Robin Wall Kimmerer | Learning the grammar of animacy

KimmererDale-KakkakTo be native to a place we must learn to speak its language.

I come here to listen, to nestle in the curve of the roots in a soft hollow of pine needles, to lean my bones against the column of white pine, to turn off the voice in my head until I can hear the voices outside it: the shhh of wind in needles, water trickling over rock, nuthatch tapping, chipmunks digging, beechnut falling, mosquito in my ear, and something more–something that is not me, for which we have no language, the wordless being of others in which we are never alone. After the drumbeat of my mother’s heart, this was my first language.

I could spend a whole day listening. And a whole night. And in the morning, without my hearing it, there might be a mushroom that was not there the night before, creamy white, pushed up from the pine needle duff, out of darkness to light, still glistening with the fluid of its passage. Puhpowee.

Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own. I think now that it was a longing to comprehend this language I hear in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak fluent botany. A tongue that should not, by the way, be mistaken for the language of plants. I did learn another language in science, though, one of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing. I honor the strength of the language that has become a second tongue to me. But beneath the richness of its vocabulary and its descriptive power, something is missing, the same something that swells around you and in you when you listen to the world. Science can be a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts, it is a language of objects. The language scientists speak, however precise, is based on a profound error in grammar, an omission, a grave loss in translation from the native languages of these shores.

My first taste of the missing language was the word Puhpowee on my tongue. I stumbled upon it in a book by the Anishinaabe ethnobotanist Keewaydinoquay, in a treatise on the traditional uses of fungi by our people. Puhpowee, she explained, translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery. You’d think that biologists, of all people, would have words for life. But in scientific language our terminology is used to define the boundaries of our knowing. What lies beyond our grasp remains unnamed.

In the three syllables of this new word I could see an entire process of close observation in the damp morning woods, the formulation of a theory for which English has no equivalent. The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything. I’ve cherished it for many years, as a talisman, and longed for the people who gave a name to the life force of mushrooms. The language that holds Puhpowee is one that I wanted to speak. So when I learned that the word for rising, for emergence, belonged to the language of my ancestors, it became a signpost for me.

Had history been different, I would likely speak Bodewadmimwin, or Potawatomi, an Anishinaabe language. But, like many of the three hundred and fifty indigenous languages of the Americas, Potawatomi is threatened, and I speak the language you read. The powers of assimilation did their work as my chance of hearing that language, and yours too, was washed from the mouths of Indian children in government boarding schools where speaking your native tongue was forbidden. Children like my grandfather, who was taken from his family when he was just a little boy of nine years old. This history scattered not only our words but also our people. Today I live far from our reservation, so even if I could speak the language, I would have no one to talk to. But a few summers ago, at our yearly tribal gathering, a language class was held and I slipped into the tent to listen.

There was a great deal of excitement about the class because, for the first time, every single fluent speaker in our tribe would be there as a teacher. When the speakers were called forward to the circle of folding chairs, they moved slowly–with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs, only a few entirely under their own power. I counted them as they filled the chairs. Nine. Nine fluent speakers. In the whole world. Our language, millennia in the making, sits in those nine chairs. The words that praised creation, told the old stories, lulled my ancestors to sleep, rests today in the tongues of nine very mortal men and women. Each in turn addresses the small group of would-be students.

A man with long gray braids tells how his mother hid him away when the Indian agents came to take the children. He escaped boarding school by hiding under an overhung bank where the sound of the stream covered his crying. The others were all taken and had their mouths washed out with soap, or worse, for “talking that dirty Indian language.” Because he alone stayed home and was raised up calling the plants and animals by the name Creator gave them, he is here today, a carrier of the language. The engines of assimilation worked well. The speaker’s eyes blaze as he tells us, “We’re the end of the road. We are all that is left. If you young people do not learn, the language will die. The missionaries and the U.S. government will have their victory at last.”

A great-grandmother from the circle pushes her walker up close to the microphone. “It’s not just the words that will be lost,” she says. “The language is the heart of our culture; it holds our thoughts, our way of seeing the world. It’s too beautiful for English to explain.” Puhpowee.

Jim Thunder, at seventy-five the youngest of the speakers, is a round brown man of serious demeanor who spoke only in Potawatomi. He began solemnly, but as he warmed to his subject his voice lifted like a breeze in the birch trees and his hands began to tell the story. He became more and more animated, rising to his feet, holding us rapt and silent although almost no one understood a single word. He paused as if reaching the climax of his story and looked out at the audience with a twinkle of expectation. One of the grandmothers behind him covered her mouth in a giggle and his stern face suddenly broke into a smile as big and sweet as a cracked watermelon. He bent over laughing and the grandmas dabbed away tears of laughter, holding their sides, while the rest of us looked on in wonderment. When the laughter subsided, he spoke at last in English: “What will happen to a joke when no one can hear it anymore? How lonely those words will be, when their power is gone. Where will they go? Off to join the stories that can never be told again.”

So now my house is spangled with Post-it notes in another language, as if I were studying for a trip abroad. But I’m not going away, I’m coming home.



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7 Responses to Robin Wall Kimmerer | Learning the grammar of animacy

  1. Priscilla King August 17, 2016 at 7:29 am #

    Megwech for this. (I keep a handful of Cherokee words in my head mainly by bestowing them as nicknames on friends…I don’t actually *speak* Cherokee.)

  2. Katherine Lawrence August 17, 2016 at 9:39 am #

    What a beautiful gift of story.

    And how sad and inspiring to know so few people are left struggling mightily to hold on to the last threads of a language that contains such an important, true perspective about the relationship between us all–rocks and trees to humans.

  3. Brian Turnwald August 18, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

    Your words seem to slip right past my analytical mind and speak directly to my soul. Beautiful writing! I just got your book on Audible.

    Thank you!

  4. Soumya August 19, 2016 at 1:29 am #

    tears welled up in my eyes – as you shifted my perception in our english-speaking world of bay as a noun to bay as a verb. Somewhere in my mind a paradigm shift happened- all i can think of at the moment is word resonating in my heart- “Thank you”. thank god we have a verb word for gratitude in English.

  5. KT Wolf November 7, 2016 at 6:13 am #

    Thank you so much for writing this.

    I am a biologist by training, but grew up mostly as a wild child, talking to the animals in the woods as people, and refused to ever believe otherwise. My daughter, now 23 years old, stops what she is doing when she finds a spider or a worm, and talks gently to them as she sets them aside, out of danger from our giant, clumsy feet. In our white-world, I sometimes still get impatient with her for being so distractible that i have to ask her to continue doing whatever it is we were doing together. But at the same time, I am so proud that she has this not-lost connection to the Insect People, the Bird People, the Spider People. I found myself thinking, yesterday, that if she ever finds a mate, it will be a man who also speaks kindly and gratefully to spiders.

    I speak to all of the grandmother trees in my wood, and apologize to them and try to explain why I am killing and uprooting their root-friends, the buckthorns, which do not mean to be bad. They are just killers of the undergrowth, and it’s not their fault, but removing them is a good thing to do for the forest. I suppose it would be wiser of me to make it into a song, about how the invader white-people brought their invader plants with them, and that the bodies of these invader-plants will not leave the watching of the Elder trees, but they will have to be reborn as fungi-food, because when they are trees, they harm the smaller plants which love the shade of the Elder trees.

    Having read this essay, I realize, it is not so hard to escape the clutches of English and the colonization-mode of thought. It’s just easier when you start young and leave in place what is already innate in children. My daughter and I used to walk to her school in the morning, after rains, and lift earthworms out of puddles, throwing them onto the grass where they would not be stranded after the puddles dried up. Saving earthworms from dying on sidewalks, gently moving spiders out of the way of anything destructive we might be doing to their webs, apologizing to creatures I accidentally crushed beneath my feet, thanking oaks for their acorns. Even the “silly” things I did like calling out “Keys, where are you?” when i was looking for a set of lost keys–that was all it took to change the world from an inanimate one to an animated, animist world for my daughter. Or to leave it as animated as it always has been. I never had that wild world groomed out of me, because the tamed world was quite cruel to me when I was little, and to love Nature was my only refuge.

    Your children (students) may not speak your Native tongue, either, but the transition of thought is not necessarily lost. I really appreciate what you wrote, and more than anything, I am grateful because it validates my sometimes made-fun-of way of looking at the world. That tells me that all of those times I read about Native Americans, as a white child, I assimilated what was good, and what was welcome to be shared. The books may have been promoters of cultural appropriation, but this concept of Animism is something in our deep roots, for all people in the world. It’s part of our common history that is innate in children: if Western culture is designed to train it out of us (to beat it out of us), avoiding that depersonalization of the world is only a matter of teaching parents and teachers to preserve what children already have.

    • lenore hitchler February 5, 2018 at 9:04 pm #

      I just read this. Do you have any published work? I love your writing.


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