We can thank the Indians for the fine bounty of Sitka spruce
The first recorded encounter between Europeans and native American Indians of the North Pacific coast was when Captain Vancouver made his famous voyage in 1790.
The navigational skills of the natives who helped them navigate the narrow channels around the coasts and islands of Alaska astonished Vancouver and his crew.
The ships' officers traded with them, swopping metal and trinkets for otter pelts, while gathering new plant specimens that were previously unknown.
What is of most interest to us is the fact that from this and subsequent voyages, Archibald Menzies, who accompanied Vancouver and later on David Douglas, brought home to Europe many wonderful species, including fast growing conifers that changed the face of European forestry forever.
Both Sitka spruce and Douglas fir originated on the north coastal region of Alaska and Sitka has proved the basis for virtually our entire forest industry here in Ireland.
Native Americans used it for many purposes, including medicines for aliments, food, and building materials. All parts were used, including buds, needles, pitch, bark, wood, and roots.
In modern times, the tree is harvested for its high quality wood and fibre. Sitka spruce timber is famous for its resonance and is often used as soundboards for guitars and other stringed instruments, including pianos.
The wood's high weight-to-strength ratio still makes it the material of choice for modern home-built aircraft. It appears we owe a great debt to those wise American Indians who recognised its properties and shared their knowledge with the explorers.
Chief Si'ahl had the city of Seattle, in the US state of Washington, named after him. In 1840, following the defeat and slaughter of many Indian tribes, he made a widely publicised speech supposedly arguing in favour of ecological responsibility and respect for Native Americans' land rights.
The speech was originally made in the Lushotseed language and then translated in to Chinook Jargon and finally in to English so one has to question the veracity of what he was quoted as saying.
A few examples of what was eventually published sound plausible but the text smacks too much of political expedience.
Did he really say: "I will not dwell on, nor mourn over, our untimely decay, nor reproach my paleface brothers with hastening it, as we too may have been somewhat to blame."
Can you imagine the Irish dispossessed saying something like that towards the end of the 1840s famine? Their plight was not unlike that of the American Indian and they too were portrayed at the time as ignorant savages because it justified their expulsion.
The chief then supposedly comments on the rotten deal the Indians had been offered of being locked up in reservations and abandoning the lands they formerly owned.
This sounds more like having been written by a spin doctor for the then US government than a leader fighting for the survival of his people.
"Day and night cannot dwell together. The Red Man has ever fled the approach of the White Man, as the morning mist flees before the morning sun. However, your proposition seems fair and I think that my people will accept it and will retire to the reservation you offer them. Then we will dwell apart in peace, for the words of the Great White Chief seem to be the words of nature speaking to my people out of dense darkness," Chief Si'ahl reputedly said.
It's tragic stuff to read but could be rewritten over and over again to illustrate the humiliation suffered by all colonised nations.
On a lighter note, I then found a more modern reference to an interview supposedly given relatively recently by someone called Chief Two Eagles to an American government official.
It goes as follows: "You have observed the white man for 90 years and seen his wars and technological advances. You have seen his progress and also the damage he has done," the chief nodded wisely and the official continued.
"Considering all these events, in your opinion, where did the white man go wrong?"
The chief stared at the official and then replied: "When white man find our land, Indians running it, there were no taxes, no debt, plenty buffalo, plenty beaver, clean water, plenty fish.
"Women did all the work. Medicine man was free. No need for health insurance. Indian man spend all day hunting and fishing and all night having sex."
Then the chief leaned back and smiled.
"Only the white man could be dumb enough to think he could improve on a system like that."
Now there is something for Dr James Reilly to ponder on.
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