the Catholic Church, taking the prophet Noah as his spiritual intersessor.... He was probably baptised by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at their St. Joseph of Newmarket Mission, founded near the new American settlement of Olympia in 1848, and he appears as Noe Siattle in the Oblate Sacramental Register. His children were also baptized and raised in the faith, and his conversion marked the end of his fighting days and his emergence as a leader seeking cooperation with incoming American settlers." (From "Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph: From Indians to Icons" at -- note that "Indian" refers to how his image has changed over time. That said, some indigenous folks today have no problem with the use of the term "Indian" to describe them, something I was told firsthand and have also observed online. I can't speak for the author.)

      According to the above article, Chief Seattle didn't know how to write, so everything we know about him was noted by others. Since he's up against a mighty writer in this Lent Madness round, it's hard to compare Chief Sealth's biographical details and quotes with Donne's. We don't have his direct testimony.

      As for the inspiration to follow Jesus, there are certainly enough teachings in the gospels to suggest that Jesus himself wasn't interested as much in people calling on his name as in their witness-by-conduct. Jesus wasn't about his brand, but about the Father's brand: in his followers' heeding his preaching about spreading God's peace, love, and kindness. By that standard, Chief Sealth -- who repented of violence and became a peacemaker, for the sake of both whites and his own people, and despite how his people were being treated -- qualifies as a saint.

      1. Belle, thank you. Wonderful additional information. I was struggling, because I’ve loved Donne forever. I also love what Sealth did - and then to learn that a deep change came in facing the death of his son…. That clinched it for me, and I thank you.

      2. Wow. Thanks, Belle. During his first matchup I did try to look for more info (faith-wise) but was unable to find anything like this!

      3. Thanks for this. I'm glad to know Seattle identified as Christian but I think his vision was more wholistic than our dogma encourages. I voted for Seattle as a prophet because his speech (linked in the write up) reminds me of Isaiah. Isreal for the prophets was about land and its people in a way similar to Seattle's speech. The Holy One cares for all the earth and all its peoples.

      4. Well said. Thank you. As a Seattle native, born and bred and remaining in the area and as a high schooler going on an annual field trip to Chief Sealth’s grave site, he gets my vote.
        Tough choice. Donne is one of my favorites: “No Man is an Island…”

      5. Belle, thank you for the additional information. I had already voted for Chief Seattle but this information adds greatly to my knowledge of him.

      6. That is a wonderful write-up, Belle. Thank you! It might have changed my vote, too, if such were possible!

    2. That was my interpretation, also. Although Chief Seattle was brave and noble, I don’t see how he spread the word of God.

  6. I appears that John Donne will be “undone” by Chief Seattle, but I had to vote for the poet who started his poem CANONIZATION with the line…
    “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love.”
    And ended his sonnet BATTER MY HEART with the lines
    “Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
    Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
    Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

  7. My heart is with Chief Sealth, and he got my vote.

    (Ms. Brock: of course you can use the word "thrice." However, this: "...Donne chides the sun for rising and disturbing he and his lover in their bed" is incorrect. The sun disturbed HIM and his lover. If you remove "and his lover..." you get "...the sun disturbed him." For those reading along, that's a quick way to remember what form of pronoun to use. You wouldn't say, "The sun disturbed he." Adding someone else to the sentence doesn't change that usage.)

    1. For the mathematically inclined, think of it as "verbs and prepositions exhibit the distributive property over multiple pronouns."

      So, everything in the brackets -- "disturbing [him and his lover]" is affected by the operator that acts on the contents of those brackets.

      1. I don’t think of myself as “mathematically incline,” but I’ve always thought of grammar rules in terms of math. Also, the verb “to be” is like the equal sign—how to remember what case to use for pronouns there.

    2. Thank you, Belle. That is the way I explained it to my children. I find it depressing that this error has become so prevalent, especially in people who are supposedly well educated.

  8. Tough choice today, but this old poem/hymn is only one of the reasons I voted for Donne:

    Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
    Which was my sin, though it were done before?
    Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
    And do run still, though still I do deplore?
    When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
    For I have more.

    Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
    Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
    Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
    A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score?
    When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
    For I have more.

    I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
    My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
    But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
    Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
    And, having done that, thou hast done;
    I fear no more.

    1. A wonderful hymn, good theology, and delicious punning on Donne/done and [Ann] More!

    2. I quoted that hymn as part of my reason to vote for Donne in the first round. Much as I honor Chief Sealth's witness, Donne gets my vote again today, not only for his words, but for Laurie Brock's wonderful summation of his life: "Donne’s life was filled with love, loss, passion, mistakes, poverty, riches and redemption. No chapter was wasted or ignored by Donne or God." Reminds me of wise words of a friend, that in the economy of God, nothing, however mistaken or painful it may be, is wasted.

  9. Having been born in Seattle and with nieces that are 50% Native American, I must vote for Sealth, but hats off to Fr. Donne for mending his ways, but not denying his past.

  10. Another tough, almost impossible choice. I settled on John Donne, but I'm not sad that Chief Seattle is in the lead at this point. I love his description of death and the dead in his tradition. "The dead are not powerless." Correct, in many ways. If you have doubts, visit an old house or Galveston.

  11. I voted for Donne because of his poem that appears in The Hymnal 1982 as hymn 140, which is one of my favorites in the hymnal. It reads, in part:

    Wilt thou forgive that sin, by which I won
    others to sin, and made my sin their door?
    Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
    a year or two, but wallowed in a score?
    When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.

    I have a sin of fear that when I've spun
    my last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
    swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
    shall shine as he shines now and heretofore.
    And having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.

  12. I love Donne's poetry, his passionate living, his chroniclig of his spiritual journey in verse, his love of God, his honesty in looking at himself -- and must vote for him.

  13. Hi
    Just to share how sad I am that Jonathan will face Florence in the next round.
    I would have hoped their meeting would have been in the final - and a difficult choice it would be then, as it will be soon.
    But who said Lent Madness is ever easy!

  14. A good limerick is sprightly and fun;
    A great poet’s verse outshines the sun.
    We reverberate still
    To those words from his quill;
    So today I pray thy will be Donne.

    1. Up there with one of your best, John! I've been fascinated and moved by Donne's poetry since college. I am Donne voting 🙂

  15. Seattle's God is not a white God. He would not want to be a saint for us. But he is a saint for the land. He prophesies the end of the land for all people unless we heed his prophecy and repent. Mine is a vote of penitence.

    1. "A saint for the land". What a beautiful, meaningful term for someone who, though being baptized into Christianity, was still a part of his culture and heritage. I am reminded of the hymn
      "There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea.... The tune to #470 in the Hymnal 1982 is the tune to which I learned it back when I was about 9 years old in junior choir (which was a girl's choir back then.) The last verse begins "For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind."

  16. What?

    Much closer than I expected. I have Chief Seattle down for the Golden Halo. This may be my only pick still left in the correct bracket should he make it through.

    Both write-ups were very moving today.

    I chose the Chief because of the quiet greatness which resonates beyond the grave through written words and the feels I get about all of this.

  17. I like both, but to me Chief Seattle is more historical and Donne’s words more religious. I love the quote here. Donne gets my vote in Lent Madness and Seattle my sympathy in love of conservation/geology.

  18. Have to vote Donne. Done. I believe the “Chief Seattle Speech” as such didn’t exist until the 1970s. And then there are the bisons…

  19. Wow, how can you not go for John Donne... a man of the full specter of life, faith, vision... and a poetic mystic heart. It's all there.

  20. I didn't write this and it's possibly a copyright violation to paste it here.

    BUT I can't resist, for its depiction of Donne.


    by Mark Hiskes, in Sojourners, Sept/Oct 2012, p.39

    About love she was all wrong,
    the old capitalist, patron saint
    of the self-made rich. How well
    she misunderstood the paradox deep
    as mothers’ grief: that finding our self
    requires losing it, that love and loss
    make one truth, not two. Objective
    as granite in relationships, her hero
    never collapses into cancer with a wife,
    never drops into death with a brother.
    No, Howard Roark, fountainhead
    among architects, never really suffers
    because he never truly loves. He relates
    in a Randian arithmetic of negation:
    one self living for another self equals
    no self. Devoted to one ego alone, his
    will is rigid as the steel girders he
    sketches across the vast unknown. I
    turn another tedious page, count
    what’s left to read, then gaze
    out the window to worry
    what my wife’s biopsy will mean.
    Beside me since sunrise, our daughter Mary
    sets aside a limp issue of People,
    ruffles my hair, then pours me coffee,
    strong, steaming—just as John Donne
    in slippers hustles his IV pole
    down the corridor, his free hand clutching
    the breezy back of a worn hospital gown. He
    hurries to our chairs, bows to Mary
    with metaphysical flourish, then whispers
    through a painful grimace to me,
    “Look, son: for your wife’s sake
    lose that damned book!” Ducking
    behind a lush fern to avoid his nurse,
    the ailing Dean of Meditation 17
    grabs my sagging shoulders, leans
    in that long English face to declare,
    “Now listen, you: Ayn Rand’s all wrong.
    Got that? No man’s an island. Period.
    And you can take that to the bloody bank.”

  21. With deep affection for the L'Arche Community in Seattle, I must, of course, vote for Chief Sealth. Here's to Noah Sealth and Angeline Houses. xo

  22. I have always loved that speech of Chief Sealth (and am glad this year to learn his actual name) and the vision of diverse groups of people living together in peace and cooperation is so powerful. I had to vote for him. But Laurie Brock's write-up of John Donne was simply excellent. "The messy holiness of humanity" - wow. Great application of his poetry to the "quotes" round. But, sorry, Chief Sealth has my heart.

  23. I appreciated the link to the long version of Chief Seattle's speech.
    Some people seem to take offense at the idea that "these were not his exact words" -- but in those days, before recordings, people were trained to memorize and could often recall many details of speeches they once heard. If these were not Seattle's exact words (and of course they were a translation) they were the gist of it.
    There are several aspects that really move me about the speech. Seattle's grim assessment of the unequal power relations between the Natives and the colonizers.... but what moves me the most is the Native relationship of respect to the land, the appreciation of the history and beauty of the land, and the acknowledgment of what we Episcopalians call the "Great Cloud of Witnesses" that are always with us.
    Seattle points out that the Europeans don't mind leaving the graves of their ancestors behind. Bishop Stephen Charleston also described the horror felt by people on the Trail of Tears, forced to abandon their family remains. Seattle understood what we are now trying to recover, the necessity of caring for Creation not for material gain, but because Creation is perfect as it is, and more deeply, how human beings are an integral part of Creation.

    John Donne is a great poet, but Chief Seattle represents a whole way of life that was wrongfully destroyed, and many people who survive now and to whom we owe a great and terrible debt.

  24. Bravi, David and Laurie. Outstanding efforts for both figures today. I surprised myself and voted for Chief Sealth, as I was sure Donne's poetry would hold me fast. Sealth's comparison of the white settlers and the Indians on their relationship to the land decided me. Sealth said the usurpers' dead wandered off and were gone, that nouveaux Americans held life as of no value. Neither did they love the land. Acres to own. Rocks to mine, humans to dispossess. Whereas the indigenous dead never forget the land they loved and continue to love. I recognize the dangers in a strict dichotomy that "others" one side of any equation, and the temptations inherent in a romanticized view of culture and history. Nevertheless, as the Nazis were ramping up their war machine, Walter Benjamin warned that we must resist evil, because if we do not, not even the dead are safe. One way to resist is to remember: remember the Iraqi dead, remember lands sacred to the Indian tribes, say the names of black people killed during traffic stops and no-knock police raids. As ACT UP reminded us, Silence=Death. And as we "think globally and act locally," I hope for the restoration of Celilo Falls and its traditional fishing grounds.

  25. Once again I wish I could vote for both! But I called Seattle home for some 40 years and wish that Seattle's vision and hope could have been more of a reality. Perhaps it sill can be. So my vote goes to the chief.

  26. John Donne has had my heart since I was 17 and first read several of his poems in a high school English class. The Chief is a great man, but John gets my vote this morning.

  27. This one was a really hard choice for me. I voted for Donne, but I'm completely okay if Chief Seattle wins. Both have so much to recommend them.

  28. Moving as Chief Seattle's words of lament are, they do not speak of God. My vote goes to John Donne for his unruly life which came to a safe harbour in Christ, and for the beauty of his words which are filled, as his life was with 'with love, loss, passion, mistakes, poverty, riches and redemption.'

    1. "My vote goes to John Donne for his unruly life which came to a safe harbour in Christ, and for the beauty of his words which are filled, as his life was, 'with love, loss, passion, mistakes, poverty, riches and redemption.' "


  29. My first experience with John Donne's powerful words, unbeknownst to me at the time, was when I was very young and listening to Joan Baez's song based on Donne's "No man is an island" theme from one of his Meditations. The song made a deep impression on me and I never forgot the words and music. Here are some of the lyrics, which we should heed today and always. I voted for Donne.
    No man is an island.
    No man stands alone.
    Each man's joy is joy to me,
    Each man's grief is my own.
    We need one another
    So I will defend
    Each man as my brother,
    Each man as my friend.