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



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68 comments on “Chief Seattle vs. John Donne”

  1. Much as I like Donne's poetry, I had to go with Chief Seattle.

    Even though earlier folks have pointed out that perhaps his speech might not have been his, or even said by him, the fact is that we white folk have not always treated other cultures with dignity.
    Perhaps this vote will help.

  2. Well, the poet in me outvoted the prophet/rabblerouser and went with John Donne, who I did not think would be done today. But I'm not unhappy with Sealth moving forward. Both men had full lives of wildness, love, and sorrow. Both grew to be passionate truth-tellers. Had Seattle been provided the opportunity to learn to read and write, perhaps he'd have been a poet as well. And had Donne been a member of a group experiencing oppression, perhaps he would have also become a justice advocate and a truth-teller in the public arena. Two men of God today.

  3. Another tough choice for me. I wanted to vote for both of them but it came down to the power of his Holy Sonnets (particularly 'Batter My heart, Three-person'd God') and the fact that since my early teens he has been for me the proof that the love of God can change our lives, so I voted for John Donne.

  4. Chief Sealth has such deep spiritual wisdom. Thank you including the link to the full account of his speech - well worth reading indeed.

  5. I used to live close to Chief Sealth's grave. I've been smudged with an eagle feather handed down by Sealth. But in honor of my profession, I am voting for John Donne.

    Google 2 words, ‘no man’ and you will immediately find reference to a sermon by Donne. Google 2 more words, ‘for whom’ and you will immediately be directed to the very next sentence in the same sermon. How can a preacher not be awed?!

  6. Always a lover of nature, the words attributed to Chief Sealth spoke to me when I first read them as a high school student. His deep connection to the earth and his desire for harmonious community is inspiring. But it's hard to see that his words or his actions came out of a faith in Christ. On the other hand, I find the story and the words of John Donne to be infused with Donne's deep and passionate awareness of the grace of Christ in his life. And through his sermons and his poems he moved people in his own time and ours to accept God's unconditional grace.

  7. Again, the pairings are unfortunate. This year I worked backward, playing out my end game as I determined which of these saints to consider for the Golden Halo. My musical, literary and spiritual criteria influenced these considerations. The lives of J.S. Bach and John Donne affected me deeply in these areas.
    If I were to vote strategically, I would expect the majority of votes to go with an Indigenous American for whom a great city was named. I lived for many years in Seattle and have great respect for the Chief whose ultimate role as a peacemaker was tarnished by the bad faith of the settlers.
    I imagine the substance of his 1854 speech was interpreted 30 years later fairly accurately. It is a tragic recognition of the fate of the first nations but hardly spoken from a Christian perspective. Its language is not close to the variant of Coast Salish that Sealth spoke or the Chinook Jargon in which it was relayed. Its translation to written English is probably closer to that of John Donne than to the Indigenous and trade languages of the day.
    I respect and admire this icon of the first peoples and recognize that his baptism may have played a part in his late peaceable restraint. However, I cannot ignore the place in church and literary history of the greatest English poet of the seventeenth century.

  8. Donne has been my most favorite poet since high school and has been an inspiration in my religious life for nearly as long. I was delighted to see him in the lineup of saints for Lent Madness this year and have enthusiastically supported him but it looks like he is struggling today. If this is the last we see of him this year, I hope we will get a chance to see him come forward again. Meanwhile, I would highly recommend that my fellow Donne fans read the new biography by Katherine Rundell, "Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne". Here is an interesting quote from the first chapter, introducing John Donne, "Donne loved the trans- prefix: it's scattered everywhere across his writing -- 'transpose', 'translate', 'transport', 'transubstantiate'. In this Latin preposition -- 'across, to the other side of, over, beyond' -- he saw both the choas and the potential of us. We are, he believed, creatures born trans-formable." In this time of Lent, my prayers often are for my own transformation and I find Donne a good guide. He knew the changes of the human heart and mind and body and wrote about all those transformations with a skill that no poet since has expressed so well.

  9. As an English major in college, I had to study Donne. I was also in a struggle with God and if indeed he existed. It was a very low point in my life - not even sure then that I existed! Donne's poetry was responsible for turning my life back to God. It took a long time after that year. But Donne's poetry followed me - tugging me in the right direction. How can I not cast my vote for him?

  10. I’ve been to Seattle & it’s a lovely city with a skyline of the Space Needle & Mount Rainier.
    If I had to live anywhere but NC, I guess I’d go there especially if I had to visit my son & family
    if they move there. Chief Sealth & his people weren’t treated fairly, but the city is a tribute to them. Besides, I didn’t vote for Donne in the first round.

  11. Chief Si'ahl (how the Duwamish spells his name in English) is also the first "signature" (actually his mark, "X") on the Point Elliot Treaty, which governs the Snohomish land I live upon. If only the US government had kept all their promises made to the original residents in that treaty!

    Here is a link to a picture I took of the Point Elliot Treaty on display at the Hibulb Cultural Center of the Tulalip Tribes. I hope the link works:

    (I did not use flash when I took that picture.)

    Here is a link to the Duwamish website, who is trying to regain recognition:

  12. I am so torn between John Donne and Chief Seattle, that I almost chose "abstention". But that doesn't "say" anything to sway someone toward action. And both Chief Seattle and John Donne inspired me to action, Chief Seattle to environmental activism and John Donne to become a teacher! I'm not telling for which Saint I voted. You must choose and commit!

  13. I enjoy reading the daily comments because it stimulates and broaden my thoughts. Today's broadening has led me to the current debate about reparations payed to native populations or former slaves. I feel that Chief Seattle would instruct us that the act would not be one of loss or sacrifice; it would be surely about what would be gained by such an act- spiritual wholeness and harmony.

  14. I thought this was a difficult one, too! I can relate to John Donne's understanding of God's place in his life - wow, and thanks, Laurie Brock! but my heart went with Chief Seattle today.

  15. Wouldest someone at Forward Movement restoreth the error in thy code that casueth invisibility of thy voting button in Safari for iOS?

    I pray that the Very Rev. Mr. Donne is not yet done, but at present it doth not looketh good for his chances . . . .

    Thanks be to God, I can still vote in Chrome on my MacBook.

  16. Few can understand the deep, abiding love of native land inhabited before recorded history. St. Chief Seattle did. Few can understand the discovery that life lived passionately is a sacred romance with God. St.John Donne did. These "apples and oranges" saints tasted sweetness in their lives which very few get to experience. Their sufferings were in their urgent efforts to share what they understood.

  17. Once again, if I were going just on the writeups, I'd go for Donne (you had me at 'thrice'). Honestly, I wasn't sure who I wanted to vote for after reading the post, but I went down through the comments, and leaned ever so slightly to Sealth. I won't cry if Donne wins though. Both very worthy people.

  18. This is the hardest choice so far! Both are richly deserved of the Golden Halo, but my English major heart went with Donne.