February 2016

 

 

Nature Needs a New Pronoun

Singing whales, talking trees, dancing bees, birds who make art, fish who navigate, plants who learn and remember. We are surrounded by intelligences other than our own, by feathered people and people with leaves. But we’ve forgotten. There are many forces arrayed to help us forget—even the language we speak.

I’m a beginning student of my native Anishinaabe language, trying to reclaim what was washed from the mouths of children in the Indian Boarding Schools. Children like my grandfather. So I’m paying a lot of attention to grammar lately. Grammar is how we chart relationships through language, including our relationship with the Earth.

Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and someone says, “Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.” We might snicker at such a mistake; at the same time we recoil. In English, we never refer to a person as “it.” Such a grammatical error would be a profound act of disrespect. “It” robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a thing.

And yet in English, we speak of our beloved Grandmother Earth in exactly that way: as “it.” The language allows no form of respect for the more-than-human beings with whom we share the Earth. In English, a being is either a human or an “it.”

Objectification of the natural world reinforces the notion that our species is somehow more deserving of the gifts of the world than the other 8.7 million species with whom we share the planet. Using “it” absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. When Sugar Maple is an “it” we give ourselves permission to pick up the saw. “It” means it doesn’t matter.

But in Anishinaabe and many other indigenous languages, it’s impossible to speak of Sugar Maple as “it.” We use the same words to address all living beings as we do our family. Because they are our family.

What would it feel like to be part of a family that includes birches and beavers and butterflies? We’d be less lonely. We’d feel like we belonged. We’d be smarter.

In indigenous ways of knowing, other species are recognized not only as persons, but also as teachers who can inspire how we might live. We can learn a new solar economy from plants, medicines from mycelia, and architecture from the ants. By learning from other species, we might even learn humility.

Colonization, we know, attempts to replace indigenous cultures with the culture of the settler. One of its tools is linguistic imperialism, or the overwriting of language and names. Among the many examples of linguistic imperialism, perhaps none is more pernicious than the replacement of the language of nature as subject with the language of nature as object. We can see the consequences all around us as we enter an age of extinction precipitated by how we think and how we live.

Let me make here a modest proposal for the transformation of the English language, a kind of reverse linguistic imperialism, a shift in worldview through the humble work of the pronoun. Might the path to sustainability be marked by grammar?

Language has always been changeable and adaptive. We lose words we don’t need anymore and invent the ones we need. We don’t need a worldview of Earth beings as objects anymore. That thinking has led us to the precipice of climate chaos and mass extinction. We need a new language that reflects the life-affirming world we want. A new language, with its roots in an ancient way of thinking.

If sharing is to happen, it has to be done right, with mutual respect. So, I talked to my elders. I wasguage is sacred, a gift to the People to care for one another and for the Creation. It grows and adapts too, but through a careful protocol that respects the sanctity of the language.

He suggested that the proper Anishinaabe word for beings of the living Earth would be Bemaadiziiaaki. I wanted to run through the woods calling it out, so grateful that this word exists. But I also recognized that this beautiful word would not easily find its way to take the place of “it.” We need a simple new English word to carry the meaning offered by the indigenous one. Inspired by the grammar of animacy and with full recognition of its Anishinaabe roots, might we hear the new pronoun at the end of Bemaadiziiaaki, nestled in the part of the word that means land?

Ki” to signify a being of the living Earth. Not “he” or “she,” but “ki.” So that when we speak of Sugar Maple, we say, “Oh that beautiful tree, ki is giving us sap again this spring.” And we’ll need a plural pronoun, too, for those Earth beings. Let’s make that new pronoun “kin.” So we can now refer to birds and trees not as things, but as our earthly relatives. On a crisp October morning we can look up at the geese and say, “Look, kin are flying south for the winter. Come back soon.”

Language can be a tool for cultural transformation. Make no mistake: “Ki” and “kin” are revolutionary pronouns. Words have power to shape our thoughts and our actions. On behalf of the living world, let us learn the grammar of animacy. We can keep “it” to speak of bulldozers and paperclips, but every time we say “ki,” let our words reaffirm our respect and kinship with the more-than-human world. Let us speak of the beings of Earth as the “kin” they are.

Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote this article for Together, With Earth, the Spring 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. Robin is the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Milkweed Editions) was published in October 2014.

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EVENTS:

Traditional Haudenosaunee beading and crafting for pins, sachets, and cornhusk roses, Saturday, Feb. 13, 11am - 3 pm, Seneca Art & Culture Center at Gagandogan in Victor, NY. There will be Iroquois White Corn, heart cookies and heartwarming corn soup available for purchase. For ages 10+, $3 material fee applies.At 2 pm, A Sustainable World of Equality and Peace, Sally Roesch Wagner, PhD., and Freida Jacques, (Turtle Clan Mother, Onondaga) with will presentation on the influence of Haudenosaunee women on the suffragette movement,. Museum admission applies. Members get in free. Info at

Earth Justice & Visionary Action: Tools for Creating the World We Desire, An evening of wisdom and empowerment with Starhawk, Wednesday, February 24, 2016 from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM, May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society - 3800 East Genesee Street Syracuse, NY. Information at

13th Annual Native American Winter Games & Sports, FEB. 27, 10am-4pm, Free and Open to the public, Suggested donation $10 per family. Dogsled demonstrations, snowsnake , snowshoeing and a snowboat competition (think Pinewood Derby)! Visitors are encouraged to make their own 15" snowboats to race on the course. The day will also be filled with storytelling in the Bark Longhouse, make-and-take winter bird feeders and delicious Iroquois White Corn-inspired foods. Plus, we're offering free admission to our Seneca Art & Culture Center and complimentary snowshoe rental. Event will take place with or without snow. Additional info.

A reading and discussion group on Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer, March 1, 7-9 PM, Syracuse, NY. Contact Sue at rsue@twcny.rr.com or 492-2684 if you would like to join.

The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code Film, March 3, 2016, 7 PM, ArtRage Gallery, 505 Hawley Avenue, Syracuse. Free, donations accepted. Premised on Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, a book based on two decades of research by Shawnee, Lenape scholar Steven T.Newcomb.

Traditional Mohawk Wing Feather Fan Workshop, April 30, 2016, 9 am - 4 pm, KANATSIOHAREKE, 4934 State Highway 5, Fonda, NY 12068. Taught by Bill Loran (Mohawk). Related discussions will include the evolution of fans, etiquette, Mohawk language connections and cultural ties. Fans will be made of deerskin and five 5-7 inch wing feathers. You may bring beads if you would like to bead your handle and if there is time. These fans retail for $150. Tuition: $140 includes lunch, materials and instructions. Pre-registration is required. Class size: Maximum of 12 students. Register no later than April 23, so that we can plan for meals and materials. To register: Email: ionataiewas14@hotmail.com or call 518-584-9270. 

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MONTHLY:


NOON Steering Committee Meeting, March 8, 7-8:30 pm, Syracuse Peace Council, 2013 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, open meeting. Since new people often have a lot of questions, we recommend talking with Carol Baum, Syracuse Peace Council Staff (315-472-5478, carol@peacecouncil.net) or Sue Eiholzer, NOON Volunteer (315-492-2684,  rsue@twcny.rr.com) before the meeting.

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FYI:

Is the Onondaga Lake Remediation working? Many, including the Onondaga Nation, believed that the planned cap over Honeywell’s toxic waste at the bottom of Onondaga Lake would fail. In documents obtained by the Onondaga Nation from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation through a Freedom of Information request regarding the ongoing Superfund toxic waste remediation at Onondaga Lake, the truth came out: the cap has failed three times already. More Also, see American Indian Law Alliance below.

Remember Whitesboro, NY and their seal? Town officials have defended their seal as depicting a friendly wrestling match despite generating controversy for several years. After a nation wide petition and attention from media recently, voters in a non-binding decision decided to keep the seal. The New York Times now reports that town officials have decided to make a change despite the vote. Stay tuned.  NYT article


Global Indigeneities: Understanding Indigenous Experiences from Turtle Island to Palestine,
Jewish Voice for Peace Webinars. To listen

The Warriors Who Turned to Peace, article on the continuing significance of the Great Law of Peace in our troubled times by the late Seneca intellectual John Mohawk. Read at

American Indian Law Alliance Facebook page recently shared links on Lake Cleanup Fail: Onondaga Deride Flawed Plan, Demand Dredging, in Indian Country Today. Read at and My six nation Haudenosaunee passport is not a 'fantasy document' by Sid Hill in the Guardian. Read article at and World Indigenous Law Conference: Rights, Responsibilities & Resilience, October 19-22, 2016, An international discourse on Indigenous Peoples’ Jurisprudence: Examining legal frameworks and strategies for self-determined futures. Read more. For lots of great posts on important topics "friend" American Indian Law Alliance on Facebook.

Iroquois Museum, 35th Anniversary, 2016. To commemorate the museum will be printing a Museum History booklet. If you would like to be included in the booklet by helping to sponsor the 2016 season of events, this link will open a sponsorship form detailing levels of sponsorship and benefits. The form can be filled out and returned via e-mail or snail mail. Additional info

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SAVE THE DATE:

Iroquois Museum, July 9th , 35th anniversary celebration.

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