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The Power of Words

As you may know, I am Native American and White. My Native ancestry comes from my mom's side and was affected by the policies of assimilation and termination. As a result, I only learned my first Anishinaabeg word last spring when I went morel mushroom hunting with my mom for the first time.

My sisters taught us to say miigwech gashi aki—thank you, Mother Earth—each time we picked a mushroom. At first, we needed a lot of reminders about how to pronounce the words. But as we found more and more mushrooms, sometimes whole handfuls growing together, the words emanated from our hearts and cascaded out over our lips in a rush as we gratefully plucked the morels from the forest floor.

When US settlers tried to conquer the Indigenous cultures in America, they sent Native American children to Indian boarding schools and prevented them from learning their Indigenous languages. By requiring them to learn English, they weren't just replacing one word with another. They were replacing one idea with another.

Simply put, language is one of the most powerful tools we have to transfer knowledge from person to person, from generation to generation. If we create words that categorize gender and our vocabulary divides the world into masculine and feminine, we are also reflecting a belief that gender is a critical distinction through which to see the world.

So when I learned recently that many Indigenous languages don't separate the world based upon gender, but rather by animacy, it felt like a part of me deep in my soul was coming home.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks about the inherent differences between Potawatomi and English. “European languages often assign gender to nouns, but Potawatomi does not divide the world into masculine and feminine. Nouns and verbs both are animate and inanimate. . . . Pronouns, articles, plurals, demonstratives, verbs—all those syntactical bits . . . are all aligned in Potawatomi to provide different ways to speak of the living world and the lifeless one. Different verb forms, different plurals, different everything apply depending on whether what you are speaking of is alive.”

Not only does Potawatomi shift the critical focus to whether something is alive, but the language again conveys deeper ideas about the values and culture that are important to the speakers. For example, the majority of things spoken about are seen as being alive, having their own life spirit in a way that isn't reflected in English.

“English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent.”

What a different world we create when we choose a language that honors the living spirit inside everything—every tree, every body of water, even every day of the week—rather than a language that doesn't have the syntax to even recognize the life spirit within anything other than humans.

“The language reminds us, in every sentence, of our kinship with all of the animate world. English doesn’t give us many tools for incorporating respect for animacy. In English, you are either a human or a thing. Our grammar boxes us in by the choice of reducing a nonhuman being to an it, or it must be gendered, inappropriately, as a he or a she. Where are our words for the simple existence of another living being? Where is our yawe?”

Imagine the different values we could have adopted if Indigenous languages had flourished throughout the last two centuries. How differently might we have seen the interconnectedness of our ecosystem and our own value in it as humans?

Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the shift in thinking she experienced as she began to learn the animacy of Potawatomi. “. . . wiikwegamaa: ‘to be a bay.’ . . . In that moment I could smell the water of the bay, watch it rock against the shore and hear it sift onto the sand. A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa—to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. ‘To be a bay’ holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive.”

So I join my Tribe's weekly language class and slowly begin to expand my vocabulary. And always, always I say miigwech to the ancestors who took our language, customs, and way of life underground, keeping them secret ". . . until the day they could be rekindled. And that day is now.”

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