–by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Jan Feb 01 2018)
Writing as an indigenous plant woman I might say, “My plant relatives have shared healing knowledge with me and given me a root medicine.” Instead of ignoring our mutual relationship, I celebrate it. Yet English grammar demands that I refer to my esteemed healer as it, not as a respected teacher, as all plants are understood to be in Potawatomi. That has always made me uncomfortable. I want a word for beingness. Can we unlearn the language of objectification and throw off colonized thought? Can we make a new world with new words?
Inspired by the grammar of animacy in Potawatomi that feels so right and true, I’ve been searching for a new expression that could be slipped into the English language in place of it when we are speaking of living beings. Mumbling to myself through the woods and fields, I’ve tried many different words, hoping that one would sound right to my leafy or feathered companions. There was one that kept rising through my musings. So I sought the counsel of my elder and language guide, Stewart King, and explained my purpose in seeking a word to instill animacy in English grammar, to heal disrespect. He rightly cautioned that “our language holds no responsibility to heal the society that sought to exterminate it.” With deep respect for his response, I thought also of how the teachings of our traditional wisdom might one day be needed as medicine for a broken world. So I asked him if there was a word in our language that captured the simple but miraculous state of just being. And of course there is. “Aakibmaadiziiwin,” he said, “means ‘a being of the earth.'” I sighed with relief and gratitude for the existence of that word. However, those beautiful syllables would not slide easily into English to take the place of the pronoun it. But I wondered about that first sound, the one that came to me as I walked over the land. With full recognition and celebration of its Potawatomi roots, might we hear a new pronoun at the beginning of the word, from the “aaki” part that means land? Ki to signify a being of the living earth. Not he or she, but ki. So that when the robin warbles on a summer morning, we can say, “Ki is singing up the sun.” Ki runs through the branches on squirrel feet, ki howls at the moon, ki’s branches sway in the pine-scented breeze, all alive in our language as in our world. […]
The ecological compassion that resides in our indigenous languages is dangerous once again to the enterprise of domination, as political and economic forces are arrayed against the natural world and extractive colonialism is reborn under the gospel of prosperity. The contrast in worldview is as stark today as it was in my grandfather’s time, and once again it is land and native peoples who are made to pay the price.
If you think this is only an arcane linguistic matter, just look to the North Dakota prairie where, as I write this, there are hundreds of people camping out in a blizzard enduring bitter cold to continue the protective vigil for their river, which is threatened by the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the pipeline’s inevitable oil spills. The river is not an it for them—the river lies within their circle of moral responsibility and compassion and so they protect ki fiercely, as if the river were their relative, because ki is. But the ones they are protecting ki from speak of the river and the oil and the pipe all with the same term, as if “it” were their property, as if “it” were nothing more than resources for them to use. As if it were dead.
At Standing Rock, between the ones armed with water cannons and the ones armed with prayer, exist two different languages for the world, and that is where the battle lines are being drawn. Do we treat the earth as if ki is our relative—as if the earth were animated by being—with reciprocity and reverence, or as stuff that we may treat with or without respect, as we choose? The language and worldview of the colonizer are once again in a showdown with the indigenous worldview. Knowing this, the water protectors at Standing Rock were joined by thousands of non-native allies, who also speak with the voice of resistance, who speak for the living world, for the grammar of animacy.
Thankfully, human history is marked by an ever-expanding recognition of personhood, from the time when aboriginals were not seen as human, when slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, and when a woman was worth less than a man. Language, personhood, and politics have always been linked to human rights. Will we have the wisdom to expand the circle yet again? Naming is the beginning of justice. […]
Some of the students have read the chapter in my book Braiding Sweetgrass that invokes the grammar of animacy. They are taken aback by the implicit assumption of the hierarchy of being on which English grammar is built, something they had not considered before. They dive headfirst into the philosophical implications of English-language pronouns.
One student, Carson, writes in his essay that it is a numbing word: “It numbs us to the consequences of what we do and allows us to take advantage of nature, to harm it even, free of guilt, because we declare other beings to be less than ourselves, just things.” He echoes the words of Wendell Berry who writes, “People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”
While it’s true that words are simply vessels for meaning, without meaning of their own, many cultures imbue the utterance of words with spirit because they originate with the breath, with the mystery of life itself. In her book Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett writes, “The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.” […]
The relationship between the structure of a language and the behavior characteristic of a culture, is not a causal one, but many linguists and psychologists agree that language reveals unconscious cultural assumptions and exerts some influence over patterns of thought.