Alanis Obomsawin? Prophecy of the Cree Indians? Osage saying? Sakokwenonkwas? Greenpeace? Anonymous? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I recently came across the following stirring proverb on the internet:
When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.
After performing multiple searches for the phrase I finally found it listed in The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2009) which simply stated that it was a “Native American saying”. The earliest example given in the reference was dated 1983 and appeared in the book “America Born and Reborn” by H. Wasserman, who labeled it an “Osage saying”. I was hoping that these provocative words of wisdom were older. Could you try to trace this saying further back in time?
Quote Investigator: The activist environmental group Greenpeace currently has the following text on their website about a banner the organization once constructed [GPLF]:
As one of the longest banners we’ve ever made summed things up, “When the last tree is cut, the last river poisoned, and the last fish dead, we will discover that we can’t eat money…”
Greenpeace helped to popularize this expression in the 1980s, but the earliest instance located by QI was in a collection of essays published in 1972 titled “Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?”
A chapter called “Conversations with North American Indians” contained comments made by Alanis Obomsawin who was described as “an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, seventy odd miles northeast of Montreal.” (The book uses the spelling Obomosawin.) Obomsawin employed a version of the saying while speaking with the chapter author Ted Poole. [AOTP]:
Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.
In later years Obomsawin became famous as an award-winning documentary filmmaker based in Canada.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1894 the importance of conserving natural resources was recognized and expressed in a report by the State Fish and Game Commissioner of North Dakota. The report cautioned that short-term thinking and narrow monetary motivations might lead to the destruction of the “last tree” and the “last fish”. The following passage shows thematic similarities to the quotation under investigation [LFND]:
Present needs and present gains was the rule of action—which seems to be a sort of transmitted quality which we in our now enlightened time have not wholly outgrown, for even now a few men can be found who seem willing to destroy the last tree, the last fish and the last game bird and animal, and leave nothing for posterity, if thereby some money can be made.
In 1972 the remarks of Alanis Obomsawin were published in the volume “Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?” The details were listed previously in this article [AOTP].
In November 1972 a version of the saying was used by another Native American who presented a talk at Harvard University as reported in the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson [PSHC]:
Thomas Parker, whose Indian name is Sakokwenonkwas, was the main speaker of the program. He said that he and the other Mohawks were from the Akwesasne reservation on the New York-Canada border. …
“Someday President Nixon and the other world leaders are going to find out that once they catch the last fish, once they cut down the last tree, they won’t be able to eat all the money they have in the banks,” he added. [Footnote A]
It is not clear to QI whether the expression was crafted by Obomsawin, Sakokwenonkwas, or a third person. The lead time for publication of a book can be long, so Obomsawin probably used the words before Sakokwenonkwas spoke at Harvard.
In 1981 two Greenpeace members climbed a smelter smokestack that was more than 500-feet tall according to an Associated Press report. Their goal was “to protest emissions of arsenic and sulfur dioxide,” and they unfurled an enormous 80-by-20-foot sign. The expression displayed on the smokestack was not ascribed to anyone in particular [GPLF]:
The banner read: “After the last tree is cut, the last river poisoned, the last fish dead, you will discover you cannot eat money.”
In 1983 an advertisement for the Greenpeace organization that was printed in the Sydney Morning Herald employed a version of the saying. The words were used without attribution in a section titled “Why do we bother?” [GPSH]:
Greenpeace believes that after the last tree is cut, the last river poisoned and the last fish dead, you will find you can’t eat your money. In that interest, we strive to bring public and legal pressure against those who pollute the environment, deplete our resources and threaten rare species for private profit.
As noted by the questioner a version of the expression appeared in the valuable reference work “The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs” which provided citations beginning in 1983 [OXLF] [OXDP].
In 1995 a letter written to the New York Times employed the saying and attributed it to the “Cree Indians” [NYCI]:
To the Editor:
“A Modest Step to Save the Fish” (editorial, Aug. 8) brings to mind a prophecy of the Cree Indians: “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.”
In conclusion, QI would tentatively credit by Alanis Obomsawin with the saying. Also, the characterization “Native American saying” seems accurate in the sense that the two earliest known users of the statement were Native Americans. Yet, the phrase seems to have been crafted in relatively modern times, and thus does not have the deep historical resonance provided by age. Perhaps someone could ask Obomsawin about the expression.
(Many thanks to Kyle whose query inspired the formulation of this question and motivated this exploration. Kyle located the proverb listing within the “The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs”.)
[GPLF] Greenpeace, Banner message: “When the last tree is cut”, Mentioned on “About” webpage in English. (Accessed greenpeace.org 2011 October 19) link
[AOTP] 1972, Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?: A Collection of Essays edited by Ralph Osborne, “Conversations with North American Indians” by Ted Poole, Start Page 39, Quote Page 43, Neewin Publishing Company, Toronto. (Verified on paper)
[LFND] 1894, Public Documents of the State of North Dakota: Fiscal Period Ending June 30, 1894: Volume 2, Public Document Number 18: Section: “Biennial Report of the State Fish and Game Commissioner to the Governor of North Dakota from March 17, 1893 to December 1, 1894″, Quote Page 343, North Dakota State Printers and Binders, Jamestown, North Dakota. (Google Books full view) link
[PSHC] 1972 November 17, The Harvard Crimson, [Harvard University student newspaper], “Indians Say Heritage Ignored, Criticize White Man’s Attitude”, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Accessed thecrimson.com on 2011 October 19) link
[Footnote A] The word “out” appears on the Harvard Crimson website instead of the word “cut” in the quoted passage. QI believes that “out” is an OCR (optical character recognition) error and has replaced “out” with “cut”. If you plan to use this quotation please include this note or visit the Crimson website and use the original text.
[GPLF] 1981 October 16, Tri City Herald, Smoke Protesters Quit Smelter Stack, [Associated Press], Page 16, Column 1, [GNA Page 9], Kennewick, Washington. (Google News Archive)
[GPSH] 1983 March 18, Sydney Morning Herald, [Advertisement for Greenpeace] I’m still not safe, Page 11, Column 5, Sydney, Australia. (Google News Archive)
[OXLF] 2009, The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Edited by Jennifer Speake, Entry: When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, etc., Oxford University Press. (Accessed via Oxford Reference Online on 2011 October 20)
[OXDP] 2009, The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Edited by Jennifer Speake, Previously co-edited with John Simpson, Fifth Edition, Keyword: LAST, Entry: “When the LAST tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money”, Page 177, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom. (Amazon Look Inside; Accessed July 17, 2012)
[NYCI] 1995 August 17, New York Times, Letter to the Editor: The Last Tree by Janet Townsend of Pleasantville, N.Y., New York. (Online archive of New York Times at nytimes.com; Accessed 2011 October 19) link