from the Ahnishinahbæótjibway (We, the People)
November 17, 1997
Dear Noam Chomsky,
Thank you very much for your letter of condolence about my husband Wub-e-ke-niew. Your letter is one that would have meant a great deal to him, as it does to me. (Ahnishinahbæótjibway people communicate with their deceased relatives, so perhaps “means” is the more appropriate verb.)
Wub-e-ke-niew credited you with giving him the insight which enabled him to understand the English language beyond its surface. One of the agreements which we made at the outset of our relationship, was that he would teach me as much as he could of what he knew, if I would in turn teach him as much as I could of what I knew, especially the English language. After we had been together only a few years, he would ask me repeatedly what was the “key” to the English language, which was a question I did not know how to answer. He would say, “Why won’t you tell me? It’s your native language—you should know what it is.” At that time, I did not have the insight into an Ahnishinahbæótjibway perspective, from which might have answered his question. Among Wub-e-ke-niew’s many gifts to me were such questions about my “native” language and culture, pushing me to consider things which I had taken for granted, to try to explain them in the context of a very different world-view.
Wub-e-ke-niew read some of your books, and after having read an article of yours in The Progressive, wrote to you, although without really expecting a reply. He was delighted when you answered, defending Lorraine Kingsley’s paper on “discipline.” We subsequently gave your letter to Lorraine, who also very much appreciated it. From his reading of your work, and his correspondence with you, he gained what was a deeply meaningful insight from his perspective: that the “key” to the English language was that it is “abstract, linear and hierarchical.” He would tell people with pride, “Noam Chomsky showed me the English language.”
Wub-e-ke-niew thought about issues of language until the very end of his life. As he understood the English language more clearly, he became increasingly convinced that “language creates the world,” and that transformation of English, particularly to include what he understood as an “indigenous female perspective,” had the potential of radically transforming the world.
Throughout this past summer, I worked with Wub-e-ke-niew intensively, trying to understand the meaning behind what he was saying about “language.” One of my academic advisors, Robert “Robin” Brown, is a linguist (among other things). During my brief sojourns to the University, Robin Brown and I also discussed what both Wub-e-ke-niew and you were saying about language; Wub-e-ke-niew and I would talk at length about what you and Robin Brown were saying.
The topic merits a longer discussion that what I can give you right now, but it seems as though part of the crucial distinction between Ahnishinahbæótjibway and English has to do with underlying organization: that the core referents of Ahnishinahbæótjibway are patterns of interrelationship, while in English they are abstract ideals. There is more to it than that, and another part of it has to do with interrelationships with the natural world. After nearly a full day of wrestling with questions this past summer, Wub-e-ke-niew finally told me, “All you have to do is look at the ecosystem. Ahnishinahbæótjibway maintained a paradise. Now look at it. The water is all polluted, everything has been wrecked and plundered. There’s your answer.” He returned to this idea, of the environment as a manifestation of language, several times throughout the summer.
Another aspect of it became apparent only toward the end of the summer. Wub-e-ke-niew had given me a car this spring [to be strictly factual, he repaired a car which I’d bought from a friend last winter for $35 (neighborhood entrepreneurs pay people $25 to tow them away before the City does), turning it into something very close to my “ideal” car]. He steadfastly maintained it was “your car, so you drive.” During the years of our marriage, I had always let him drive when we traveled together, in part because he had been an extremely competent professional truck driver and was a fairly critical backseat driver. During the summer, I struggled to make sense of his often urgently-delivered advice on how to drive, and finally, I asked him what he was seeing, that I didn’t. He told me that I wasn’t paying attention to “the energy,” which he then extended into lessons on how to see around corners and predict other drivers’ actions. What he said fit with what he had showed me, years previously, about hunting; as well as with the context of other aspects of Ahnishinahbæótjibway culture and ways of being. ...
I’m not certain what else to write about this right now. I am amply aware that much of what I might say is not only quite strictly beyond the parameters of Western academic discourse, but that there are dogmatic defenses in Western epistemology to keep it outside of those parameters. However, it is quite clear to me that there are integrated elements of Ahnishinahbæótjibway awareness and culturally legitimated communication which include these domains—and Wub-e-ke-niew was always right about whether or not there was a car around the curve, on the lightly trafficked rural roads we drove this summer. “Keeping people in a box” which cuts them off from these kinds of awareness and communication is something which fits quite nicely with other patterns of Western societal hierarchy; using old anthropological terms, it’s functional within the system. And, there are people in what Wub-e-ke-niew called “White society” who do communicate in these domains, although perhaps in ways which are only vaguely recognized as “intuition.”
… Wub-e-ke-niew very clearly saw his approaching death. During the last few days of his life, he asked me to do a number of things, “because I can’t.” Among the four key issues, which he returned to several times during his last days, was his request, “Be sure to tell Noam Chomsky that it’s in the language, not in the institutions. The language creates the institutions.” [Wub-e-ke-niew and I] talked at some length about that letter [that you wrote me last Spring]. Wub-e-ke-niew then gave me several examples of “institutions” excluding people, including observations about the buildings at the University of Minnesota. He explained that, “those buildings are designed through language,” and noted that their imposing architecture made them inaccessible to people in wheelchairs; he also commented that access to them is limited fairly exclusively to people of certain social classes.
Wub-e-ke-niew and I had discussed your fairly tightly delineated definitions of “language,” both in the context of your letter and with regard to the terminology I might use in my Ph.D. thesis. I had conveyed to Wub-e-ke-niew, Robin Brown’s explanations of the political and historical factors which, according to Brown, may have played a role in your definitions, focus and research emphasis. Wub-e-ke-niew and I talked at length about “discourse” versus “language”—and Wub-e-ke-niew insisted that what he meant was language.
If one begins at the reality-base of the Ahnishinahbæótjibway instead of the philosophical base of the Western Europeans, then what Wub-e-ke-niew was saying begins to make sense, at least to me, although I haven’t figured out how to describe it clearly, yet. …
This is getting to be a long letter; the main point of it is Wub’s message to you, that “it’s in the language.”
Your correspondence with Wub-e-ke-niew, the work of yours which he read, your ideas, and your endorsement of his book, meant a great deal to him. He was passionately interested in language: both in thoroughly understanding and being able to use the English language, and, especially during the last few years of his life, in understanding “language” in a broader sense. He deeply believed that language as he saw it, was a key to healing the pathologies which he saw in Western society. “Thank you” is an inadequate acknowledgement, but I don’t know what other words one might write.
Clara and her "ideal car," fall 1997