By Sonja Swift, Co-director of the Windrose Fund, trustee for Swift Foundation and board member of International Funders for Indigenous Peoples, Community Agroecology Network and Oakland Institute.
When my Danish grandfather knew it was his time to walk on, he called his family together to make their goodbyes. I wasn’t able to travel to Denmark at the time, but I had a dream of him, of kneeling beside his old arm chair and holding his knobby, calloused farmers hand in mine. We spoke. In Danish. And a few days later he died.
My Danish grandparents didn’t speak English; I hardly spoke Danish, my mother tongue that I later forgot. Eventually, after spending a long winter in København and taking Danish classes, I learned enough to get by. The teacher didn’t quite know what to do with me though. I had fine pronunciation and understood more than anyone else in the class, but my grammar and spelling were terrible. Some years before, my first English teacher in undergrad didn’t know what to do with me either. She literally asked me if English was my second language because of the way I phrased things.
I speak three European languages, English, Danish and Spanish. Until giving birth to my son I hadn’t given thought to how you say “I gave birth” in Spanish, which is dio a luz. Literally: I gave light. In Danish the word for midwife is jordmor, earth mother. I have always been fond of that. I value the ways these respective languages make me think and embody their sounds, and I also feel somewhat limited by them.
One could say these European languages are languages of empire, in the sense of not being responsible to territory, whether literally and/or in the reach of their globalized extractive economies. They have changed accordingly, in grammar and metaphor. Go back to their old roots and you’ll find more place-based nuances, another way of thinking. Metaphors common in the English language cater to notions such as “bigger is better,” an emphasis on dualism, and a tendency toward economic justification. Animals are referred to as “it,” for which there is no word in Ojibwe. In writing poetry, I try to deconstruct these habits and write/think from a more, one could say, land-based worldview. I have also turned to indigenous languages and lexicon for guidance, perspective and inspiration. Languages still rooted in and responsible to place.
“The purveyance of knowledge is embedded in language,” Jeannette Armstrong said to me once, a single line that has run through my mind recurrently.
At the Mokuola Honua language symposium in Hilo, Hawai’i I listened to Nāʻālehu Anthony talking about Captain Cook and the missionaries and plantation owners who followed, imposing an entirely foreign construct of how to live. He said this: “The voice of our reflection shifted.” Another line that has stayed with me. Language as a reflection – of intergenerational knowledge, or otherwise, memories of violence.
Years ago, I learned about an Inuit word that means all at once: world, outdoors, weather and universe, as well as awareness and sense. I obsessed over this word, its embodied and external vastness, yet only recently did I locate the word itself – Sila – “arguably the most important concept in classic Inuit thought…occurring in senses that are intellectual, biological, psychological, environmental, locational, and geographical,” in a sense a “super-concept, both immanent and transcendent in scope,” as explained by Rachel Attituq Qitsualik. I remain entranced by the word.
In Hawai’ian the word for land is ‘aina, which means more precisely: that which feeds or nourishes. Aloha ‘aina for “sacred land.” Aloha, a greeting. Also a lifeway. The Wet’suwet’en are unwavering in the protection of their yintah, their home territory, right now from a recent assault by the RCMP in cahoots with Coastal Gas Link/TransCanada.Yintah, I learned the last time I visited Wet’suwet’en territory (in what is today called British Colombia), while means land or territory actually refers more expansively to interconnectedness with all life. As Dave Dewit explained: “All life for us include abiotic elements like mountains, rocks, air and water. The health of the people are a reflection of the health of the land.”
Another word that has left an impression on me is ma’iingan, Ojibwe for wolf. Translated: the one sent here by that all loving spirit to show us the way. In other words, guide. No linguistic misappropriation of wolf for villain or outcast, hence no way to perpetuate a bizarre and unconscious hatred for wolf, unending. Bob Shimek, who I met at the Honor the Earth and White Earth Land Recovery Project headquarters in Minnesota, put it to me this way: “Wolf is our Jesus.”
I’ve heard it said that speaking one’s indigenous language is the best defense against colonialism, ongoing. Indeed. Language embodies worldview. Take, for example, the Lakota winter count, waniyetu wowapi. Years are described rather than given an exact number. The-year-the-buffalo-froze. The-year-the-stars-fell. And so forth. A sophisticated and detailed way of keeping record, albeit less rigid and more cyclical than numerical dates listed in accordance with wars, elections and other hand-picked versions of events recorded by those who happened to have proprietary access to feather pens and parchment: December 29, 1890. June 25, 1876.
I continue to draw meaning and a deeper sense of comprehension in what I learn from indigenous languages and in closing I want to acknowledge all the language keepers who are knowledge keepers, truly.