from the Ahnishinahbæótjibway (We, the People)
[Co-authored by Wub-e-ke-niew and Clara NiiSka]
Presented to the University of Minnesota’s Spring Anthropology Conference in the context of a workshop on language jointly given by Wub-e-ke-niew and Clara; the paper was circulated at the conference.
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the air in Southern California was clean, faintly resinous with chaparral on warm afternoons, tangy with the sea, softly perfumed with the flowers that carpeted the hills and canyons in the early spring. I, who have lived perhaps half a lifetime, remember standing amid the toyon and manzanita in San Diego, watching the snow shimmering on distant mountain peaks. As a child I played beneath the gnarled giants of ancient live oak trees, and cupped my hands into cool small streams to drink the sparkling water.
Once upon a time, less than fifteen years ago, my husband, Wub-e-ke-niew and I cut through the winter ice on Red Lake to get our drinking water. The deer trails were many across the snow in the woods. We ate duck and rabbit, partridge, venison and moose, and in the summer our nets were heavy with fish. We filled our pails with blueberries and raspberries, highbush cranberries and chokecherries, ate a surfeit, and left more than we picked. We filled the cars of visitors with vegetables from our garden, and still had more than enough to last the winter. The morning birdsongs of spring and early summer were loud enough to wake us at first light. Wub-e-ke-niew is Ahnishinahbæótjibway of the Bear Dodem, and dialogue and meta-dialogue with Grandmother Earth are an inherent part of his native language. Unlike “English, which is a pseudo-male language,” he says, “the Ahnishinahbæótjibway language is both male and female.”
It tears my heart apart to go to Southern California, now. Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, and the air is brown and acrid, burning the eyes, clogging the lungs and obscuring even the closest hills. From the mountaintops, I have looked down at scarred land disappearing beneath the filthy haze. The smog spills through mountain passes out into the desert, poisoning and even killing trees which grew when Columbus landed, some of them older than Christianity. The Pacific Ocean is faintly slimy with sewage, and I would hesitate to dip my hands into the scummy trickles of polluted water where clear streams once flowed. Freeways roar through the canyons, shopping centers and parking lots entomb the land once vibrant with chaparral, and tier upon tier of ticky-tacky suburban housing developments suffocate the hills where early spring flowers bloomed. Wub-e-ke-niew, who visited Southern California in 1995, told me, “The original plants are gone, replaced by alien plants from all over the world. It is a dead land, like a fatally ill man on life support—and they should pull the plug and let it die, it’s going to anyway. They are downsizing the ecosystem, and before everything is gone, we need to downsize the big corporations and governments that are wrecking it. We all live here. We are all a part of it, and it belongs to all of us. But, the English language disenfranchises us and we become corporate slaves.”
On a warm afternoon last summer, I sat on the rocks by the shore of Red Lake, and watched the sun move slowly toward the horizon. The play of light between sky and water belied the dying lakes, the water so murky I would not swim in it. Those who still fish pull many empty nets, and I would hesitate to eat any of the few fish they catch, some with cancerous growths on them. The snow-water we melt for washing in the winter-time leaves a faint ring of oil in the pails—it’s been that way since the Gulf War.
Grandmother Earth has been raped and plundered: vast expanses of clear-cut stretch toward the horizon at Red Lake. Snowmobile trails along the highway have replaced most of the deer trails through the woods, and the rabbits and partridges are very few. I went blueberry picking two summers ago, and during the course of a day found only a few handfuls of berries. My husband says that insecticides have killed the pollinating bees, and when a hibernating bee woke early in the house last winter, he lived with it rather than killing it or taking it outside where it would freeze. When spring came, he caught the bee and let it go outside, and watched as it sat on a tree, stretching its wings and cleaning itself. Each year, we see a few more of our trees die, and last spring the birdsong was but a faint echo of what it was ten years ago. My husband has begun feeding the birds to get them through the winter, and tells the clerk in the co-op where he buys the seed, “You cut down the forests to plant sunflowers and corn, and I have to come to town to buy sunflower seed and corn to feed the birds whose natural food grows in the forest, and that’s foolish and obscene. The forest took care of the birds—that’s how it’s naturally supposed to be. I’ve never fed the blue jays before, but now everything has been destroyed, and I had more than fifty blue jays stay to eat all winter. It’s sad.”
I have a friend who defends the forest with the ferocity of a grandmother protecting her young, writing passionate and carefully researched letters, and testifying to congressional committees. I thank her for the acres for which she has gained a reprieve, and grieve for each new swath of clearcut, and for the regimented rows of sterile tree-farms. I look beyond the few rows of pine trees planted in what the Department of Natural Resources calls an “aesthetic” buffer along many highways in northern Minnesota, to the ragged stands of aspen behind them, and notice that the piles of pulp-sticks waiting by the railroads in Bemidji are of smaller trees than they were just a few years ago. Some were very young trees, only a few inches in diameter. Destroying the ecological infrastructure upon which all life—including our own—depends, is unthinkable thought in Ahnishinahbæótjibway, beyond the pale even of insanity.
Wub-e-ke-niew says that the Ahnishinahbæótjibway language is egalitarian, but that English has hierarchy, disharmony and disrespect, “built right into the language.” In the late modern/postmodern world, where the dominant discourse is in English and other European languages, Wub-e-ke-niew says, “There are no checks and balances on the multi-national corporations. They are like a runaway bulldozer with no operator at the controls, destroying everything in its path. There need to be some checks and balances, people taking responsibility for what is being destroyed. Newt Gingrich says that they are downsizing ‘big government,’ giving responsibility back to the states—why isn’t Congress solving the problems? The states are only part of the problem, and the states are throwing money to institutions like the school boards and the prison system, and the problem never gets solved. It’s pretty clever: delegating and delegating again, throwing money to some bigmouth, who gets the money and it’s gone. It’s like Johnson’s War on Poverty: they kept delegating responsibility until the money was all spent, but the poor are still with us. They are not going to solve the problem: there are no viable goals and objectives, they have slogans but they don’t have a plan to solve the problem of destroying the ecosystem, and they don’t want to solve the problems because they need conflict and chaos in order to govern.”
Wub-e-ke-niew remembers the old-growth forests which stretched across northern Minnesota for the many millennia his indigenous ancestors spoke in harmony with Grandmother Earth and Grandfather Midé. Here lived white pines two hundred and fifty feet tall and nine feet in diameter, sugar-maples more than two thousand years old. In his book, We Have The Right To Exist, he writes:
In my great-grandfather’s time, old-growth forests covered more than half of this Continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the tallgrass prairies west of the Mississippi. The trees rose to meet the skies, and the sentience of these ancient living beings was a part of our Ahnishinahbæótjibway community, part of the seamless continuity of time. They were more magnificent than the finest of the Europeans’ cathedrals, but they were not oppressively cold, psychologically manipulative man-made canyons of stone; nor flying-buttressed edifices like hordes of giant locusts crouched in waiting to devour the land and suck the life out of Grandmother Earth. Our forests were comfortable and nurturing, like the haven of baby chicks under their mother hen’s wings. The forests were home, serene and secure, gentle and wise. Theirs was a concert of voices: the sharp snapping of trees in the cold winter nights, the wind in the pines, the low calls of mother foxes to their young, the soft conversation of our Dodemian and the crackling of the fires in the sugarbushes, the spring symphony of birds, the drumsongs drifting across the water in summer, and the whooshing beat of the air as millions of birds flew south in the fall. When I was young, I walked through these forests. The earth was soft underfoot, like walking on a plush carpet. The undisturbed primeval forests had very little underbrush, and a person could see a great distance.
When we were young boys playing in the old-growth pine forests, we used to watch the flying squirrels in the pines in wonder and amazement. We watched them glide from one tree to the next, walking behind them on a thick carpet of pine needles. They were beautiful, graceful animals. It’s been more than forty years since I have seen a flying squirrel. They have joined the vanishing species that disappear with the plunder of the ecology. They are gone, because their home in the ancient pines has been clear-cut, replaced by aspen, and the whole ecosystem has changed. There is no habitat for flying squirrels in aspen brush. Where are the smallest of the woodpeckers, that used to be all over the woods when I was a boy? In the last ten years, I have only seen three of these tiny birds. Where are the cedar swamps, so thick that it was dark at noon? I used to go down into these swamps and pick our swamp tea, and a few of the moccasin-flowers. All of this is gone ... (1995:91-92)
Generation after generation, the ecosystem that sustains all of life on this Earth has been destroyed by the “civilization” brought to this continent by the Europeans. Generation after generation, small freedoms have been nibbled away. Returning to the Cities after an absence of eighteen years, I feel the tightening constraints: photo ID to work, photo ID to enter the stacks at Walter library, hyper-alert caution when walking alone after dark, police sirens and gunshots at night, windowless school buildings, car-alarms... the list goes on and on. When I talked to my husband about my culture-shock, he told me, “violence is built into the English language.”
Some of the older anthropologists at the University of Minnesota have talked in class about the destruction of the social fabric of the villages where they did their early fieldwork. The integrity and harmony of those villages has been profoundly altered by global market economies, they say. Social theorists like Anthony Giddens write about the transformations wrought by “late modernity”—in time, space, community and interpersonal relationships—with what seems to me a certain forced optimism. As one who has seen the remnants of an intact egalitarian community, who has glimpsed the enormous loss of human possibility in late modernity, I read such writing with sorrow. Wub-e-ke-niew adds, “This society does not have manners and respect. People are not treated as human beings—manners and respect are not a part of [Western] culture. Until that’s built into the culture and language, to treat other people with manners and respect, it’s going to keep getting worse.” But, it is pointless to lament without offering an alternative.
As human beings caught in a web of positive-feedback loops called “progress,” we stand at a fork in the road, unique in scale if not in kind. On the one hand is an eight-lane superhighway leading to increasing ecocide, and quite probably to our own destruction—we are interdependent with all of the other life on this planet, and if we kill the Earth which sustains us, we too shall perish, despite hubris and our faith in Science. On the other hand, there is an unmarked and unmapped path: a historical moment in which radical transformation is possible: of the deep structure of Western society, and of the language with which that structure has been constructed.
Wub-e-ke-niew and I used to talk about, “Why Columbus?” For what, have his relatives, his Dodem, and his community been annihilated during centuries of genocide? He says, “Perhaps it had to come full circle, perhaps once ‘civilization’ began, there was no other way it could finish.” When George Bush bombed the ancient cradle of Western Civilization, the place which the Christian Bible calls the Garden of Eden, the circle began to close—after millennia of destruction of others, the force of Western technological warfare returned, against its own roots. Now, there is continual festering violence in what the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims call their ancient homeland. Wub-e-ke-niew asks, “When are the crusades going to end?” Humanity cannot survive another circuit of the same violent circle. What is another path?
A crucial key is language, defined in the broad sense of [any] “systematic means of communicating ... “ (Webster, 1993). Language is a core aspect of the “software” of society: mediating social interaction, structuring the ways in which one interprets and then behaves in the world. The shared meanings conveyed in language are a vital aspect of culture and society. Although I disagree with those who say that language is uniquely human, language is fundamental to human society. However, Wub-e-ke-niew emphasizes crucial distinctions between indigenous language and Western hierarchical languages. Indigenous languages like Ahnishinahbæótjibway were an integral part of being a human being. Hierarchical languages like English, however, “dehumanize you. I look at the English language as a human rights violation, giving you an identity which is not really you. I see that language as being crooked and full of dishonest schemes. Part of its pious hypocrisy is its hierarchy—the people on the lower levels of the Western hierarchies are excluded from what is called ‘proper English.’ These people’s adaptations to the language, like Ebonics, are discredited. Rather than being a part of the community, the English language is being used as a tool of oppression and dehumanization.”
From at least the moment of our conception, we are bathed in language, our mother’s voice resonating through amniotic fluid, surrounded by our mother’s emotional energy in conjunction with language, exposed to subtle biochemicals transmitted through the placenta in association with language. As neonates, we grow in the context of language; to some degree “hard-wired” for our native language as our neurons grow and our synapses link in the setting of language. The discourse through which our identities are formed and maintained is coded and structured by language. The interactions through which we negotiate our relationship to society—and, in the aggregate, form our society—are mediated by language. Our understanding of the world is powerfully influenced by language, as are our actions within the world. The thoughts which we communicate to others, and much of what we tell ourselves, is in language. Each language transmits across the generations the history and values of those whose language it is. Language and the deep structure of society are inextricably linked.
Changing the language in fundamental ways, will inevitably change society. The kinds of deep linguistic transformations which will heal the social ills compounded over millennia are not instantaneous—the pathologies of Western civilization cannot be cured in years or even decades. However, profound metamorphoses can happen over just a few generations. Hierarchical language has been an effective tool of oppression because most peoples’ understanding of their native language is implicit and the generative forces of grammar, syntax, structure, patterns of discourse, and constellations of word connotation are outside of their usual awareness. Deconstructing the language and its meta-narratives (both present and absent) is a necessary precursor to debunking and transcending the illusions of Western Civilization.
Modern languages change continually, and a comparison of popular dictionaries, from the present and from fifty years ago, for instance, will reveal subtle but important changes which are interconnected with social changes like the decline in personal autonomy. Wub-e-ke-niew sees such shifts as being phase changes rather than structural or paradigmatic transformations, pointing out that, “When the Western Europeans emigrated from Europe, the majority of them were slaves. What they found here was an abundance of resources, which subsidized the ‘American Dream.’ But, now the resources are gone, and the social system is changing back to the feudal slavery of medieval Europe. Old folks talk about the ‘cabin at the lake’ they used to have, but now, they and their children don’t have cabins at the lake anymore. It’s not like it used to be. There are no more resources, and the ‘American Dream’ has become an abstract, hierarchical illusion. The imported European social system hasn’t fundamentally changed—they can’t get out of the box that confines them, and the underlying feudalism will resurface and prevail. They go around and around, like a caged animal pacing back and forth, but they are prisoners of their language. In order to change, they need female as well as male language, to create balance. Then, they can escape from the cage of feudalism.”
In English, the word “communication” has acquired a new meaning involving transmission of information in one direction only, as in “mass communication.” The maintenance of hierarchical society has historically involved the use of euphemisms, particular ones changing as their currency transmutes them from discrete hint to direct reference (an etymological study of euphemisms could disclose some interesting patterns about a society). Public relations and advertising professionals are sensitive to the constructive power of language, coining such canny phrases as the “Wise Use Movement.” Wub-e-ke-niew adds, “Euphemisms and metaphors are abstract illusions. Replacing something that’s real with something that’s full of metaphors—I think that’s funny. The English language is so crooked, it allows people to tell lies with euphemisms and metaphors, while pretending they’re telling the truth. An example is the special way that junk dealers have of dealing with people. An old junk dealer not too far from here, when somebody asks him how much he wants for an old rusty wheel-rim, for example, has a long and eloquent speech about how valuable his junk is, and how it’s worth much more than the (inflated) price he’s asking for it. He will tell his customers that his junk is so valuable, he might want to keep it for himself instead of selling it. He uses the same reverse psychology even when he’s selling his used cars—he’ll tell you, ‘I want to keep this car.’ But, when you give him a good offer, he’ll sell it right away.”
The underlying nature of Western languages, including English, is partially revealed by ancient writers like Plato (428 bce - 348 bce). In Phaedo, he writes in language in which hierarchy is already implicit, embedded in apparently unquestioning acceptance of the legitimacy of institutions of God and rulers. In a voice which he writes as that of the condemned Socrates, Plato urges retreat into what he describes as a perfect abstract, a rejection of the natural world, claiming “observation by means of the eyes and ears and all the other senses is entirely deceptive” (1971:83a). He characterizes that which is “earthly” (1971:81c) as tainting and contaminating the immortal soul, and associates the “divine” (1971:82c) with “despising the body” (1971:65c).
Wub-e-ke-niew observes, “Creating an abstract and an illusion like God—that’s disgusting, revolting. They need a god to go to war, and that’s obscene. Their god only talks to certain groups of people; He never talks to me. With illusions and abstracts talking to them, they should be locked up in a crazy house. I never did see the devil, either, although the Catholic prefect at the Catholic mission school was always chasing him, always looking for the devil. I never saw the devil, but I did see a crazy man chasing an illusion—that’s what cults do to people.
“Abstract language is detached from the land. It needs to connect back to the land—we are all human.” With the rejection of reality embedded in Western philosophy, and in the abstract “ideal” of the English language, there is no culturally validated way of even communicating clearly about the extent to which the ecosystem is being devastated. The material world, including the web of life of which human beings are inextricably a part, has been devalued, ignored and evaded as a part of the ancient philosophers’ strategy of denying death by denying the corporal, visceral, vital aspects of life. We and our children are confronted with the very real possibility of the extinction of all humanity because of our destruction of the ecosystem which sustains us—we have nearly come full circle to the ultimate irony of the ancient Greeks’ rhetorical denial of death. Wub-e-ke-niew points out, “They destroyed the ecosystem in Europe, and now they have come over here, but they haven’t changed their language or their values. They look at the ecosystem for their food, clothing and shelter, but they destroy it to get money, and use the money to buy things. Because of their male language, they continually keep on taking, and never put anything back. We looked at the ecosystem for our food, clothing and shelter, too, but we took only what we needed and kept it in balance. Why are the immigrants from Europe destroying the ecosystem? They didn’t take care of the ecosystem in Europe, and they are not taking care of this one, either. Their language shows their destruction of it, their violence.”
Plato’s rejection of reality has powerful political implications. In Phaedo, he has Socrates state the legitimacy of God and civil rulers in other contexts, as well as in the construction of discourse removing their inherent hierarchy from easy challenge. By also discrediting direct observation of reality in favor of an abstract which is deeply knowable only by experts such as philosophers, he claims a monopoly on “truth” and delegitimizes any potential challenge to the deep structure of the state and its religious infrastructure. Plato defines the senses as, “An impediment which by its presence prevents the soul from attaining truth and clear thinking” (1971:66a). This has been a very effective strategy: during the past millennia empires have risen and fallen, revolutions have toppled leaders, but the underlying hierarchical structure, once established, legitimized and embedded in the vulgate, has endured and spread around the globe. In present-day Euro-American society, this inheritance from the ancient Greeks applies not only to church and state, but also to multi-national corporations. Wub-e-ke-niew says, “Another abstract, make-believe, is living in La-La Land so the corporations can steal from you—they say, ‘make believe we’re not stealing from you.’ They all have a juvenile mentality, very childlike. That’s what’s wrong, part of it.”
Another aspect of late modern language which is crucial to the problems facing us all, is dualism. Plato writes in Phaedo, “Are we satisfied, then, said Socrates, that everything is generated in this way—opposites from opposites? Perfectly, [said Cebes]” (1971:71a). Dualism helps mask the dissonance between the abstract and reality. Wub-e-ke-niew writes, Westerners, “Use dichotomies to keep people inside of their culturally and linguistically constructed box. Within the structure of illusions which comprise the ‘shadows on the walls of the cave’ of Plato’s truth, harmonious reality has been distorted and stretched, spun out into insubstantial polar opposites. ... [Western] reality-of-the-mind is characterized by denial, loss of awareness into the black hole of artificial subconsciousness, and an overriding, transcendent fear” (1995:352). Dualistic language rends the coherent totality of indigenous reality into abstract shreds which are then compartmentalized hierarchically. It is the deep structure of English and other Western languages which sustains the mind:body, master:slave, culture:nature, war:peace and male:female dichotomies, and in conjunction with linearity, makes coherent holistic understanding extremely difficult. Dualism makes possible the violence which saturates the English language. Wub-e-ke-niew adds, “It also legitimizes slavery by defining slaves as the ‘other.’ They create illusions; the language lets them be grand masters of deception.”
Dualism also generates a second, less visible, set of schisms on English, what Wub-e-ke-niew calls a “double perspective—everything that comes out of their mouth has a double meaning.” Because the reflections of reality which course down the hall of mirrors comprising the abstract are split into opposing pairs, there is, in English, an “unsaid” for everything that is said, an unspoken shadow of discourse, an implied opposite that is an inherent part of the message—potent, but difficult to challenge because it is obscured beneath a surface of literal meaning. The consequence, Wub-e-ke-niew writes, is, “Layer upon layer of lies so deep that the truth has become invisible to them. By understanding the Euro-Americans’ language, and studying their behavior and thought patterns through their language, I can see who they are. They live in a maze of unreal dichotomies. Many believe that they are telling the truth, but beyond the boundaries of their language, they are lying” (1995:72). When George Orwell, in his novel 1984, wrote of “double-speak,” he was touching on the dualism of English.
Violence and dualism are linked—violence which is directed at a language-constructed, abstract other is significantly different in meaning from that which is directed toward the extended self. In English, we can do to “them” what we would find unacceptable when done to “us.” Wub-e-ke-niew provides the example of “War and Peace. The Ahnishinahbæótjibway did not go to war. The European colonizers created an artificial foe—the Indians—and used their language to create a program of war, in order to justify their stealing. In English, war is violent, but peace is even more violent than war. The Western Europeans claim that we were violent, but we didn’t go on their land—they are the ones who came onto our land. If we were so violent, why didn’t they use our prisons, instead of having to build their own? They brought the Bible and the gun, and these are both violent.”
The violence which permeates the English language is perceptible semantically and grammatically. A thesaurus hints at the range of violence which writers of the English language have lexicalized, including: anarchy, anger, bedlam, brawl, brutality, chaos, choler, commotion, confusion, discord, disorder, ferocity, fierceness, fight, fray, frenzy, fury, harpy, intensity, ire, lawlessness, mayhem, pitch, protest, rage, rebel, revelry, revolt, riot, savagery, scuffle, severity, shrew, termagant, tumult, turmoil, upheaval, uproar, vehemence, virago, wrath ... the list goes on and on. English grammar molds one’s most egalitarian intentions into hierarchical sentences: the subject verbs the object, one-up, one-down, subjecting the objectified to a good verbing (with aggressive sex-and-violence connotations lurking in that grammar). In the English language, Wub-e-ke-niew observes, “sex and violence are inseparable—they are ‘two peas in a pod,’ if you want to use a metaphor.”
Violence also pervades the discourse of English. Wub-e-ke-niew says, “Every day, you hear abusive language on the streets, ‘butch,’ ‘son-of-a-bitch,’ ‘mother-fucker.’ We did not have anything like that in our language—there are no swear words in Ahnishinahbæótjibway (and the closest translation of ‘war’ is ‘two or three guys talking about something’—in nonviolence, and they would be able to come to a consensus about it, in balance and harmony). Why are the Western European languages so violent? You can see the same kind of violence on the freeway every day: people cutting each other off, shaking their fists at each other and cursing. Whenever they get behind the wheel of a car, their anger comes out. The Western languages are designed to dehumanize people, to take away their humanity, their identity and their self-esteem, to domesticate them, and to stereotype and label them, and that has to change.
“Western European civilization cannot exist side-by-side with indigenous peoples—it is too violent. It has to destroy other people, and egalitarian indigenous people are dangerous to Western hierarchy.” Wub-e-ke-niew says, “You can almost see the vanishing species that are gone, because of the violence. It is out of balance.” Scholars of late modernity and postmodernity write of fragmentation, of deconstructed theory and of an emphasis on the individual. From another vantage point, one can see profoundly disturbing patterns of violently oppressive hierarchy, of invidious oppression, of shattered communities and of devastating destruction of the ecosystem. Those of us who live in relatively privileged positions, in places insulated from the cataclysmic eradication of ecological integrity and indigenous communities, may not be fully aware of the total price extracted by the civilization, nor of the entire cost of its fruits.
As Machiavelli makes explicit in The Prince, violence is an intrinsic part of Western strategies of government. “Divide and conquer” is a ploy older than Julius Caesar, and the violence embedded in English destroys extended families and community which might provide a base for resistance to the domination by those whom Chomsky calls “the opulent.” English, Wub-e-ke-niew says, “is not designed for extended families, but for nuclear families within a society where the church, state, and other institutions are artificial surrogates, rather than the indigenous Dodems. The institutions created by English are like adoption or placement in foster care—they take away more of a person’s identity. The hostility of the state toward families shows in its welfare policies. Their institutions are such that people are depending on being fed by the state, but now the leaders say, ‘go find a job.’ But, that’s just a slogan—they don’t have a plan, or goals or objectives. If the state is a surrogate family, why aren’t they out there helping them? It’s a very distant and cold father and mother that they have. ‘Find a job’ is the same kind of rhetoric they used on us during Relocation. ‘Relocation’ means taking you out of your home and abandoning you—there was nobody there to help you, no friends, they dump you out in the streets. It’s like abandoning an infant in a church (or like Moses left in the bulrushes). The leaders of Western Civilization don’t take responsibility: they are still juveniles, like schoolyard bullies.”
English takes away people’s identity, Wub-e-ke-niew says, “Like a ‘broken’ horse that a child can ride, compared to a horse in its natural state. A domesticated horse will run back into a burning barn, although a horse in its natural state will run away from the fire. English is designed to have power over you, take away your identity and domesticate you. The English language takes away people’s spirit and their energy, what they call the ‘soul.’ English-speaking people try to domesticate everything including the ecosystem—that’s why everything which was so beautiful, has been destroyed. For example, the water has been polluted, and you can’t drink it. We might as well live in the desert—you can’t drink the water there either. They put animals in zoos. In zoos, there are emotions which are not natural and normal, man-made (and very childish) emotions like anger, jealousy and greed. They dam up rivers and then sell land on the flood plain, where the land is supposed to flood. ‘Honest Bob’ sells used cars, but he also sells real estate, for example in downtown Grand Forks. People don’t belong on the flood plain, in high rises, or on Hale-Bopp.”
Racism and ethnocentricism are among the symptoms and manifestations of deeply ingrained violence in the English language. Of particular relevance to anthropologists are the perceptions of autochthonous peoples which are embedded in the language and in the discourses in which that language plays a constitutive role. Although the word “primitive” has often been replaced by politically-correct (but similarly loaded) substitutes such as “non-modern,” the word primitive is one which is not infrequent in currently-used anthropology texts. In a thesaurus, primitive leads to savage, uncivilized and crude; and savage leads to untamed, as well as to brutal, ruthless, cruel, sadistic, animal, and fiend—as well as to wild, aborigine, native and uncivilized. Wub-e-ke-niew observes that, after having been in contact with Western civilization for most of his lifetime, he does not want to be “civilized, because only civilized people kill one another. (If we would have been civilized, we would have killed Columbus.) I don’t want to be civilized, and I don’t want to be a White man. I don’t need a soul, either—you can keep all of those European things.” He also comments, “There are many prevailing stereotypes of primitive people, for example putting anthropologists in big iron kettles and boiling them. Where did the ‘primitive’ people get the kettles from, and did they take the dirty socks off of the anthropologists first?”
Language structures the way in which one perceives and interacts with the world; it is simultaneously at the core of culture and society, the primary means of communication and the generation of praxis. In the Ahnishinahbæótjibway language, Grandmother Earth is a powerful, female, being; nurturing, loving, and along with Grandfather Midé, the source of all life. In English, “natural” is wild, wild is primitive, and primitive is but a short semantic distance from Satan. “Earthy” is crude and vulgar—and vulgar is disgusting, obscene, and offensive. These linkages are more than word-games: the consequences of language are writ large across both society and the landscape, starkly and appallingly visible to anyone who takes even a tentative first step beyond the constraints of “civilized” language. As Wub-e-ke-niew puts it, “Civilized men—and women—are allowing our Grandmother to be raped.”
“My Ahnishinahbæótjibway language is both male and female,” Wub-e-ke-niew explains. “English is a male language, and language is the heart of any people and their culture. Language takes away peoples’ identity and their self-esteem, and they don’t know who they are. They are confused by the language, by their imposed identity—disconnected from their roots and from who they are, molded into slaves for the corporations. They are trapped by the dualism in English, and some become homosexuals because of the false unreality of the English language.” Wub-e-ke-niew continues, “Language molds the way people understand the universe, the way they live their lives and how they are as human beings. I remember the old Ahnishinahbæótjibway women who were still living when I was young. Those old women had beauty, strength and balance which I have never seen in a White woman. When women change the English language so that it is a balanced male-and-female language, then the world will change.” By transforming the English language so that it is balanced, male and female, Western women can help rebuild the harmonious inter-relationship with Grandmother Earth and with community and family which was once the birthright of every woman. We can reclaim our real identity and live as who we are meant to be as women.
Succinctly, Wub-e-ke-niew says, “Western European man is a prisoner of his language; Western European woman doesn’t have a language. Indigenous women had languages, the ones that the White man destroyed. Indigenous language is what kept this land a paradise; it was the balanced male-and-female understanding which preserved the harmony ... Grandmother Earth is very female. Grandfather Midé and Grandmother Earth, that is what our over-all-of-Aboriginal-time ‘religion,’ ‘philosophy’ and ‘myth’ are about.”
Wub-e-ke-niew adds, “The female was not involved in making the languages of Western Civilization. Using institutions and disciplines which he controlled, the White man said, ‘We’ll make a language, and she can use it with us. That’s arrogance. It says it right there, that the language does not have respect, nor manners, nor feelings for anyone else, just the few males at the top of the hierarchy.”
Language is the legacy of countless generations. Hierarchy, duality, abstractions, violence and pseudo-male imbalances have been entrenched in Western languages over millennia, and resonate throughout these languages from the deep structure, through the grammar and the lexicon. It is not probable that this heritage can be fully transformed in a handful of years. However, this is a moment in history profoundly unlike any other. The self-proclaimed heir of Western hegemony, the United States, is perched upon a land from which a few of her surviving autochthonous people still speak: cogently, urgently, and in thoughtfully articulated and nuanced English. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Western society cannot long continue in present directions without dire consequences, including irreparable devastation of the ecosystem. We are at the brink of profound changes, at the edge of a narrow window of opportunity to transform the deep structure of society—in ways which could lead to millennia of oppression amid the toxic ruins of the Golden Age of America, or, alternately, toward healing the violence, disharmony and imbalance which have been inherent in Western Civilization.
Transformation of the English language is a way of beginning the healing. Such metamorphosis needs to be done from the grassroots, regenerating from a network rather than orchestrated from a position of authority within a hierarchy. Beginning the process of understanding ourselves as embodied human beings, intrinsically connected to each other and inherently, inseparably part of the whole ecosystem, is a part of it. Deconstructing the English language, understanding the ways in which English has distorted our perceptions and disconnected us from our selves and the rest of nature, is another part of the process, and one in which the first tentative steps have begun. Wub-e-ke-niew suggests that, for women, it could be profoundly helpful to rename our body parts, drawing on our own understanding of ourselves as female human beings and transcending the definitions imposed on us by authorized—and/or aggressively puerile—male terminologies. I have begun to see myself beyond words, in faint flickers of wisdom beyond the abstract knowledge of Western mind.
I dream of midafternoon spring sunlight glistening across meadows golden with California poppies, and remember the feel of warm earth beneath my bare feet. Another one of us may dream of crystalline midwinters punctuated by starlight and the sharp popping of trees in subzero night, and, as Wub-e-ke-niew describes it, “the comforting howling of a family of wolves sharing a rabbit, and the safe, secure and blissful sleep that I had as a boy hearing the lullaby of the wolves, knowing that everything was in balance. In the morning, I would go outside and breathe deeply in the fresh, clean clarity of frigid air.” And, yet another one of us might dream of the kinetic, sensuous heaping of seals basking on rocky islands, nuzzling infant yelps wafted amid the keening of seagulls on salt-tanged sea breezes. Everything is connected; we are all part of nature.
Collected Dialogues of Plato.
Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. 1961. Princeton.
Wub-e-ke-niew. We Have The Right To Exist. 1995. Black Thistle Press, New York.